Automating Well Completions: Addressing Human Safety and Well Cost Concerns

The downturn in the oil and gas industry highlights the need for the efficiency enabled by automated technology. Downing's Freedom Series Completion System (FSCS) lowers well completion costs through surface efficiencies and reduced labor costs and creates safer well sites.

The downturn in the oil and gas industry highlights the need for the efficiency enabled by automated technology. Downing's Freedom Series Completion System (FSCS) lowers well completion costs through surface efficiencies and reduced labor costs and creates safer well sites.

"Using automation and proprietary algorithms, the system allows the removal of personnel from the site through automated workflows and remote operation," says Tim Marvel, VP, Business Development and Technology at Downing USA. Additionally, transition times between operations have largely been eliminated, decreasing the time and cost required to frac a well and virtually eliminating NPT issues associated with the pressure control equipment, allowing operators to focus on maximizing pump efficiency.

Inefficiencies Addressed
The plug-and-perforate technique is the most prevalent completion method in North America's shale and tight oil plays. The method provides the ability to pinpoint fracture locations with perforating guns; adjust stage spacing during the completion; achieve zonal isolation between stages and complete a hundred or more stages in a horizontal well.

While preferred versus the sliding sleeve method, the traditional plug-and-perf method is highly inefficient and requires personnel to work at height in the red zone. Traditional wireline tool deployment requires three steps. First, the working valve on the frac tree is shut down manually by a red zone operator. The wireline operator picks up the gun assembly and suspends it over the frac head and the red zone operator. Next, the red zone operator installs the wireline lubricator, which is pressurized using a backside pump. The frac iron is then pressure-tested, and if successful, the working valve is opened, and the wireline tools can be lowered into the well. If the test is unsuccessful, more time is required to find and repair leaks in the iron. Using conventional methods, this entire process takes up to 45 minutes. The use of a latch or wellhead connection units may reduce the process time by 25 minutes.

Removing the wireline string after perforating and transitioning to fracturing the next stage is equally time consuming, again taking up to 45 minutes depending on the efficiency tools employed. The process begins with the red zone operator closing the working valve manually, releasing the lubricator and bleeding off pressure. At this step, closing the valve accidentally on the wireline can cut the wireline, resulting in a costly fishing job of at least a day of non-productive time. If a ball is to be dropped, the red zone operator drops it onto the swab valve and then installs the frac head cap. The frac iron is then pressure tested, and if successful, the red zone operator manually opens the swab valve, releasing the ball down the wellbore until its seat onto the frac plug, at which point pressure pumping begins.

Innovating the Completions System
The FS Completion System was designed to improve the efficiency, safety and cost of
plug-and-perf operations. Placed between the frac head and the lubricator, the integrated system is comprised of a multi-chambered valve, a quick connect latch, and an automated ball dropper. The hydraulically actuated valves create three chambers that are operated via computer from a control cabin or remotely via the cloud. The quick connect latch enables the lubricator to be attached to the frac tree without personnel working at height in the red zone. With the FSCS system, the lubricator can simultaneously attach to the quick connect latch while the well is pumping. In addition, using Downing's proprietary FS Pump Station, the lubricator is pre-filled during the flush cycle, enabling a few second transition before the wireline is sent downhole.

Austin Johnson, Downing's Freedom Series Product Line Director, adds, "At each stage, the system's multi-chamber system equalizes pressure between the surface/lubricator and the well, enabling wireline conveyed tools, balls and collets to pass easily between the surface and the well without operating the lower master valve and without pressuring down and re-pressurizing the flow iron (reducing the opportunity for flow iron leaks)." The system provides a dual barrier to control well pressure so the lubricator can be latched to the wellhead and pre-filled while pumping proceeds, compressing stage-to-stage time.

The FSCS reduces transition time from 45 minutes to less than three minutes , significantly compressing the stage-to-stage time. Quick transitions enable continuous pumping operations on zipper fracs, helping operators significantly increase their pump efficiency. For single wells, no tool on the market can transition as fast as the FSCS, maximizing daily pump hours.

Additional Savings
As mentioned, with the FSCS, wireline tools are run in and out of the well without opening and closing the lower master valve, significantly reducing repair costs, as well as reducing greasing requirements up to 90% in single wells and 50% with zipper operations. Moreover, because the FSCS provides a dual barrier for well control, one hydraulic valve can be removed from the frac stack, further reducing height as well as the cost of the stack.

As noted, when using the FSCS, there is no need to de-pressurize the frac iron between stages, as required when using the gate valve to contain well pressure. Because the frac iron does not need to be re-pressured, no testing is needed and pumps do not need to be primed, allowing pumping to quickly resume on the next stage after the transition. In addition, frac iron leaks are significantly reduced from the reduction in pressure cycling. And, given that gate valves are cycled only a few times during the entire job, the chance of a gate valve failure and the subsequent replacement time (up to 12 hours of NPT) is significantly reduced Downing reports that the FSCS has completed more than 7,500 stages across 180+ wells without experiencing a gate valve failure on the frac stack.

Introducing iControl
The Freedom Series Completion System establishes an automation platform on the well site for adding additional services to further compress stage-to-stage time, reduce potential safety hazards, and lower well completion cost. With onsite personnel representing the largest potential safety concerns and added completion cost, attention was focused on automating the remaining frac stack processes and integrating these into the FSCS. FS iControl was developed to automate the control and greasing of all hydraulic frac valves, eliminating the need for onsite service techs to operate and grease valves.

Integrated with the Freedom Series Completion system workflows, iControl seamlessly operates the zipper hydraulic valves as part of the transition process. During this transition, valves are automatically and precisely greased to manufacturer's specifications, eliminating potential human error and red zone operations. The exact amount of grease put into each valve is recorded and time stamped, available to the operator in real-time through (discussed below).

In addition, iControl's intelligent design detects valve position, ensuring valves remain closed if equalization is not detected, eliminating the risk of accidental pressure release. Finally, with only one accumulator needed on location for up to a 4-well zipper, the operational footprint is significantly reduced versus conventional greasing manifolds, minimizing equipment cost and further improving safety.

Real-time Analytics
All sensor data is streamed to the cloud in real-time. The system incorporates real time data analytics, accessible through, that provides a comprehensive picture of the operational efficiency. With time-stamped data, analytics and automated milestones from proprietary algorithms, comparing operational efficiency day-to-day, job-to-job and crew-to-crew is readily available.

Job summaries and charting enable individual job analysis or trending across multiple jobs, enabling an operator to quickly modify operations and improve completion efficiency. With built-in API capability, data can readily be streamed into an operator's data aggregation platform. Finally, the completion system includes remote operations center support providing live backup and intervention in conjunction with operator. Remote operations capabilities include cameras enabling inspection of wirelines, check lines and equipment.

"We are taking human error out of the frac operation and making significant inroads into de-manning the site," says Johnson. Utilizing automation and proprietary algorithms, Downing is compressing stage-to-stage time, significantly reducing well completion costs, and providing a safer well site.

For more information on Downing's efforts in automation in the oil and gas industry, visit

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