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Robots redraw the energy workforce

If autonomous machines take control over more aspects of the energy business, will there be an industry at all in the future?

In this article, PE looks at the impact of new technologies on the industry. Part II of II. For the first article, click here.

As much as there are benefits, there will be significant consequences to the pervasive uptake of AI. Inevitably, handing over functions to intelligent machine-led systems will lead to a significant loss of manpower. The industry is yet to adequately address that.

Audit and consulting firm Deloitte envisages that a reduction in certain job types will be inevitable as transactional processes, routine tasks and specific equipment is automated. In their place, Deloitte sees new roles being created, allowing humans to focus on more human aspects of roles such as emotional intelligence (EQ), people leadership and verifying insights and solutions from automated equipment and sensors.

But this adjustment will require forethought and sensitivity: "Getting the impacted workforce involved will help ease the transition," says digital strategy specialist Geoffrey Cann.

The greatest opportunity is not just to redesign jobs or automate routine work, but to fundamentally re-think "how work works" to benefit employers, teams and individuals, says Julie Harrison, lead partner in Resources and Industrials Human Capital at Deloitte Australia, noting that it will require "strong focus by industry to determine how work can be structured differently with the increased use of digital and automation".

The human-machine interface and collaboration create a new way of working that is fundamentally different from how work is structured by task focus today, says Harrison. "If we look at how wellhead and other remote sensors today convey data and information to a person in a remote operation centre elsewhere for humans to interpret and make decisions, this creates a new way of working," she says.

"The sensors enable people to be in safe locations away from the frontline," she says. "Someone is a remote location could also undertake maintenance activities remotely, or through a specialist in a central location supporting an operator or maintainer wearing google glass or equivalent, meaning the specialist can have a broader impact across the organisation and more than one well, rig or location".

Shell envisages new jobs will materialise as the sector adopts AI. "I haven't ever seen significant job losses caused by the deployment of data science solutions. What tends to happens is that some of the lower value activities within people's jobs are removed," says Daniel Jeavons, general manager for data science at Shell.

"Automation in terms of back office processes will have an impact on jobs, but the need to upskill is different because it focuses on decision-making process and augmenting the decision-making process. What I see is the opportunity to make human decision making faster and more accurate using AI primarily as an advisory function to support the decision-making process".

By way of example, Shell points to its Industry Optimisation Tool for Assets which identifies how many spare parts the business should stock based on historical consumption patterns.

"Once it was rolled out, it didn't replace the job of the inventory analyst but it gave them much better data to ensure the conversations they had with the maintenance people and with the suppliers was far more informed on the basis of what they know the level of spare parts requirement to be. It's a good example of where AI acts as an advisor to an existing function, it doesn't replace the inventory analyst," says Jeavons.

VROC AI's Bloch also sees roles within energy organisations changing, rather than being lost altogether. "AI is changing the role of engineers from identifying problems to solving problems, which is what they should be doing in the first place. It's making their job a whole lot easier by showing them where they need to focus their efforts on".

Data era

If data-driven autonomous machines take control over a number of aspects of the energy business, will there end up being an industry at all in the future?

Shell's Jeavons believes there will still be a role for the extensive expertise built up in the organisation. "But we will become broader than O&G because we'll be dealing both with molecules and electrons in future. That will change things for sure. We as an industry are subject to potential disruption for sure because data-centric approaches can eat into our traditional value chain".

"At the same time, we're not blind to it so we want to make sure we become much more data-centric as an organisation, develop a digital strategy in order to make sure that we're well prepared for this transition and that we're in a good place to compete through it and to implement our strategy," he says.

Ultimately, the advent of new aspects of AI combined with cloud computing, ever cheaper processing power and massive increases in data availability will transform the energy sector, though the timing and impact is yet to be determined.

It means AI will unlock new business models, but these could end up being hugely disruptive for the energy sector, say Cann. "The industry doesn't often recognise that AI is both helping them and destroying their business at the same time".

For the first article, click here.

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