HOUSTON—The mandate before oil industry players is to safely produce more barrels for less cost, but efficiencies have essentially plateaued in areas such as rigs, pad drilling and completions designs, according to an executive for one of the world’s top oilfield service companies.

“Production, for me, is the next frontier for efficiency gains,” Kyle Chapman, president of production for Houston-based Weatherford International. “We have not seen in the production realm a major technological shift since the advent of automation when it comes to artificial lift in the production world.”

Chapman acknowledged industrywide gains on the completions side. These have included increased proppant loading, more clusters per stage and longer laterals among other techniques, which have driven the production renaissance in the U.S. The latest figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show oil production could rise to an average 12.1 million barrels per day (MMbbl) in 2019, up from an anticipated 10.9 MMbbl/d this year—thanks in large part to prolific shale plays such as those in the Permian Basin.

But “Any future gains from the completion side, unless there is a major step change in technology, are going to be marginal at best,” Chapman said this week during the Weatherford Enterprise Software Conference. He like many others believe digital technologies will have a key role in delivering the next step-change for the industry. “Digital technologies and Production 4.0 are our future and will drive production performance.”

Industry players are turning to tech giants like Google, Amazon and IBM to help them leverage the power of digital technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) in the oil patch. They hope to put massive amounts of data generated over decades by the industry to use in the innovation drive while further lowering costs as they work to meet the world’s energy needs.

Weatherford is among the latest oilfield service companies to add to its technology toolkit. The company announced Nov. 6 that its production software platforms ForeSite and CygNet SCADA are available on Google Cloud. The platforms utilize advanced data analytics, cloud computing and IoT for production optimization.

As explained by Weatherford, ForeSite—introduced in May 2017— “combines physics-based models with advanced data analytics to improve performance across wells, reservoirs, and surface facilities to help operators identify and prioritize production optimization opportunities” and integrates with the CygNet SCADA platform, which “collects, manages, and distributes large volumes of operational information generated by field devices and business systems.”

The company also introduced ForeSite Sense, which uses digital technologies to predict equipment failures and ForeSite Edge, an IoT-based optimization and control product.

Some in the industry are using Google Cloud and its security to safeguard data from cyberattacks, while deep learning is being used to bring meaning to unstructured data in complex systems.

“The first wave of IoT was about collecting and digitizing our processes or assets. We started to get the capacity to extract a lot of data. But the data by itself is really not very valuable,” said Sky Mathews, chief technology officer for IBM’s IoT division.

Although watching a dashboard to see things in real-time has its benefits, “the important big leap is how do you start extracting more information automatically from that data,” Mathews added. “That’s the big innovation and the huge leap behind the application of analytics and even more so AI to those complex datasets.”

He spoke about how different types of sensor data are being combined and applied in the industrial IoT and how significant amounts of data will grow further due with images, video and acoustics. These can be used to help detect anomalies and improve quality such as identifying visible defects faster, he said.

The digital wave sweeping across the industry is also being embraced by CEOs. Weatherford is no exception.

“We think the production side of the business has tremendous potential,” Weatherford CEO Mark McCollum said. “If production is the opportunity, then all the industry needs is the right mover with the right set of capabilities.”

McCollum believes digital technology will play a significant role in driving meaningful results for customers, particularly in well productivity. He added that the Industry 4.0 concepts of IoT, which links groups of physical devices to enable remote monitoring and control; cloud computing, which reduces technology infrastructure and improves access to data; edge computing, which connects intelligent devices to data to enable autonomous decisions at remote sites; advanced analytics, which brings the concepts together are being brought to the oil field.

“Much of our industry has become accustomed to thinking about their assets on a scale that is above a single well. IoT allows the acceleration of that level of thinking to the entire level and enterprise levels by using technologies such as our Foresite production optimization platform to connect and integrate oilfield equipment at scale,” McCollum said. “The resulting network increases your access to data, broadens the scope of data that you see and drives systematic efficiencies.”

“The cloud lets us access data that we generate from high resolution LWD measurements to years of archived rod-pumping data in a faster more direct and more meaningful way,” he added. “Edge computing helps us to transfer intelligence and lower-level decision making directly to the wellsite. Imagine freeing your best engineers to work only on your top priority projects, the day-to-day management of your processes are handled autonomously.”

But he called advanced analytics the “holy grail,” saying a single user can see the entire enterprise by function, asset, well and any other level desired.

“I am very excited about these concepts. I believe in them to the depths of my soul,” McCollum said.

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