Hi-CAD Limited, Dingwall, Scotland, is one of the world’s most experienced providers of dimensional control services for offshore and onshore process facilities. Noted for more than 25 years of working in some of the most inhospitable environments on earth, the company is also known for holding its cards close. But director Ian Mackie and operations director Dave Penman opened up for us. Here’s a look at what’s driving investment in Hi-CAD’s services, how the company built its expertise, and where laser scanning fits into its arsenal of dimensional control technologies.
How many jobs has Hi-CAD executed? “Hundreds,” according to Mackie. What are some of the benefits for clients? “In work we’ve done for the likes of KBR in the Gulf of Mexico,” Penman reports, “we’ve done projects where we’ve installed 900 spools without any field welding” – quite an achievement.
“Now we’re getting involved in positioning Christmas trees offshore,” Mackie says. “Typically it would be a two-week process to position the tree, then make the last spool up, then tie it together and get into production. We can reduce that two-week process to two days, because we can predict where the tree position is going to be, and we can show the final spool with the Christmas tree.” Besides shortening time to production, this also yields direct cost savings. “In one project we did for BP in the Gulf of Mexico, they were able to get the utilities up and running a week early,” Penman says. “That meant they were able to release the accommodation platform a week early – big-buck savings for the oil company. That was all due to the spools fitting first time without rework.”
With all these benefits, what’s holding back investment in laser scanning and other dimensional control techniques? “The biggest problem,” Mackie believes, “is getting the people who are not using it to recognize where they’re spending their money at the moment. When you give them a price for laser scanning, their first reaction is, ‘Oh, it’s just too expensive.'” Hi-CAD has seen this before, first with its D.I.M.E.S. (Data Integrated Management Engineering System) dimensional control technology, then with photogrammetry. “You say to them, ‘Well, what does it cost you to do it manually, just using tape and clipboards?’ And the answer is: they don’t know. Once you go and ask the company to use people like us, we become an identified cost to the project that hadn’t been there before. To me, that’s the biggest thing to overcome – to get them to recognize there’s already a cost, and by improving dimensional control they can reduce the cost.” geovisit();
Early days: getting North Sea oil into production faster
What drove investment in Hi-CAD’s services when the company first got started? “In the late 1970s,” Penman recounts, “Ian and I were involved in dimensional control of new offshore structures, working for both the client and the contractor. That involved work for Conoco, Amerada Hess, Shell, working with components being fabricated at various global locations. Our job was to make sure that when these components came together, they would all fit.”
Schedule was the driver. “In those days there was a big push to get oil out of the North Sea,” Mackie explains. “Owners were looking for a really short time scale to get the platform from design to producing oil.” To speed construction, platform components were “literally flown together” from different locations around the world. “We were involved as the quality control of the oil company. We made sure these things were built within the structural tolerances given.”
Much more than just pipe spools or structural steel, components could be as large as “a deck structure going onto a substructure,” says Penman. Not to mention “a drilling rig, an accommodation module, branch connections, flare towers – a bunch of structures coming together in an offshore environment, where you don’t have any space to work if you have a problem.” Worse, different components were often fabricated in environments with wide temperature differences from one another, and from the place they would be installed. “You even had these components being constructed in different units of measurement. Our job was to control the interfaces so that, when it came to the mating period, everything went smoothly.” geovisit();
Safety becomes a driver, then cost
Hi-CAD’s initial focus was construction of new offshore platforms – work done onshore for an offshore facility. Then came the Piper Alpha tragedy in 1988, which spurred demand for dimensional control services on the platform itself. “That was when we started to introduce dimensional control into the retrofit market,” Penman recalls. Before, standard practice was to “design everything with excess of six inches in every plane, then offshore they cut it to suit. After Piper Alpha it was predominantly Shell and BP who said, ‘No more hot work on the platform.'” As a result, “companies like Hi-CAD were challenged to come up with techniques for dimensional control in this environment where you have congestion and constant movement. We developed a methodology called D.I.M.E.S., based on total station technology and our own software to control the total station.”
Safety was what first drove this change. “But very soon afterward,” according to Penman, “the owner/operators could see there was a big cost impact as well.” Better dimensional control “would give you the ability to do a lot of fabrication up front. You could do fabrication and welding onshore – a better environment.” Was there resistance? “It was difficult to make contractors change,” Penman recalls. “Because all these companies in the job of installation got paid for rework, they saw no incentive to change.” Mackie adds, “Changes were the contractor margin.”
Total stations to photogrammetry to laser scanning.
What led Hi-CAD to expand from offshore into other markets? “A milestone was in 1997 when we were taken to America by Amoco,” says Penman. “We had done work for Amoco in the UK . They saw the benefits of our process, so they took us to their Whiting refinery in Indiana . Then we migrated to Texas , where we have an office today.” geovisit();