The Big Picture: Twists and Turns

July 21, 2011
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Thirty years ago, Tony Hall never envisioned where his career would eventually take him. An artist, carpenter, mechanic and self-described “jack of all trades,” Hall pursued an undergraduate degree in agricultural sciences and then went on to receive a master’s degree in marine biology before founding Welaptega Marine Ltd. in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1991.

His aim for the company was to quantify the organisms that grow on offshore oil and gas platforms in an effort to help the industry engineer better platforms. But although his focus was narrow, his approach to problem solving took a wide-angle view. Drawing from his mixed background, Hall studied an array of industries to glean new ideas for the firm. “From the very beginning, we have tried to find gaps in the market and then fill those gaps,” Hall says. “We ask questions such as, What doesn’t the industry understand about moorings? What is it about damaged pipelines that no one can seem to get a handle on? Then we think, What technologies can get us that information? And that’s where we start looking for headlines in other industries.”

This path has led Welaptega Marine on a spectacular adventure through innovation--a journey with substantial risks but also sizeable rewards.

The first twist in the firm’s journey came when Hall began working with two major oil companies soon after Welaptega Marine was founded. Although the oil companies appreciated Hall’s ability to quantify organisms on their offshore platforms, there was something else they needed even more--the ability to measure chain. “I’d never thought about measuring chain in my life until they brought it and plunked it on me,” Hall says. “And I was just audacious enough to suggest that they both fund the development of the technology and allow me to file the patent.” Both companies agreed, and Hall developed an optical caliper system (known simply as Welaptega Marine’s Chain Measurement System, or CMS) that provides rapid data acquisition for inspecting moorings on semi-submersible rigs.

When fiber rope became popular throughout the industry, it was commonly assessed with remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) equipped with 2D cameras. However, these cameras weren’t supplying enough information about the operational condition of the rope. Hall and his team of engineers began speaking to manufacturers and operators, asking what they wanted in a tool. When they couldn’t find a commercial system that would allow then to meet these needs, they decided to design their own. The resulting tool, called the Rope Measurement System (RMS), uses high-resolution video cameras to identify potential damage to the interior and exterior of wire and fiber ropes and is now a core part of Welaptega’s business.

Welaptega captures underwater images to generate 3D models of a wellhead for damage assessment and other applications.

Since then, the firm has implemented or developed a number of other underwater technologies to measure and inspect moorings on floating production systems and solve other offshore problems. “It’s always about, ‘If I can’t do that, can I make a tool to do it? If I can’t make a tool do it, I wonder where I can get a tool to do that? How am I going to get that out of there? I’m trying to grind this thing down and get this out of that. What industry might use these?’ That’s always been the way I’ve worked,” Hall says.

Each twist and turn has fueled the company’s passion for its overarching mission: Find better ways to collect better-quality information.

A focus on innovation often involves taking risks with new technologies. Although the team at Welaptega actively seeks out opportunities to be on the “bleeding edge,” their enthusiasm is tempered by sound business principles. “We need to be able to show that our technology will end up giving information that has a traceable positive economic impact on whatever the business operations are, whatever the particular client is, what they’re doing and what they’re trying to achieve,” Hall explains.

Challenging assumptions and studying a range of industries often allows the firm to develop a solid business case for a new technology where other companies have failed. For example, when the team began exploring the use of 3D video as an underwater analysis tool, they discovered that most of the early adopters of 3D technology didn’t like it. Looking closer, the team learned that the technology wasn’t being used effectively. Hall believed the tool would be hugely beneficial for Welaptega’s purposes. “We live in a three-dimensional world, so 3D was just a natural place to go because we were trying to interpret something that was 3D from 2D cameras,” Hall said. “We were looking for sources of better-quality spatial information.”

By studying the application of 3D technology in industries such as mining, dentistry and even sports, the team at Welaptega gleaned ideas for how they could use 3D in their own operations. The firm also developed a close association with a university in Perth, Australia, that specializes in 3D capabilities. It wasn’t long before the company had developed its own proprietary 3D video system, composed of a number of different commercially available video systems. “We’re the world leaders in the game now for underwater 3D video because we know the game and we’ve watched things evolve,” Hall says.

Welaptega’s 3D video camera uses polarizing technology similar to that used by 3D IMAX to create real-time 3D images for underwater equipment assessment.

The firm has also applied its 3D expertise to modeling subsea components on offshore platforms and infrastructures using photogrammetric modeling techniques in conjunction with state-of-the-art software from Adam Technology. By taking a series of overlapping photographs--sometimes as many as 500 images--and assigning a discreet coordinate to groups of pixels, the team can compare those pixels to similar groups of pixels across the overlapped areas. From that comparison, the team is able to build polygon-based wireframes. The resulting surface elevation maps (SEMs) are geometrically accurate--to submillimeter levels in ideal cases--and make it possible to take direct measurements, calculate areas and volumes, and view damaged components.

Although 3D capabilities are quickly becoming standard for measurement applications, the high-end 3D software used by Welaptega was a speculative buy when the firm first invested in it. “We didn’t know how to use it, but it just seemed to be so good that we just took a risk with it,” Hall says, noting that the firm also invested in the training and technology to apply it correctly. “Now it’s a mainstay of our business.”

Of course, technology never stands still. For any company that seeks to remain on the leading edge, the key, says Hall, is to never stop evolving. “How you control that evolution determines how you carve out your niche. I think that’s what we’re really good at,” he says.

Welaptega has conquered the innovation game by learning to apply new developments to existing technologies in order to get the most out of them. Few technologies used by the firm are truly “off-the-shelf.” Welaptega works closely with equipment manufacturers, software developers and its own engineers to fine-tune existing technologies and create new solutions.

The approach is far from easy. But as in any successful, forward-thinking business, the mindset of the people involved makes a big difference. As a general rule, Hall doesn’t employ individuals looking for a stable, comfortable position. Most of the people at Welaptega have an edgy, creative personality that drives them to think outside the box. Hall likens the atmosphere to an ad agency and says he encourages everyone at the firm to take an active role in bringing new ideas to the table. He notes that all of the employees have a stake in the ownership of the company, which motivates them to always be looking for crucial information, technologies and innovations. “Everybody here is enthusiastic,” he says. “We try to keep the information flowing all the time and have a very flat management structure. It’s amazing what comes back.”

Because of this enthusiasm, the firm doesn’t encounter many hurdles it can’t overcome. “We don’t see any technology as being something that’s too much for us,” Hall says. “We always have a ‘can-do’ attitude. If we see value in it, we want to learn how to use it, get the most out of it and track how it’s going to evolve over time.”

3D photogrammetric modeling of chain links accurately characterizes the material loss geometry.

Equally important to Hall is the transfer of knowledge from individuals who understand how to use a specific tool and have seen the technology evolve to individuals with no experience. Training and building a knowledge base are a vital part of the firm’s operations. Hall takes pride in being able to have someone new join the company and, within a couple of days, be able to build complex 3D models. “You need to have effective ways of bringing people up to speed with this rapidly evolving technology, and I think that’s a big part of our strength--not being afraid to take those things on,” Hall says.

A boldness to pursue the path less traveled is rare in the precision measurement field, particularly in the oil and gas industry, where old-school attitudes still prevail. “I think it’s because a lot of companies have got feelings of ‘If you screw up, you wear it,’ and so people are a little bit disinclined to stick their necks out unless they’re really, really sure,” Hall says.

However, with the easy availability of information, the next generation of men and women holds a promise of change. “They want responsibility, they want to bring their energy and their innovation and have it recognized, have it integrated, and see some outcome from it,” Hall says. “With the amount of knowledge they’re acquiring, no technology is out of reach, no innovation is too complicated.”

Welaptega is not a surveying firm--at least, not in the traditional sense. What the company does focus on is data management and the ability to give clients measurements of unprecedented accuracy underwater. Both within that space and on dry land, Hall is convinced that 3D is here to stay. The next evolution, he believes, will be the combination of 3D imaging with robotics to make virtual reality a commercial reality. But even as he watches those developments take place, Hall is already looking for the next bend in the road.

“We never take our eyes off the technology development and innovation cycle,” Hall says. “We’re always looking for the next solution to address the next problem, to make it a little bit better.”

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