The company announced the opening of a $1.4-million facility on Tuesday that will employ some dedicated staff but which will largely be composed of IBM employees on a project-by-project basis, said Graeme Bate, a partner with IBM Canada’s chemical and petroleum industry group. It will also be a place for IBM to work with other technology firms and clients on applications for the oil sands industry. This includes organizations that extract and refine oil from open pit mines as well as industrial processing facilities, engineering and construction firms.
Bate said cost overruns and scheduling troubles with oil sands projects is leading firms in the sector to seek out ways to reduce risk early on. One major stumbling block, he said, is the data flow between various stakeholder in a project, a challenged faced in many enterprises but which differs in scale and complexity in the oil industry.
“Bits and pieces (of information) are being sent all over the world,” he said. “There’s drawing information and specifics about the materials to be used. It’s not been particularly well managed on the largest projects in the past.”
IBM already employs more than 1,000 staff in Calgary, most of them dedicated to oil and gas industry customers. Bate said the new facility will be focused on a mixture of project management consulting as well as standardizing the kind of one-off IT innovations that firms have occasionally developed.
“There seems to be a lot of potential benefit to be gained from integrating plant control systems with plant planning systems — taking all the information that’s acquired in controlling the chemical processes within the plant and making it available to those trying to optimize flow through the plant,” he said. “It’s literally a messy process separating sand from bitumen. It hasn’t been attempted as much, perhaps because it’s more complex than what’s gone on in conventional refineries.”
IBM also has a computing facility on the University of Alberta campus, where researchers brainstorm technologies and projects for commercialization that could benefit the oil industry. TECEdmonton, a joint venture with the U of A and the regional economic authority, helps inventors in the region protect their intellectual property by either launching their own company or licensing their technology to firms like IBM, said TEDEdmonton spokesman Jason Darrah. About 70 active companies have already been spun off that way.
“The existence of the oil and gas sector is what created the knowledge-based sectors in Alberta,” he said. “There’s a great need for the best technology to get oil out of the ground in the most responsible way.”
“Given the price of the (oil industry) commodities, the prize for getting it right is much bigger than it used to be,” Bate added. “There could also be benefits beyond individual owners. There are engineering and procurement construction companies. Each of them has a different way of communicating.”