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Interview: Eric Gebhardt, R&D leader at GE

10th July 2014

Eric Gebhardt, R&D leader at GE talks to Oil & Gas Technology about the importance of research to major corporations.

Oil and gas Technology attended the recent GE Annual Meeting for an exclusive chance to have a chat with the man at the heart of GE’s quest for innovation.

Eric Gebhardt, R&D leader at GE
Eric Gebhardt, R&D leader at GE

GE Global Research has served as the cornerstone of GE innovation for more than a century, with more than 3,000 of the world’s brightest scientists, engineers and researchers are working together to deliver technical breakthroughs for GE customers; OGT talk to Eric Gebhard, R&D leader at GE, about how GE stays at the forefront of technological advancement

 

So how does GE turn scientific theory into practical industry solutions? 

In seven state-of-the art facilities around the world, we’re applying expertise in fields from electronics to chemistry, biosciences to computing, metallurgy to fluid mechanics, materials to imaging—and many more—against the world’s toughest challenges.

Scientists at our largest site, in Niskayuna, collaborate with colleagues in Bangalore, Shanghai, Munich, Rio de Janeiro, San Ramon and Oklahoma City to invent better ways to build, connect, cure, move and power the world.

We carry out our oil and gas research and development across our Global Research Centres (GRC) spread out around the globe. We have a centre that is totally dedicated to oil and gas which will open soon in Oklahoma City. We are already hiring people and it will probably open early next year.

What we do is use these centres to work on further out technology; five to seven years. Then within the core of oil and gas we infuse these things and develop new products, we productise it.

 

How is research and development improved by this globalised approach?

They look at something that may have been done in healthcare and see how it can flow across all of our businesses.

Healthcare may have been upfront on electronic medical records; standardisation of data for monitoring diagnostics. Sometimes that kind of thing flows right out of what we may have already done in healthcare.

It is the same with some of the material advances we are carrying out in oil and gas, other parts of the business will look at that and it will flow back that way.

It might be new materials, new coding, new analytics that are being developed at one of our global research centres and then, for example, we take those technologies and use them in an impellor on a compressor.

We tend to use something called technology readiness level, which is something that is used in DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) in the US.

When the technology is ready we have a hand-off. In reality some of the engineers that are going to productise it will be involved upfront, probably about 80 per cent GRC people and 20 per cent engineers from my team. Then over time that will switch round to 80-20 in favour of engineers.

 

Do you think the oil and gas industry reputation for being a conservative adopter of new technologies is justified?

The amount of testing that has to be proven before you can put something subsea makes it feel like it feeds into the market slowly, but there is some amazing technology out there.

Think about how quickly the subsea market has grown from 20-30 years ago from a dead start to where it is today; there has been some incredible technology development. When you look back in retrospect there has been some amazing things done in this industry.

When you look at things such as monitoring diagnostics through the cloud, which is truly starting to penetrate now into oil and gas. It is in refining and the petro-chemical industries with sensors, analytics and diagnostics. Now some of the things that we are starting to do with our blowout preventers where we are putting state of the art control systems in them.

We also have this new technology around acoustic sensing, which is an amazing technology developed from sonar; now you know when a valve moves, when a motor starts, if you’re having improper flow through a pump or compressor just by the acoustic waves that are coming through the water.

One of the challenges is retrofitting something that is already sitting on the seabed; it is hard to put new sensors on there. Now we can just drop in acoustic sensing and it is starting to get embraced; we have one of these in operation already. There are parts of the industry that are further along but it is starting to move through the entire industry.

 

How does GE approach partnerships with oil and gas majors?

For partnerships we want somebody who is going to be a true partner, that we have a mature relationship with, or are forming a mature relationship with.

It is OK to fail. It is Ok to get in there and mix it up – have the tough conversations about what you do know and what you don’t know. Then get something out in the field quickly so that you can decide how many of the assumptions about what you do know or don’t know are true; you can validate or invalidate your assumptions.

We also look for a partner that if it does work they’ll buy the technology. I think Manny Gonzales with Chevron is a great example. We both started developing a multiphase flow meter and once we got it done it is flowing through Chevron. What is also great is that we can sell it to other customers as well.

As for what Chevron get? Their differentiation is not necessarily going to be the meter, it’s what they do with the meter – the analytics, the operations, all the things that they consider their core competencies; the meter is just a tool to get there. It’s not so much let’s keep everything in-house because it becomes too expensive and too proprietary. It should be standardised technology that raises all the boats in the industry.

 

How do you decide on which areas of research to focus on?

We have our internal marketing team and we tend to look at things on two axes – technology uncertainty and market uncertainty.

There are certain things that we know are going to happen, or are fairly confident they are going to happen and then there are some things that are very uncertain. We want to make sure that if you look at a portfolio that it ranges from the very high certainty technology to uncertainty and that we have the same coverage from the market angle.

Then we try to break it down to say; ‘okay we’re going to develop a technology that has three or four scenario outcomes. What are the technologies that will play well in all of the outcomes or at least three of the outcomes?’

If it’s something that will only play in one we have to really revaluate that and decide how it will play out in the other scenarios. So we look at it with a portfolio effect, because if you only play in the certainty area you are just going to be doing incremental investment. If you are in the uncertain area these are big swings, and if they hit they will be 10x products; ten times the growth that we expect.

 

Where do you see key growth in oil and gas research and development?

There are a lot of things in different areas.

Subsea power and processing is huge, whether it goes into the Arctic or areas where building the platform is not economical. We already have technology that can go to 125km, we are confident on 200km and we want to go beyond that both for electrification and flow assurance.

We also have 20ksi drilling – 20,000 psi drilling is a big area that we are stepping into. We think our technology with materials properties, coding, fracture mechanics, really position us well for that.

Then you have mature field production where we have made several acquisitions in the artificial lift space in areas such as electrical submersible pumps, rod lifts, progressive capping pumps and other areas. We are going to wrap that all together to understand how to produce more from existing fields using analytics, sensors and optimisation techniques.

I’m an engineer so I could go on and on, but they are some of the key things.

What is clear is that GE are well served to take advantage of market opportunities wherever they arise in the industry. And Gebhardt and his team will be leading the charge to drive innovation throughout the oil and gas value chain.