RFID’s Land of Opportunity: the Middle East

By Konrad Konarski

The region's oil and gas industry possesses a distinctive collection of traits that offer a phenomenal potential for RFID and RTLS technology adoption.

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Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait and Oman boast prospering economies, exquisite landscapes and pioneering metropolitan skylines rivaling those of the greatest cities in the world. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the region contains more than 40 percent of Earth’s natural gas reserves, and more than 55 percent of the planet’s oil reserves, while covering only about 5 percent of its total land mass. During the past few decades, the area has prospered with the help of its vast petroleum reserves, and has given birth to some of the world’s largest and most profitable oil and gas companies. Saudi Aramco, Kuwait Petroleum Corp., Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. and Qatar Petroleum are all among the world’s largest oil firms.


A sour-gas field RTLS application in Qatar

Always of a crucial concern to the oil and gas sector is personnel safety—or, more broadly, practices related to health, safety and the environment (HSE). There exist a variety of dangers native to the oil and gas field that demand strict safety protocols to be followed, and personal protective equipment (PPE) to be carried by field workers. Employees working in the oil fields of the Middle East can be exposed to hydrogen sulfide (H2S) emissions, fires and explosions, as well as the more common slips and falls.

The Shah Field, located in the UAE, is an example of a newly developing sour-gas field. Such a field holds natural gas containing significant amounts of H2S, which is extremely toxic, even in small quantities. This field has a daily production capacity of 1 billion cubic feet, according to the Oil & Gas Journal, with every H2S-rich cubic foot having the ability to cause accidental injury or death. Other fields across the region also produce under high concentrations of H2S and carbon dioxide (CO2). RTLS technologies provide the ability to track the location and condition of personnel across the various types of oil fields.


A sour-gas facility RTLS application in Oman

These systems are designed specifically for both the harsh oil-field environment and the use cases that it demands, providing the capability to resolve the locations of individuals moving across the field, as well as detect falls, H2S emissions and panic events. Most importantly, they transmit this information to emergency response-control centers, thereby enabling prompt visibility into the condition of each worker and his or her current location. Currently, oil fields throughout Qatar, Oman and several other Middle Eastern nations are employing RTLS technology to improve the safety of their personnel. RTLS badges are becoming a ubiquitous piece of a worker’s PPE gear, just as important—if not more so—as a helmet or safety harness.

Also important is the maintenance, repair and overhaul of processing equipment, pipelines, storage units and virtually any other module or item that constitutes a facility. Highly skilled workers execute meticulous procedural steps to determine if a particular piece of equipment is safe for use or requires repair. Employees perform ultrasonic measurements and electromagnetic inspections, or other specialized tasks, to ascertain equipment corrosion levels, weld integrity and numerous other parameters.


A Middle Eastern refinery using RFID for maintenance, repair and overhaul



Upon pinpointing parameters outside of acceptable thresholds, or simply with the prerequisite of a scheduled overhaul or repair, the company can take appropriate steps to prepare an item for servicing. These can include shutting off gas or oil flow, or halting the equipment’s operation, in order to make it safe and accessible to field workers, as well as a number of other preparation steps. Finally, personnel with specialized training on the operation of particular field equipment perform the required work. This can include cleaning storage tanks, welding, replacing equipment, torquing bolts, and other MRO work.

The oil facilities of the Middle East are fundamentally the same as those within the United States, Europe and other areas of the world. However, one thing about facilities in the Middle East—though this is slowly changing—is that a good portion of the oil-field equipment installed is not necessarily manufactured in-country, or otherwise anywhere within geographical proximity, but rather is imported from overseas manufactures. This makes document reconciliation and traceability more difficult. It is thus even more important to assure that the traceability of a part and its specification data be accurately maintained. RFID technology provides the ability to store product identification and specification data within tag memory.


A close-up view of the Middle East refinery utilizing RFID to improve MRO

The technology provides field staff members with the ability to seamlessly associate parts to facility locations. This data-rich system enables maintenance operations to use RFID technology to easily locate specific pieces of equipment, promptly reconcile quality certificates and maintenance records, and streamline actual inspection and overhaul steps, by enhancing the amount of information available to a field worker, and by providing this information promptly. Presently, locations in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman utilize RFID technology to support MRO activities across a variety of oil and gas facilities.


A Middle Eastern warehouse employing RFID forklift readers



The inventory management of facility-bound equipment and spare and servicing items is an essential task for oil and gas warehouses. Equipment originating from numerous suppliers must be efficiently received and stored. The control system built to manage the inventory needs to be able to accurately and promptly identify the equipment, reference and validate against appropriate purchase orders or requisitions for these items, put them away in a well-organized manner, and record their locations. In parallel, these same systems must be able to precisely and rapidly locate assets across a warehouse, as well as pick them and record their movements. A poor inventory-management process can lead to such problems as inventory discrepancies, shipping mistakes, excessive processing times and ineffective use of manpower.

Warehouses supporting the oil and gas industry provide unique inventory-management challenges that are not often seen within other industrial sectors. Moreover, warehouses supporting Middle Eastern oil fields are unique in their own right. Oil and gas warehouses stationed on remote oil fields are constantly changing and growing. With each new project, a different set of equipment must be received and stored. Furthermore, environmental factors, such as temperature, sunlight and blowing sand, lead to unique, environment-driven workflows that demand consideration. Today, RFID technology has been deployed at warehouses across Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and other countries, to support warehouse operations and enable enhanced inventory management.


A Middle East warehouse commissioning RFID tags



The Oil & Gas RFID Solution Group (OGR) has been supporting technology adoption in the region since the inaugural RFID Journal LIVE! Middle East conference and exhibition, held in June 2009. During the past three years, RFID adoption within the region has grown noticeably. The Middle East conveys a distinctive collection of traits that make it a phenomenal opportunity for the adoption of RFID and RTLS technologies in the oil and gas industry. The local oil and gas organizations are leaders in their field, and enthusiastic adopters of emerging technologies, while the environments native to the region’s oil and gas fields demand the benefits that can be achieved using these technologies. The Middle East is the land of great opportunity for RFID technology applications in oil and gas.

Konrad Konarski has more than 15 years of field experience in the oil and gas industry. His professional career has involved the oversight, support, assessment, program management and rollout of information technology hardware and software systems at more than 50 oil fields on five continents. He has been engaged throughout his career with a variety of advisory councils and strategic initiatives within the petroleum and energy market space. As the cofounder of the Oil & Gas RFID Solution Group (OGR), Konarski has helped enable oil and gas technology innovation and the market adoption of wireless, GPS and RFID technologies, with support from the group’s founding members, including ExxonMobil, BP, Dow Chemical and FMC Technologies.