Case Study: Custom Android Tablet Application for Oil Field Logistics Service Company

Client

Our client is a market leader in oil field logistics and transload services.  They own and manage a nationwide network of transload terminals where they store and move millions of pounds of proppant (frac sand), crude, and other materials to and from trucks, railcars, silos, and other containers.  Their services are a critical element in the energy supply chain in North America.

One of the client’s transload terminals. Product is brought in by railcar. The railcars can be stored on-site, or product can be loaded into silos, as shown in the background.

In addition to managing transload terminals, our client has expanded their services, to become a full, end-to-end multi-modal logistics provider. They have added their own trucking fleet and proprietary proppant frac sand storage and delivery system for the well site.

Problem

The company’s custom frac sand storage and delivery solution is a game-changer for well site operations. It is a mobile solution that can easily be set up on well sites at remote locations. Where well operators previously managed small, pallet-sized sand containers with a forklift, their system provides modular storage with a maximum capacity of over 3 million pounds, all of which is belt-fed directly to the frac mixer, dramatically reducing downtime during drilling.

These portable containers are setup at the well site. The angle allows them to feed a conveyor by gravity, simply by opening a gate valve.

Additionally, their system tracks inventory in real-time, automatically requesting more proppant from a company-owned loading facility, delivered by company-owned trucks. With this system in place, our client is able to take full responsibility for the provision of proppant at the well site. However, with this responsibility comes liability. The logistics company contracts with its clients to guarantee availability of proppant at the well site, similar to a Service Level Agreement for a mission-critical IT service or system. Drilling an oil well requires the coordination of multiple teams of people from different companies on-site, operating millions of dollars worth of equipment. If the logistics company’s equipment malfunctions or they fail to deliver enough sand in time, the logistics company must compensate their client for the lost productivity of their people and equipment on site.

The sand delivery system has proven to be exceedingly reliable. However, any system can malfunction, especially when operating in extreme conditions, like outdoors in a remote location, in very cold or very hot weather, as is common in the oil fields.

On the left, you can see the conveyor moving sand deposited from the containers. In the background are a control module and a belt loader for loading the containers. In the foreground is one of the client’s fleet of proppant trucks, with their special trailer design which can carry more sand, unload it faster.

They needed a way to track any of these down time events, for billing, as well as for analysis to prevent future issues. Additionally, they needed to be able to track down time events for which they were not liable, in case the client made an erroneous claim.

Initially, these events were phoned in to the dispatch team, and logged in a spreadsheet. However, this was time-consuming and error-prone. They needed to be able to track exact start and end times for these down time events, to categorize them effectively, for later analysis. They needed to have the operators on site be able to log such events directly themselves. And they needed to collect a sign off from a representative of the client, in case the issue was disputed later. Also, while data needed to be recorded on site at remote locations with unreliable network connectivity, the data needed to be stored in a central repository in the cloud for easy access to use in billing, reporting, and analytics.

An operator on site monitors the system with a ruggedized tablet.

Solution

The bulk sand operators on site were already using ruggedized Android tablets to access equipment maintenance schedules, the company time clock app, and other resources, so we built a mobile app that could be deployed to these existing devices.

The app used our custom Fulcrum Framework platform, which combines best of breed technologies for an extremely flexible solution. We provide a flexible UI that looks great on phones, tablets, and desktops. Our framework allows us to build a single application code base which can be deployed to nearly any platform: including Windows, Mac, and Linux desktop applications; Android and iOS mobile applications; and of course web browsers as a Single Page App (SPA) or Progressive Web App (PWA). And we use a cloud-hosted NoSQL database to provide a flexible back-end data store in the cloud.

First, we had to structure the application so it could function completely autonomously while offline, in case the tablet being used does not have network connectivity at the time. We used PouchDB to store all application data locally on the device and then sync it to a CouchDB datastore in the cloud. While running online, data will appear in the datastore almost immediately, as syncing runs automatically. But when the app is offline, it will store the data locally and wait for a connection to be restored. Once the connection is restored, syncing automatically resumed. We configured the syncing to run every 5 minutes, rather than continuously, in order to conserve bandwidth, since these devices often connect to the Internet through slow and expensive satellite connections. However, we also provided an interface in the UI to see when the app was last synced, and initiate a manual sync if needed.

The app is integrated with the client’s other existing systems, including their employee database, allowing the operators to use a shared login. Once logged in, the operator is presented with a list of ongoing events which are causing downtime, and which might cause downtime in the future. They can also see past events, and log new ones. This allows for a smoother handoff between shifts, which is important since well sites run 24 hours a day, and employees need to be able to go home and get some rest.

The app is also integrated with the client’s equipment and job site data. This allows events to be tied to a particular job, and when an event relates to a particular piece of equipment, the user can select it from a list of the components deployed at that job site.

Once an event is resolved, the operator can mark it complete, and record the time. All completed events are presented in a report which the operator can show to the customer representative. Both the operator and the customer representative electronically sign off on this report.

The events, categories, start and end times, and signatures are all synced to the cloud, where they can be fed into the client’s reporting and analytics systems. Management can easily see all open events across the operation, or for a particular client or region. They can look for patterns, like the same piece of equipment malfunctioning repeatedly. And they can accurately track any down time liability they incur, in order to compensate the customer.

Result

Where downtime events were previously claimed by the logistics company’s clients, this system allows the client to be proactive instead of reactive, reporting downtime to their customers, instead of receiving reports from them. They also have accurate start and end times, along with other details about the event, so they don’t have to take the client at their word if the report is exaggerated. Best of all, they are able to analyze the data and prevent downtime events before they start.