Universities Offer Untapped Opportunity To Improve Engineering And Construction Performance

Accessing new skills and capabilities is often the most strategic pathway to achieve increased performance and reduced costs in major project development, a University of Calgary professor told a Speaker Series event this week.

The academic community offers a means to gain those capabilities, Terry Ross, research partnership specialist, Schulich School of Engineering, told the JWN Energy and Fluor sponsored event focused on assessing engineering and construction advanced technologies.

Governments, universities and companies are all important players in the advancement of conceptual research and development of new technologies, said Ross, who has researched Alberta’s innovation system and earned a PhD in innovation and entrepreneurship.

“This interplay between the emerging technologies and the skills that are developed at the universities, and industrial needs are one of the key drivers of technological change within a region, and technological change in a region like Alberta is a major way that economic upgrades and increased productivity and growth occur,” he said.

For example, the Alberta government “actually played a role in catalyzing qualitative change in the economy by investing in research and development and in agencies that helped to grease the wheels between industry and universities, [with] agencies such as AOSTRA [Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority].”

AOSTRA, which operated an underground test facility in the oilsands region in the 1980s, played an important role in developing SAGD production technology that now dominates the in situ oilsands sector.

“One of the things I think needs to be emphasized is that the government has a bit of an unappreciated role as an entrepreneur in some ways, setting a mission for innovation to occur,” he said. “The behavior of industry around SAGD at that time wasn’t satisfactory and it took a little bit of government incentive to make the risk profile of those kind of conceptual research projects digestible by the companies at the time.”

Mark Brown, vice-president and general manager, Fluor Canada, pointed to the areas of execution, engineering and construction as important to introduce new technologies and increase efficiency.

On the execution side there are ways for companies to better develop project schedules and budgets, he said. “There are tools allowing us to take on more risk as the contractor versus the owner,” he said. “Some of them are granular and tactical in terms of the use of different project management software, material delivery, forecasting and outlooking.”

On the engineering and construction side there are also technologies that are becoming more readily available to increase collaboration, thanks in part to the academic community and innovation catalysts, Brown said. “We are the benefactors of software and systems and tools and reporting and computer hardware, and all kinds of things that make it easier for us to innovate and collaborate. Examples are things like augmented reality, virtual reality, collaborate design and better integration.”

The industry however has fallen behind and can learn from other sectors, such as the architectural and commercial construction businesses, which are collaborating and taking productivity in the field to a level that hasn’t been seen in oil and gas, he said.

“They are getting together as contractors or owners and saying ‘how can we get this delivered on budget, how can we do it faster than we have ever done it before.’ They are spending that time up front on the conceptual aspect to say, ‘OK, how can we make that better.’”

While new technologies can provide more information and help to make companies smarter, there is also the need to get back to basics, Brown said.

“The market has gone to a place where some of the investment in the conceptual and problem solving roots of engineering and problem solving have started to get put to the side, because in some cases we want to do things the same way we did it last time, to build a refinery, build a petrochemical complex or put a pipeline in the ground. We really need to invest in that front end conceptual side of things.”

Dynamic interaction

The competitiveness of a regional economy like Alberta’s emerges from the interaction between the skills of the workforce, the natural resources and infrastructure that are accessible and the institutions, laws and cultural norms of the region, added Ross.

“All those things interact together on a dynamic basis over time to express what the competitive economy of a region looks like. Technological change also impacts how those different elements interact together. So it’s a very dynamic thing.”

When universities and industry interact together in collaborative research, the industry benefits from access to specialized talent and facilities that companies normally may not have access to, as well as access to new concepts and ideas, the de-risking of technology development and leveraged funding through tax credits and research grants.

“The top universities nowadays have a higher and higher proportion of the research being underwritten and supported by industry,” he said.

The university benefits from the increase in research funding while responding to industry needs, said Ross. “Researchers at the universities are always seeking funding for their research programs. But I also think one of the more underappreciated [aspects] is that these kind of interactions between the universities and industry can also help change the direction of research at the university and that is extremely important.”

He pointed to a recent project developing “bitumen balls” — balls of bitumen with a hard outer shell that would allow bitumen to be transported more safely and efficiently —  that developed into something bigger. Through discussions with industry partners, researchers found that the technology has applications beyond the oilsands.

“They found that the same problem exists more or less for vacuum residue … and with a little tweak it led to some more research to optimize the process moving from bitumen to vacuum residue. The market for that potential technology is much broader — it’s global. So the feedback that you as companies can give to the university research community is extremely valuable and can help us really understand what the problems of industry are.”

A lot of the research funding at the earliest technology readiness levels comes from government or through government agencies such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), a federal agency that provides research funding for the natural sciences and engineering. Programs like NSERC “are very generous when it comes to leveraging and supporting and matching contributions from industry in the intent to incentivize behavior in that direction,” Ross said.

Students also benefit from increased collaboration, Ross noted. Through joint research projects they get exposed to real world experience and often get noticed by the companies promoting the research. “These collaborations can actually be from the company’s perspective a long-term [job] interview, because they often involve the students interacting with the company over a period of time and you can get an understanding of how good the student is and how well they understand your corporate culture. And then once the project is over you often see these companies taking these students on as employees.”

Establishing an industrial research chair, initiated by a company or a consortium of companies, can also facilitate beneficial research by building research capacity and a research team at the university. “You are actually building a little cluster of expertise that is going to last for at least five years, if not 10 or 15.”

Emerging technologies

Asked what technology would have the biggest impact on the oil and gas industry over the next five years, Brown said that from a project delivery perspective the biggest opportunity is to provide the tools to improve the productivity of the workforce. “I have a soft spot for the construction side of things because that’s where we actually put our tools in hands and actually put stuff together, and I think that is one of the biggest areas that we can capitalize on in the next few years to make it as efficient as possible.”

Ross said he is bullish on some of the digital technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, and what they can do in the back office. “Specifically how that can lead to predictions that can lead to better operations, better efficiencies and proactive repairs and things of that nature.”

He also pointed to blockchain technology. “Its shared ledger I think is going to have an impact on how billing can operate as well as accounting and smart contracts and things like that, and I think Calgary is actually very well positioned to take advantage of that.”

JWN's Build Better content is provided as part of our partnership in the Alberta Projects Improvement Network with COAA, GO Productivity and Supply Chain Management Association Alberta.