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Extreme Challenges: Downhole electronic components


The recent issue of the Journal of Petroleum Technology (JPT) includes a noteworthy article by Robin Beckwith, "Downhole Electronic Components: Achieving Performance Reliability." In this article, Beckwith carefully reviews the significant challenges facing the Oil and Gas (O&G) industry with a well-rounded discussion of the challenges associated with supporting ruggedized electronic components. The onboard components for these tools must be capable of withstanding the extreme conditions of downhole Exploration and Production (E&P), such as the case for measurement-while-drilling (MWD) tools.

Pushing components beyond aerospace & defense requirements

One of the initial challenges for the E&P is simple the ability to secure enough design research and production interest in the highly rugged environments that the onboard components face and then manufacture components for that niche market. As Beckwith underscores, the demand for tools is extremely strong and ongoing, yet the availability – the supply – is extremely limited because these extreme environments for ICs and tools typically surpass the requirements for aerospace and defense:

The problem is that the oil and gas industry's demand for high-temperature electronic components is relatively tine – combined with defense, space, aeronautics, and automotive, estimated to be less than 1% of the total component market.

Beckwith cites Robert Estes, manager of emerging technology, Drilling & Evaluation at Baker Hughes, noting that there is a strong need for collaboration between the aerospace, defense, and O&G sectors to better "encourage the development of components that can be shared […]." A direct result of the small market for these highly ruggedized components is an associated high cost – it is a simple Economics 101 situation.

Downhole is extreme and demands high tech, high temp, & high reliability

The challenges for MWD tools is the number of high tech, "instrumentation packages" that guide and collect data during drilling events. These real-time data and interactive capabilities between field base and the drillbit ensures accurate drilling while maintaining safety and control to prevent halts in operations. These necessary capabilities for successful drilling in complex geomorphologies is enabled through sophisticated electronic components that relay many different data in real-time and guide the drill operation remotely. Failure of parts is not only costly but can jeopardize the operation and the teams.

Temperature, pressure, vibration, and duration of running tools are all in the extreme levels compared to any other use case scenario across all industries. The article reminds readers that MWD tools not only must endure temperatures easily falling in the 150-200 degree Celsius range, they must do so under pressure conditions that range between 10,000 to 20,000 psi or more for one to two weeks at a time while continuously relaying large data sets. Obviously, reliability is essential for all of the downhole electronic components.

Testing and quality essential

Beckwith's article also underscores the critical aspect of not only securing components that meet these requirements, but also those that have been fully tested to ensure quality and reliability. Testing the many aspects of the components that go into the boards is essential because while some components are designed with the ruggedized, extreme tolerances, the majority of components on the boards likely do not fall into this category, there are simply none available in the market.

As a result, Beckwith notes, the engineers working with the electronic components have had to research and test not only the possible tolerances of the components, but dig down into the details of the semiconductor construction to aspects such as the type of wire bonding and various packaging materials. A few components on the market may be designed and tested for lower temperature ranges, may be suitable for the higher, downhole temperature environments simply due to the higher grade materials and packaging used in their manufacture.

Managing the lifecycle

Certainly, quality and reliability are critical to everyone, but when dealing with these extreme ICs having to operate in extremely challenging situations, there is little room for error and malfunctioning components. To this end, having supply chain partners that not only understand the difficulties, specializations, and requirements of ensuring quality and reliability for downhole components, but are able to source these components and perform the specialized tests is a strategic necessity.

However, the challenges do not end here. The task is made all the more difficult by the issue of component obsolescence. Todd Burke, senior executive at Smith & Associates, discussed these issues with Beckwith underscoring that managing lifecycles to ensure stock of these specific components is pivotal. Supply chain partners, such as Smith & Associates, are able to support customers by locating these hard-to-find parts and work to ensure proactive obsolescence management. Critical to this process are included the sophisticated anti-counterfeiting methods during the sourcing and testing of components. These components are particularly likely to be targeted by counterfeiters because of their low volume, high mix, and high-demand status. Providing the deep-knowledge and technical expertise to handle these vital aspects of component lifecycle management, sourcing, and testing are hallmarks of Smith's quality-driven services.

Lisa Ann Cairns, Ph.D.
Written on Friday, 23 August 2013 20:17 by Lisa Ann Cairns, Ph.D.

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Comments (1)

The challenge is bigger than just the technology, my company can build most any level of CMOS technology density and survive 250c (our current 18mb SRAM has 1200 hours and counting of operations @250c with ZERO errors). The problem is implementation. just testing the parts can be difficult at 250c , then packaging, etc are all barriers that we had to solve. BUT The biggest barrier is the structure of the market. A market that has been picking cheap parts off the shelf and plugging them into a less than ideal solution is not excited about dumping a bunch of money into a custom ASIC solution. Even if that standardizes and solves their downhole electronics issues for the next 25 years. a upgrade in technology is a disruptive event to plenty of relationships with legacy vendors, engineering firms, etc. So perhaps its the board room that is the true harsh environment.
Joshua Morris , January 09, 2015

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