SpreadBoss: Pipe Tracking Wizard

May 2012, Vol. 239 No. 5

Richard Nemec, West Coast Correspondent

One of the most nagging offshoots of the San Bruno, CA, natural gas transmission pipeline tragedy was that in the immediate aftermath and the hot glow of federal, state and utility investigations, the operator, San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E), had no credible information on the section of pipe that failed. Worse yet, this turned out to be not just an isolated case.

As a result, many months after the Sept. 9, 2010 pipe rupture and explosion that killed eight people and destroyed a quiet suburban neighborhood, PG&E is spending tens of millions of dollars to digitize its records and verify the operating pressures in all the critical parts of its 6,000 miles-plus transmission pipeline system.

Ironically, if the giant California combination utility had used a newly emerging digitized tracking system developed by TG Mercer, the Aledo, TX-based midstream pipeline logistics firm, San Bruno might not have happened, or at least the aftermath would have been more manageable.

Instead, PG&E had to rent a former convention and athletic arena, the Cow Palace, in San Francisco to conduct a paper chase that lasted a week and cost tens of millions of dollars, attempting to correct its flawed record-keeping system. If available prior to San Bruno, all of the information that once occupied untold numbers of file boxes could have been digitized into a single, flexible system that Mercer calls “SpreadBoss.”

The name carries multiple connotations, but it draws on a combination of the actual manager in charge of building a pipeline, and the software product’s role building the pipeline’s database. Both the person and the tool are “spread bosses.” Mercer’s virtual version, consisting of millions of lines of software code, is the record-keeping boss and mobile electronic storehouse in a “cloud.” It was created because no one else had shown an ability to automate field record-keeping, according to the Mercer management team that has nurtured its development.

“The fact that at any point in time our customers can download the data into their own spreadsheets back at their offices to put in their own preferred formats or report styles also plays into the origin of the name,” says Charlie Hankins, Mercer’s executive vice president for administration.

The product, still under refinement, but trademarked and commercially available, is a sophisticated, proprietary software program tied to radio frequency identification (RFID) and standard barcode tags, that promises cost- and time-saving for pipeline operators and a step into the next generation of pipeline integrity management safety programs.

If there was one lesson from the San Bruno and other similar pipeline tragedies in recent years it is that there is an extremely critical need to maintain pipe identity from the mill to the trench and through subsequent years of operation. In these recent tragedies the aftermath has shown the identity of the pipe linked to the incident had been lost.

Additionally, for excess pipe left over in inventory, loss of identification means a 90% loss in that pipe’s value, according to Mercer officials who developed SpreadBoss over the past two to three years as a means of overcoming past limitations in accurately and swiftly verifying pipe–its origins and its real-time status.

Part of the founding family of a company going back to 1910, TG Mercer President George Mercer acknowledges that his company–with a century’s worth of experience in the pipeline logistics business–did not start out attempting to develop an industry tool in SpreadBoss. However, Mercer and his team realized that this was a tool that was needed and determined it was possible to develop it. At that point Mercer’s engineers and others shifted into “high gear.”

George Mercer

He uses a FedEx analogy to describe what the product is designed to do in the pipeline sector. Part of SpreadBoss involves a similar identification tracking number system to that used by package delivery firms. It tells what was ordered – a button-down shirt, tan and medium size, for example, but SpreadBoss drills deeper.

“Our system also will tell you where the shirt’s buttons came from, who sewed them, and what kind of material was used, who sewed the collar, and what their qualifications were,” Mercer says. “It is sort of a data mine, but we make it readily available to the customer.”

Mercer’s senior executive team was involved in the creation of this new tool that provides real-time, verifiable, traceable pipe information on the status of any piece of pipe down to heat numbers and joint locations. It was developed to minimize time and money, but now also can be an effective, efficient way to conform to the latest federal pipeline requirements – lowering risk and costs of compliance.

“With proper traceability, federal Department of Transportation audits can go from agonizing days to a few easy hours,” says Hankins, adding the thought that if federal regulators seek more standardization in the industry, Mercer’s new product can provide them with traceability of the pipe from the mill through coating to the right-of-way.

Mercer people emphasize that SpreadBoss gets at the heart of what they call pipeline “DNA,” its length, wall thickness, coating, heat number and joint number. As was shown in the aftermath of the San Bruno tragedy, bad information leads to errors and wastes thousands of man-hours to correct, Hankins says.

SpreadBoss, or something like it, is going to become the national standard, according to Hankins and Mack Mercer, George’s brother and the firm’s executive vice president for marketing. It will take more field testing, however, and some added refinements, such as drilling more deeply into valve and compressor component DNA, they say.

After extensive field testing of the Spread Boss hardware and software components, Mercer is working with a midstream operator on some of its natural gas and natural gas liquids pipelines that are found in many of the basins in the midcontinent. This operator is involved in a major push to build infrastructure in most of the U.S. shale basins.

“What is driving the industry right now is the need of the producers to get their product to market; this is how they get paid,” says Mack Mercer, emphasizing that his company has a 100-year track record in the gas infrastructure business. Mercer is offering a tool that can help those suppliers get their projects compliant with government requirements more quickly, and thus, get their gas to market quicker and more cost-effectively.

“Our product eliminates the extensive labor and potential errors entailed in hand-writing pipe data on a chart and then faxing it to headquarters. We don’t spend hours or days tracking down duplicate joint numbers because our system stops that from happening at the source.”

SpreadBoss is not just a tracking tool, it also is a project management tool, George Mercer stressed in a recent interview when he looked back on what he unleashed a few years ago in attempting to totally digitize the monitoring of pipe. For new pipe, a customer can check in with a secure password and get near-real time information on the movement and construction of pipe. Retroactively, it can be applied to pipe already in the ground, he says.

In the wake of San Bruno, federal regulators (DOT and PHMSA) declared that as a national standard pipe information should require that it be “traceable, verifiable, and complete,” and that is SpreadBoss in a nutshell. As far as Mercer is concerned, “The bar has been raised to gather that information.

“I could tell you we anticipated all this, but I would be lying to you. We took the risk and expanded on a [research/development] program and it turned out to be the only system of its kind in the industry.

“And it is my goal to never complete it, and by that I mean that it is our software so we can continuously update it as more regulation and rules come down. We also can tailor it to a certain degree for a specific customer’s needs. Everyone has a little different idea of the information they need [managing pipelines].”

Mercer’s use of radio frequency technology keeps many engineers on their toes in developing SpreadBoss. A lot of it has to do with the physics involved – putting radio waves in the midst of steel piping, the executive team says. In addition, when transported, pipe has a tendency to be bumped around, so RFID tags that stick out too far are at risk to be smashed or knocked off.

“We are ultimately seeking a solution that automates the process so that less people are needed in the field,” Hankins says. “We would like to refine this so an individual riding in a pickup truck in a pipe yard could produce an inventory with the pipe data instead of a pool of people having to physically read the tags with a scanning gun.”

As reflected by Mercer and its customers, the aftermath of San Bruno has permanently altered the gas infrastructure sector. As one executive with a multibillion-dollar midstream company put it, “integrity management programs hold added significance for us now.”

A Houston-based midstream energy services company project manager articulates examples of when SpreadBoss can make a difference. Consider the case of responding to a contractor in the field who is hundreds of miles away and needs to know where he can find a particular pipe segment. With a few clicks of a computer, the answer is found and communicated back to the field. Similarly, if a certain welder’s work comes under close questioning, tracking all of the individual’s welds on a given project can be done with the Mercer tool.

“The ideal product for me is something that is entirely digital and can be linked to other processes, such as ‘as-built’ drawings and actual project files,” says Russ English, a Houston-based project manager with Enterprise Products Partners LP. English has not bought SpreadBoss yet, but he is leaning toward doing it. “For nearly all of the new pipe we install we try to digitize all of this data; we’re a little late to the game, but we are progressing very rapidly.”

While English is very clear about wanting to try SpreadBoss at Enterprise, he also describes something that is almost generic rather than a particular brand. He wants flexibility, versatility and expandability without necessarily using those exact words. He wants what the Mercer designer of SpreadBoss, Octavio Morales, calls a “malleable” design that can be reshaped to fit each particular customer’s needs.

There is an “intuitive nature” to the information SpreadBoss attempts to communicate in real time, and that is a distinct advantage for the product, according to Morales, an information technology specialist who came from outside the oil/gas sector to work for Mercer a few years ago. He came specifically to be the chief designer of the new pipe tracking tool.

“I would say from the feedback we receive from customers, and what we get from people internally, the product is meeting everyone’s expectations at this point,” Morales says. “It is meeting our expectation in the marketplace. We see a lot of interest and a lot of growing interest.”

Mercer routinely brought in people who knew different parts of the pipeline industry as it was developing SpreadBoss’ software, along with tapping its own internal knowledge base as represented by Bruce Munro, the firm’s executive vice president for operations. The industry people were project managers, procurement executives and inspection people. Often their comments would lead to features being added to the expanding digital tool. “More code to burn,” as George Mercer would say.

Munro says SpreadBoss began as a project to “make my life easier,” running the company’s day-to-day pipeline logistics operations and it has quickly expanded into the development of a viable industrywide tool.

“’Traceability’ is a word we use a lot more in our conversations with mills and pipeline owners,” he says. “We once had a customer rent a helicopter and fly from yard to yard to see what types of and amounts of pipe he had available. That shouldn’t happen. This product makes sure it won’t.”

One of the results from Mercer’s diverse collaboration is the system’s “dashboard” – graphics on the front page that are linked to all of the data. “It’s very expensive to program, and we had planned to implement it with an upgraded version we were planning, 2.0,” says Hankins. “But based on comments we knew it would be easier to explain the product if we had a user-friendly interface.”

Another addition from the collaboration was building in the ability to track nonpipe components – valves, compressors and other items. That capability was not part of the original SpreadBoss design. The idea came from a seasoned project manager in the industry.

More broadly, the genesis of this product underscores the current tenor of the natural gas pipeline industry. After decades of little technological change, it now is in what the pundits are calling a “transformative” stage. Interstate transmission pipelines once dominated, but with the advent of various regionalized shale plays with oil and gas liquid recovery, pipelines are being designed and built for specific purposes, including global exports.

What better way to meet this changing world than with a flexible, versatile, ever-changing product. Mercer’s team thinks this is a perfect time for SpreadBoss. At this point, no one wants to bet against them.

Author
Richard Nemec
is a Los Angeles-based West Coast correspondent for P&GJ. He can be reached at: rnemec@ca.rr.com.