18 Mar, 2013

Engineering, Art and the Value of Learning

After devoting 39 years to drilling operations and research for Exxon – and then another 20 years consulting and teaching drilling for OGCI/PetroSkills – you’d think I’d be ready for something else.  But to me, drilling seems as fascinating today as was the day I visited my first drilling rig to collect some drilling fluid samples for my research on filter cake resistivity.  

The rig was drilling an in-fill well, and I expected no trouble.  Just before I arrived, they hit a small gas sand and it blew drilling fluid all over the area and surrounding trees.  Pecan trees nearby were dripping with drilling fluid.  Fortunately, the small gas sand depleted itself and the rig survived – but there was no drilling fluid for me to sample.  This was in 1954 when we still were confused about how to handle a kick.  Technology has come a long way since then.  

New technology is improving drilling operations continuously, and this makes the subject enchanting.  The “state of the art” is constantly changing.  In drilling there’s real truth in the old saying, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you as badly as what you ‘know’ that ain’t so.”  

Engineering and art

All PetroSkills instructors are focused on keeping up with technology and keeping our courses up to date. That’s true for drilling operations, too. But I am constantly reminded that drilling operations are only about 75% science, technology and engineering. The rest is pure art, and decisions are frequently based on experience.  That’s what makes this subject so intriguing. The intuition you develop with hands-on experience is critically important. And that’s why no one should try to teach this subject without having actually applied the subject material on real wells!

The emphasis on hands-on, practical knowledge, delivered in courses that are constantly evolving as the industry evolves, is what we’re all about. Our goal is to convey knowledge, build understanding and develop skills that will be applicable immediately after returning to work.  

The Value of Learning – Measured on the Job

Companies that send participants to our classes are investing in their employees.  It’s a significant investment, and, as an instructor, my job is to see that they learn enough practical knowledge to justify this expenditure.  

In the basic class, participants learn the language of drilling and how to speak it fluently.  They gain insight into the technology required to drill wells.  

In advanced classes, they can apply what they’ve learned about new technology as soon as they return to their job.  They return to work with useful procedures and techniques that have been tested in the field and proven on a variety of drilling rigs.  These procedures and techniques will enable them to lower drilling costs safely.

Drilling is a fascinating collage of technology developed 40 to 50 years ago blended with technology developed 40 to 50 months ago. Drilling technology is developing at a very rapid pace.  Instructors must work hard to keep current with all of the technology by attending meetings, conferences, forums, reading technical journals, and networking with drilling experts from many different companies.  My pay-off comes from the exhilaration obtained when a student’s eyes light up with understanding of a complex subject. When students call with questions (many years after taking the class), the ‘good feeling’ continues. Through their questions and current problems, instructors also have a glimpse of current worldwide problems. Perhaps the strangest aspect of teaching drilling for PetroSkills is the fact that the night before one of these classes starts, I have trouble sleeping – even after teaching this subject for more than forty years.


LEON ROBINSON had a 39 year career at Exxon and made contributions in many technology areas such as: mud cleaners, explosive drilling, drilling data telemetry, subsurface rock mechanics, and drilling and hydraulic optimization techniques, tertiary oil recovery, on-site drilling workshops, world-wide drilling fluid seminars and rig site consultation. Throughout his last 25 years with Exxon, he delivered annual lectures at in-house Drilling Engineering Schools on various topics.

Since retiring from Exxon Production Research in 1992, Dr. Robinson has remained active working with the SPE, API, AADE, IADC, and consulting on drilling activities. He has received 34 US patents, 23 International patents, the 1981 IADC Special Recognition Award, the 1986 SPE Drilling Engineering Award, several Exxon lecturer awards, the 1999 AADE Meritorious Service Award, the 2004 SPE Legion of Honor Award, the 2006 API Service Award, in 2006 was inducted into the AADE Hall of Fame, in Sept. 2008, one of the first five recognized by SPE as a “Drilling Legend”.

Currently, he is a consultant, Chairman of the IADC Technical Publications Committee writing the encyclopedia of drilling, Chairman of an API task group involved with API RP 13C, member of API task groups addressing issues with drilling fluids and hydraulics, and on the AADE Conference planning committee. He was discharged from the U.S. Army in 1946, received a B.S. and a M.S. in Physics from Clemson University, and a Ph.D. in Engineering Physics from N.C. State University.