With much of the work in the oil and gas industry performed at remote sites, service companies are heavily reliant on the efficient utilization and effective oversight of mobile equipment and employees. Because there are many factors and challenges unique to the oil and gas service industry, a growing number of companies offer software packages focused specifically on the business.
Mike Scarbrough, CEO of NexTraq, says his company decided to focus on the oil and gas business because some of his fleet management customers were requesting services that go beyond those needed by other industries the Atlanta, Ga., firm serves. With the software NexTraq released in 2011, its GPS-based fleet management systems are overlaid with GIS data from oil and gas companies that often send vehicles, equipment and personnel to remote work sites.
“You can track vehicles when they operate on private roads in areas that are not in a GPS database,” says Scarbrough. “You can also overlay your own pipelines, power grids, well heads and whatever you want so you can see precisely where your people and your equipment are.”
Software from Mentor Engineering offers a wide variety of cost-saving and revenue-building features. For customers with large fleets and workforces, it can help a company handle more jobs in less time with more efficient dispatching of drivers and equipment.
Mentor vice president of sales and business development Mike Koebel says, “You can identify who is closest to a job and locate the closest available equipment. It’s a frantic business and the more information you can capture automatically, the better you can operate.”
Based in Calgary, Alberta, Mentor was launched in the late 1980s specifically for oil and gas service companies. As technology advanced and the demand for its expertise grew, the company expanded into niches including public transit and taxi services to field service providers and waste hauling.
Add-ons and customization
Andy Fletcher, chief information/technology officer for John Bunning Transfer Company in Rock Springs, Wyo., says when he was hired in 2006 one of his first tasks was to look at systems that could help the oil and gas transportation services company increase its efficiency in dispatching and maintenance tracking. “I was asked to learn the overall operations of the business,” he says.
Fletcher researched ways to become more efficient in procedures and practices. He looked for a software system that would better the company’s efficiencies through database and automated improvements.
He needed a software package that would tie all departments of the company together, from the business office to the maintenance shop and drivers on the road. The right software could streamline many aspects of the company’s operation, resulting in reduced costs and higher productivity.
Fletcher settled upon fleet management software from Axon Development Corp. “Even though they weren’t to the point where they had everything I was looking for, I knew they were going in the right direction,” he says. One of the key attractions was Axon’s ability to add new features and customize the system to Bunning’s needs.
“Sometimes I know that I really frustrated the people at Axon,” say Fletcher. “I often asked them to do things that weren’t part of their system yet, but they were able to respond.” Among the added features requested were inventory control software for the pipe yards Bunning maintains for customers and scheduling of maintenance for all company equipment.
The greatest benefit of the software is that anyone at the company can have access to a particular job at any point in the process. “It’s all downstream from the customer phone call – everybody can be working with that ticket at the same time,” says Fletcher. “From the initial job ticket to the final invoice, the project is available. Instead of being reactionary, the various departments can be proactive.”
The dispatch office can determine equipment and personnel needed for a project. Supply yards can have the necessary inventory ready and order any commodities that might be needed for delivery. With more than 200 trucks and 400 trailers, Bunning has an extensive fleet and workforce to track on a daily basis. “The management software helps us uncover those missing pieces and helps get vital information to the right place faster,” says Fletcher.
The Bunning fleet includes day-cab slick-back trucks for general oilfield services, heavy-haul rigs pulling lowboy trailers for moving drilling rigs and other heavy equipment and rigs hauling molten sulfur in tandem tank trailers.
When the Axon software was installed in 2008, Fletcher estimated it would take three to five years for the company to see a return on its investment. “We pretty much got our money back in a year,” he says.
The software has allowed the company to shrink its office staff by attrition because of a reduction in repetitive paperwork and the automation of data entry. What used to be a paper trail is now a digital trail for each customer order, beginning from the initial contact and continuing through the final invoice. And even at the end of the trail, there is a key benefit for Bunning because it is now receiving payments much more quickly than in the past.
“Almost every one of our customers has gone to a digital payment system,” Fletcher says. “We can send our final invoice in a digital file to their payment service along with the proper documentation and we get paid much sooner.”
Bunning has gone from an average of 67 days between invoice and payment to 16 days. “That means we have a lot of accessible cash we can use to keep our revenue flowing,” says Fletcher.
Mentor and other companies offer off-the-shelf software packages that can meet the needs of smaller operations, but options are nice. “If you’re getting up to a fleet of 50 trucks or more, then it just makes sense to tailor your system to your operation,” says Fletcher.
Different vehicles and different operations need different tracking and management features, from the business office to the well site or pipeline.
GPS tracking options
Mentor and NexTraq offer customers the ability to overlay GIS data onto their GPS tracking software so they can locate and identify equipment and employees in remote areas. They also offer economical communications systems that work over 3G or 4G networks or via satellite when no other signal is available. Combining those capabilities allows companies to efficiently move information.
Users can put GPS tracking equipment on a wide array of trailers, tanks, pumps, generators, skid-steers, bulldozers and more so they can map valuable assets. This can save a company money in several ways.
“First, they can determine where the nearest asset is when a customer request comes in, and dispatch the nearest equipment,” says Koebel. “Second, they can avoid spending a lot of money on rental equipment just because they’ve lost track of inventory.”
Scarbrough says asset tracking is particularly valuable for customers operating in remote areas. “We’ve got guys tracking frac tanks with satellites,” he says. The remote tracking capability comes from NexTraq’s focus on the oil and gas vertical which generally has more demand than systems serving fleets operating in metropolitan areas or on major transportation lanes.
Both companies offer software that can help companies track every aspect of fuel use, including modules that report on fuel efficiency, fuel loss, and fuel consumption in different states or provinces for fuel tax reporting purposes.
The NexTraq software also tracks miles driven off public roads so companies save on taxes for the fuel consumed. “That’s a much larger issue in the oil and gas industry than in other businesses because many remote sites are accessed across private roads,” says Scarbrough.
Fleet management software is used to track employee activities, safety and behavior, as well as to track equipment.
In some systems, software is used to compile data needed to prepare invoices based on equipment usage and man-hours. Some packages can gather thorough job ticket data and provide information to validate invoices if customers have questions or concerns. For companies that use owner/operators, the information can be used to process timely payments to contractors.
Mentor’s software can track driver hours and prepare compliance reports for government agencies. NexTraq does not produce the compliance reports, but does compile the data to be used in the reporting process.
Both software systems can track driving practices – speeds, breaking, routes – of drivers to monitor if they are complying with company policies. Mentor offers a feature that requires drivers to conduct pre- and post-trip inspections of a vehicle. The answers they input are sent to the business office and to the maintenance department. This gives mechanics a heads up if a vehicle is showing signs of wear or malfunction.
Mentor also offers a module designed for drivers who are frequently in the field alone, often at remote sites. Drivers are required to check in on a prescribed schedule with their vehicles’ Mentor Ranger compact computer. They are also given an Intrinsically-safe Work-Alone Pendant to carry in the field. The pendant can be used to check in when the employee is away from a vehicle and it can be used to summon help in the event of an accident or injury, even if an employee is incapacitated. “I can push a button if something happens to me,” Koebel says. “But even if I can’t push a button, it can detect a lack of movement and report that back to the office.”