HOUSTON—The need for digitalization was evident in real-life examples shared by John Nixon, senior director of energy and utilities for Siemens.

Standing in front of a crowd gathered this week for the company’s Digital Industries Conference, he explained how a company conducting a forensic investigation into a deadly 2010 California natural gas pipeline explosion was left with no way to digitally track information such as materials used or why propagation occurred.

“There was no digital twin or no digital thread,” he said, later adding “if we’re not preventing this, then what is the point of digitalization.”

He also referred to the importance of digitalization to improve balance sheets to help avoid massive layoffs like those seen during the latest market downturn and to drive GDP growth in countries as well as how it is expected to transform the transportation industry with autonomous electric vehicles by 2030.

Digitalization is forcing companies to become digital enterprises as technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), sensors and additive manufacturing transform operations and processes. But navigating through the complexity can be challenging.

Nixon spoke about specific digital technologies and how they can be put to use. These included generative engineering to find optimal designs and addictive manufacturing to both design and produce useful parts. He used biomimictry, which takes cues from biological processes for design and production, as an example.

“Mother Nature holds great lessons for us,” he said, referring to a Siemens employee who used the biomimictry concept when looking to create a more effective burner tip. “He considered the way circulatory systems work in plant life” and created a parametric model, which was designed by another team.

But “when we talk about generative engineering you always need to think about additive manufacturing,” he cautioned. If human bias is removed from the design process, additive manufacturing is needed to make wild designs a reality.

While generative engineering and addictive manufacturing are being used by some companies today, the real buzz word in Nixon’s opinion is IoT. Insights are being leveraged to “increase productivity, optimize products and discover new business models,” he said.

Such technology can prove beneficial in the oil field to optimize performance using data from sensors on equipment. He compared it to a doctor taking vital signs such as blood pressure and temperature, and then asking for family medical history to get a diagnosis.

“If you don’t have the lifecycle [information] coupled with the IoT, I can’t give you the right diagnosis,” Nixon said. “We have those tools today. … What if I’m out there doing horizontal drilling and I need to change the drillbit configuration. We can get that sensor data. We are now additively manufacturing drillbits.”

“What if I could print in the field the drillbit as needed for the substrata situation that I now observe and the performance by lateral drilling?” he asked. “In my mind digitalization needs to be brought to the field. It’s not an abstract back in the office. When I do maintenance in the field, am I bringing the digital twin there? Is the physical reality in the field matching the digital twin I have back in the office?”

These are questions energy companies could ask themselves as digitalization and related strategies become key parts of their businesses.

“Now is the time to take the deep dive before the next downturn. …Now is the time to really make a considerable investment of your mind into what digitalization means to you,” he said.

Velda Addison can be reached at vaddison@hartenergy.com.