How Automation is Being Used in Exciting Ways in the Oil and Gas Industry
(upbeat music) Hello, and welcome to this episode of the Futurum Tech Webcast Series. And in this conversation today, we are going to focus on the topic of how automation is being used in exciting ways in the oil and gas industry. I'm your host, Shelly Kramer from Futurum Research, and I'm joined today by some really interesting guests.
They include Brad Onofrio, the Senior Director for Sales Operations at Calumet, a leading independent producer of high quality specialty carbon products. Frank Wilson, the Business Solutions Manager at Patterson-UTI Management Services, a subsidiary of Patterson-UTI. Patterson provides a diverse network of drilling and pressure pumping services and a whole bunch of other things that I'll let Frank tell you about in a minute.
And last but never least, my friend, Jon Gilman who's the CEO and Founder of Clear Software. Jon and I've done a lot of interviews together, so you've probably seen him here before. Jon's a process guy, and he spent his career looking at processes, developing processes, making processes better. That's what led him to found Clear Software, and I'll let him tell you more about that, as well in a minute. So, as I said, our conversation today is going to center around automation, and how automation is being used in exciting ways in the oil and gas industry.
And that's why I've got these three gentlemen here today, so welcome. We're excited to dive into this conversation and Brad, I'm gonna start with you. Tell me, tell us a little bit more about Calumet. So as you mentioned, we make specialty hydrocarbons, but I always like to kind of relate it to your everyday life.
So if you think about some, what is a specialty hydrocarbon? So if you think about it, we make waxes that go into crayons and candles, and many of the things that you buy. We make white oils that could be used in food grade lubricants. We make petrolatum, so if you use lip balm, or if you use skincare ointments, a lot of that uses petrolatum.
We make naphthenic base oils that go into the rubber, in the tires that you have on your car. And probably the last one is we make a polyolesters, which are used in airplanes. So when you think about an airplane, high pressure, very cold temperatures, you need a lubricant that can handle 30,000 feet in the sky. So we meet polyolester that go into aviation lubricants. So frankly, when we say specialty hydrocarbons, it's one of those cases where we make a lot of things that go into things you use every day and you just didn't know. You just didn't know it.
Yeah I was thinking that as well when I was looking a little bit about what your company did, it's like, it touches us in every way, in myriad ways all day, every day, we just don't know it, so now we do. You got it. All right, so tell us a little bit about, so you've told us a little bit your industry and some of the customers you serve.
Tell us about some of the industry challenges as a whole. I think there's the obvious industry challenges, for a petroleum specialty hydrocarbon industry which is, dealing with a marketplace where you've got to constantly be focused on how do you deal with sustainability items, how do you deal with the fact that stuff is coming from crude and is used in these everyday purposes. So we're constantly looking at how do we more efficiently work as a company, to get these specialty hydrocarbons to the market, and how do we do them in a sustainable way, so that we can continue to match what the globe is needing from a sustainability perspective. Yeah, that's really an important agenda item for many organizations worldwide, the whole sustainability factor and focusing on that, that's really cool. Frank, tell us a little bit about Patterson-UTI drilling, and what it is you do and what it is the customers that you serve.
Okay, Patterson-UTI has a multiple subsidiaries that provide a vast group of oil field services. So, onshore drilling, pressure pumping, directional drilling which allows the drill bit to go from drilling vertical to horizontal. We have an oil field rental company, we have some technology based company. So, we provide a vast group of different services to help the exploration companies get basically oil or natural gas out of the ground. That's our main purpose and we just have a vast group of companies that do that.
Cool, so tell us a little bit about some of the challenges your customers face. Obviously being tied to a commodity is our biggest concern. So as oil prices or natural gas prices go up, things are good, as things go down, things are bad.
As evident with 2020 COVID-19, between that and price wars. The price of crude dropped dramatically, and so that's obviously something that keeps us on our shows whenever we're trying to work within this industry of trying to stay operating, but also keep a profit. Well, and that's really where process automation comes in. It's where processes and efficiencies and all of those things play a big role, I would imagine, right? Yes, yes, true.
Automation, I mean, outside of justice, I mean automation within the drilling technology pressure pumping company and then also utilizing automation within business processes really help us. Yeah, a big step forward, and that leads us to Jon. Hello Jon, it's great to see you again. Good to be here.
So talk, I love the story about, what led you to start clear software and kind of your backstory. So would you share that with us? Yeah, so it's kind of interesting because one of the things I haven't talked about on previous webcasts is how we actually started off in actual robotic automation at General Motors. So, I worked at a lot of assembly plants trying to bring automation to a lot of different processes within the assembly line and then decided I wasn't really interested in that anymore. And I was really more interested in software, so ended up going to work for Accenture and Deloitte, big fortune 500 companies implementing business software.
But I really saw the same kind of inefficiencies in software that I saw in assembly lines. So Clear was really meant to automate and streamline a lot of what large organizations were doing over and over and over again, 10, 15, 20 million times a year. So, if you have to go through 17 screens and five systems to complete a business process, we're really seeking to streamline and automate that. So Clear was really formed out of a desire to automate, what I thought was maddeningly frustrating for users.
They shouldn't have to spend 25 minutes in a system doing what took them two minutes in real life. So that's kind of where it all came from was a good old, boring industrial engineering. Well, and I think that, I think of you often Jon, but I think about this conversation and as a listener here, all of us have had experiences where you've been trying to do something and you say this is maddeningly inefficient. And I just wanna bang my head against the wall and whoever developed this process absolutely must never have gone through this process because it's so painful.
And so the thing about Jon is that Jon, I think you've spent your whole career thinking about things like that and trying to mitigate that in people's lives, and for that, I thank you. So, (Shelly laughing) Giving you a hard time. No, but I think that really is a big thing and I think that Clear was founded to make things clear and simple and easy and efficient, and I think that that resonates with a lot of people and it's really important.
So I know Jon you're working with companies in the energy industry. So tell us some of what you've seen, the challenges beyond Brad's company, beyond Frank's company, some of the challenges that you've seen and what kind of cool things you at Clear are doing to help address those. Yeah, so I think that the challenges we see from an operational perspective within oil and gas will kind of differ whether you're upstream, midstream or downstream.
I think on the downstream side, like in Brad and in Calumet's case, you're really subject to the cost of raw materials and fluctuating markets. And that means you're gonna need a lot of automation around price changes and sort of thing, because It's ultimately impacting your bottom line. On Frank's side where it's more upstream, you're dealing with a lot of complex ordering processes where folks are out in rural Oklahoma or West Texas having to receive paper-based invoices and that sort of thing. So any automation you can bring to the process of fulfillment and inventory transactions is really important upstream.
So really kind of depends on where you are in the value stream within oil and gas, but automation can help anywhere in that process. Well, and I think that is an important point as it relates to automation, because I think sometimes people think, hit my own microphone. I think sometimes people think, oh, automation is just for back of house or kind of think small as it relates to the ways that automation can be integrated into business operations as a whole. And I think in many instances it's much broader than people think or understand. And that's one of the reasons we're doing it, round table discussion like this today. So Brad, that leads me to you.
Let's talk about some of the areas at Patterson UTI, where you've implemented automation technologies and what kind of results you're seeing. Shelly, were you talking to me about to me about Calumet, or did you wanna talk to Frank about Patterson? Oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, yes. Okay. Absolutely, Calumet. I don't want you to talk about Frank's company. Well, if it's possible I could do that. We are here to talk about your company.
So we at Calumet, I'd like to think we're in kind of the baby steps of automation. Just in in late 2017, we changed from one ERP system to another. And frankly, that change was tough, it didn't go very well. We weren't very good at master data practices, we really didn't know how to use the power of this ERP system. And so for the past three years, it's really been about how do we leverage this ERP system that we switched to and leverage it better and use it properly.
And we talked a little bit about back office automation but a lot of what we're doing automation on is about serving our customers better. Right. For example, we just now, late last year implemented a new freight module from this ERP system, to be able to do freight and organize freight, delivered freight to our customers in a more efficient and effective fashion. What we've been doing with Clear was about pricing, was about, we decided to, instead of using the ERP modules or another third party software, we really needed to improve on the efficiency of how we did pricing. Let me give you an example, we did our pricing to our customers in thousands of Excel spreadsheets that work outside of our ERP system.
And by using Clear, we've actually started to use the power of our ERP system with simple screens development. So, we're really baby steps from an automated perspective in terms of what we've been doing, but it's good stuff. I mean, it's huge things that affect our efficiency in back office, but most importantly our ability to service our customers well. You know, and I think that a lot of times when we have these conversations with customers, I think people are kind of, people often think that they're alone when it comes to making a technology decision, like an ERP and struggling with it, or doing things in baby steps. But the reality of it is, Jon, I know we haven't talked about this but I know that you see this all the time.
I mean, the reality of it is there are so many organizations who are functioning by way of Excel spreadsheets outside of an ERP system. I mean, it's so many, you're not alone. That's actually frustrating if you've spent tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars implementing one of these systems, only half your workforce using Excel sheets. Right, and some of it is just, change is hard.
Some of it is, a lot of times what we find when it comes to any technology purchase, not just an ERP system, but a lot of times a decision is made about a technology purchase. Sometimes all the stakeholders that should be involved in that technology decision aren't involved. And sometimes a company spends a lot of money on a new piece of technology but adoption throughout the enterprise, nobody's spending time really understanding that adoption of that technology and really getting people to understand it and use it are important. Or you buy a piece of technology, again doesn't just have to be an ERP system, but the service and support that should come along with that from a vendor, maybe isn't part of what it is you've bought. And so you're stuck kind of trying to figure things out and all of those horror stories happen everywhere.
Shelly, if I may elaborate on what you just said... Absolutely. And I use these words, we at Calumet didn't know what good looks like.
Right. (Shelly laughing) So, we wanna be a specialty company with all these cool specialties that you use in your everyday life, but we didn't know how to take our ERP. What does good look like in a specialty company to use this ERP? So it kind of correlates to what you were saying before about, what's good look like? Well, and I think but that's also, I'm a strategist, when I have conversations, part of what we start with is, what's the end goal? What does success look like? What does good look like? And a lot of times those are not conversations that people start with. So, and it does feel so good even though you've said that you're still in the beginning stages, doesn't it feel great to be on the path and to be looking at some of the small successes you've had and go, oh my gosh, like had I known this we would have done this, would have started this transformation process two years earlier or whatever know, but it does feel good to be on the path, doesn't it? Yes. Absolutely.
So, Frank, let's talk about you. Where do you see automation working within your organization in the future? So, right now we're using Clear for our rental company to basically create an order or a project update with customer equipment pricing. And then we also issue equipment, which comes from a completely different module with Oracle and Clear allows those users to transact from one screen and automates a lot of those transactions, and also the background processes that have to happen an Oracle. So our end goal is to start using Clear solution to automate more areas within the company, with regards to processes, primarily in purchasing.
There's a lot that goes into creating a purchase requisition, getting it approved, fulfilling everything. That's where we're looking forward to using more of the automation that's available to us to help people do their job better. And then they're happier, and then obviously there are some costs that would get reduced with that.
So it's better for the company as a whole. Yeah, and sometimes I think that that's a little bit like, when you introduce something new into the equation a lot of the, and I say this because a lot of my role with working with clients over the years has been, I'm a bit of a change agent. So I can promise that everything that we're gonna do is sort of gonna shake things up a little bit, but hang with me, trust me.
And a lot of what happens in those processes is that you introduce something, people are a little skeptical, oh yeah, it's gonna make my job better, it's gonna make things easier, whatever, people are skeptical. And then what happens is so exciting because people see that change and they see one thing that gets better, and then it's two and then it's five, and then it's like, okay, now if we can do this with this, how about this? Or how about that? Or what can we do? And then all of a sudden you have people having, you create a culture of automation, you create a culture of innovation and technology and you don't know that they don't know that that's what's happening, but if you're part of the process of making this happen that's really what you want, and that's, what's exciting. So that you've got people who are using these solutions who are end users, who are walking around thinking about, okay, this is so cool, what else can we do? Exactly, and that is our, that is my goal every day, is trying to get these people to get over their fear of that change and embrace it. Because at the end of the, on the other side it's just so much easier for them, and they get to use their system the way that they should be and enjoy their job, versus filling out another paper form or emailing somebody or doing nine things within a transaction that should be done with one.
Yeah and I think... I find that fascinating what Frank just said because, when you're bringing these automation products, you're really trying to make someone's job easier. And yet there's so much resistance to change. I thought I've always placed it out on this shared drive and printed it out and put it in this stack, and it's like, but you don't have to, you can do a lot of other things. It's amazing how much resistance you get to automation which is just there to help them perform better. Yeah.
Yeah, and I think that that's really where, I've seen lots of conversation, I've been a part of lots of conversations and even interviews of people within organizations who learned to use automation solutions and who maybe even learn to use some of the new low-code no-code offerings and things like that. And people have ordinary average jobs that require boring data entry and everything else. And when you hear some of their stories about, I had been doing this and then I learned to do this and it changed everything about my job and my work and my passion for my work.
And now what I get to do, is I get to work with other people within the organization to teach them this really cool stuff. And when you hear those stories, it's just like, oh my gosh, like that to me is the very best thing that can happen when you have that enthusiasm around people. And really some of the secret to that is just finding people with at least what I've found is finding people within your organization who can be those sort of beta proof of concept testing test cases and then who can be the internal champions. Because that really, hearing messaging from leadership is one thing, but hearing great excitement and success stories from people who are peers, I think is really part of the magic there. Oh, definitely. I think bad systems and bad processes can make people dread coming to work.
And really this is the reason why I created Clear to begin with was I didn't want people to dread coming to work because they had to tediously go through 19 different screens to do something that should be simple. So when you're really focused more on the value add activities that make you enjoy your job versus tedious activities that you shouldn't even be doing, that just creates a better work environment. Yeah, absolutely, absolutely, and if you can just get people to hang on and trust that's really what our goal is a better work environment, more efficient processes, happier customers, less drudgery, (Shelly laughing) all of those things. It really is really exciting.
So, Jon, I know that Brad and Frank are awesome but they're not the customers in the energy industry. So can you share with us a little bit about some of the other work that you're doing with energy customers and also maybe what some of the solutions they're asking for. Yeah, some of the recent activities we've done with an oil and gas have to do a lot with oil markets themselves, because it's, we like to say that 2020 was pretty volatile, but to be perfectly honest the oil industry has always been volatile. There's always been peaks and valleys in terms of pricing, so we're introducing a service that connects directly to the exchanges to allow customers if they want to to configure how frequently they actually update their pricing and their internal systems of records. So that rather than having a business process that says, hey, every two weeks, you need to go in and update your prices.
We can just set it to a completely automated state and say, you know what, every 15 minutes or every hour or every two days, we're gonna go out, check the exchanges and update these 3000 products within your system. So, getting better control of pricing is pretty big. And then we're also integrating with more systems, so within specifically, within upstream, there's a lot of systems that are specific to upstream oil extraction like Quorum is a good example, but a lot of these ancillary systems that don't necessarily communicate well or integrate with ERP systems, we're providing a lot of pre-built automations to accelerate what some folks are doing around land management and property ownership rights, and that sort of thing.
So, a lot of cool stuff, but it's all again really focused back on that core of making people faster at what they do eliminating the drudgery, the tedium, nobody wants to go through manually and update the price of 3000 products, one by one, 'cause it can be weeks to be honest to do that. So that's what we're really focused on right now. So what do you think is ahead? What do you think, what do you see in the next couple of years, maybe maximum in the next five years any significant things that you see ahead? I think AI and ML are definitely going to be there, and I think right now people oversell and over-hype artificial intelligence and machine learning within every industry.
This is one of those things where everybody says they're doing it, but they're not really doing it at all. I think organizations really need to streamline and semi-automate as many of their processes as they can, which is what we're doing with Calumet and with Patterson. But over time, as you sort of run through the gamut of all the major large and these processes within your organization, then you have a nice streamlined way of doing business. And then you can start to apply machine learning and prescriptive actions to business process exceptions that will help you automate more and more. But it's like Brad said, it's baby steps, you gotta start with one process, get it as automated as you can. And then as Frank said, maybe you moved to procurement, maybe you move to finance.
Even on the production floor side there are so many processes that can be automated within the organization, so, like I like to say, learning to your hair and tie your shoes the same way every day before you start to use artificial intelligence. Right, right, and that's really, automation is exciting, intelligent automation is, actually automation is okay, intelligent automation is tremendously exciting. And that to me is really where we start to see significant change and knowing that we're heading toward that as an ultimate goal, I think is a great way to go into this.
And again, baby steps, internal adoption, creating a culture of innovation, getting people on board, regardless of what the size of your organization is. I think those are all parts of the keys to success. Do you have anything Frank and, and Brad? Do you have any tips on someone going down this path? What they might think about or what they might do that you've learned along the way, Frank? Having a good documentation of your end process really helps, because then you can take a moment and analyze it and understand why do I have wastes.
And then also look at it with Clear and say, okay, what happens in a transaction through the value stream of within the module that you're using with the application. And that's where you can really see that, but as far as getting buy in from users, it takes time. And there's a lot of people who are very hesitant to change.
And so you have to show them that this is gonna be good for you, and once you give them a taste though and they see it, they want more and it's gonna be great. Yeah, it really is exciting. What about you, Brad? I would elaborate on what Frank just said and I'll talk a little bit about change agent.
So, my job in sales operations is to teach the organization what again, commercial excellence, what does good look like? Right. But the way I'm finding is the most effective way to do that is to lots of communication and involvement. In other words, from this pricing project that we did with Clear, we involved the people who were working on a day-to-day that were doing the thousands of Excel spreadsheets, or that we're doing the printing of all the paper and we involved them and showed them throughout the process of why will this help you? Why will this make your job easier? Oh, you'll now have more time to do this that you haven't had time before. So, it's constant communication and involving the folks in the right steps to make them feel part of the improvement process, that's kind of what works at Calumet. And I suspect would work at many other companies.
Yeah, and I think that's a key thing that people forget. We did a research study with the folks at Pega recently, and one of the things. So we look at digital transformation and do a lot of research on digital transformation.
And what Pega wanted to do that was a little bit different, was they wanted to get input from frontline workers, they wanted to get input from people. A lot of times when you do research and when you ask for thoughts and opinions, you go to senior leaders, right? Or you go to middle managers and so you're getting opinions, you're sometimes making decisions based on insights from senior leaders who may or may not be connected to the people who are actually doing the work. And what we found in that study, and I'll link it here in the show notes. What we found in that study was that something crazy like 75% of, it's not necessarily frontline, but user level people within an organization told us, I really wanna be involved in our business transformation processes.
I really feel like I can contribute to those processes in a meaningful way, but I'm not asked, I'm not included, and it's frustrating because I feel like I have something to bring to the table. And so I really enjoy doing that piece of research because I think all of us having this conversation know that that's very much the reality of a lot of situations. So I think the takeaway here, if you're listening and you're a senior leader, is part of the secret to success is involving the people who are actually doing the work in the transformational process and having conversations with them and letting them really be elbows deep in it.
Because that's if you don't have their buy-in, if you don't have their adoption, this isn't gonna work. Yeah, well, and to your point, Shelly, a lot of organizations right now are looking into process mining tools and that can be an expensive endeavor. And it's a lot simpler to just walk down the hallway and talk to someone and say, what do you think are the problems in this process? Or what are the problems you face on a day-to-day basis, that conversation doesn't cost you anything but process mining does. So, I think a lot of people within every organization have great ideas on what can be improved and how to do it. Yeah, absolutely. And that's, I was thinking about something I haven't thought about in a long time.
Years ago, I felt like, I mean, this is a decade ago. I felt like in some instances we had kind of too many eggs in a couple of different baskets as it related to work, as it related to processes that, as it related to everything else. And I brought somebody in to do a process evaluation and I really had identified kind of one individual in particular, who I loved and who was a key part of our organization and had been for years and was just doing an amazing job.
But I felt like perhaps that there were just too many things in her basket that sort of weren't, others within the didn't know about. And I operate again, I'm a strategist, so I'm always thinking about process and what's ahead and everything else. So I always try to avoid the, I always think about the, what if so-and-so gets hit by a bus, right? You can't have... It's safe to say, what if so-and-so wins the lottery, Shelly, not being hit by a bus.
You're absolutely right, what if so-and-so win the lottery? Because I certainly wouldn't stay. But anyway, so I was working, I brought somebody in, was somebody I highly recommended and told the whole team, here's what we're doing and nobody's doing anything wrong, we're just gonna have some conversations around and you're gonna talk to her and we're all gonna talk together and everything else. And I really love, I'm a student for my whole life of human behavior. And what happened as a result of this one individual, again, who I loved and who loved to working for me and who, I mean she was the kind of person that showed up every day saying, oh my God, I love my job so much, I love it, thank you so much for this. I mean like five years in this is the kind of enthusiasm she brought to her work.
But when she got done talking with the process manager, I think that what happened was that she knew in her heart that her processes were kind of messed up. And so instead of, it wasn't my goal ever to change anything or to get rid of anybody or anything else, it was just to kind of make our processes better. Two weeks after that interview she submitted her resignation, there was nothing I could do to get her to stay. And so it is, and my point there is it remains a huge failure for me that that happened and that I lost that really incredibly valuable person.
And she went on to do amazing things, so I'm not at all sad about that, change is scary and you really have to handle that with people in a very considered way. And I'm not sure I could have done anything, I mean, I was doing what you said, Jon. I was talking with her, I was involving people on our team and the process.
But my example here is just to show that sometimes change is so scary to people that you really have to go into all of these situations, really understanding that as a leader and being empathic about it, anyway. Well Jon, is there anything you wanna touch on as we wrap up here that we haven't talked about? No, I mean, I wanna thank Brad and Frank for joining us, so it was a good conversation and hopefully people will look at our impressive insights and feel enlightened. (laughing) Absolutely, absolutely. And so to our audience, thank you so much for hanging out with us today. It's always a pleasure to have that and have you and Brad and Frank, thank you very much for joining us and Jon for making it happen. And always managing to bring in really interesting people to our conversations, that's a good thing.
And so with that, we're gonna wrap for this conversation and I will put in the show notes, I will put a link to the Pega research. I'll put a link to some research we've done with Jon and his team at Clear, and I'll probably harass Brad and Frank, and let them also let me link to their LinkedIn bio, so that if you'd like to connect with them, you can do that as well. And with that, we are going to close for the day, so thanks everyone. Thank you.