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An oil and gas robot company is proving to be 'recession-proof'. Here's what they did – Houston Chronicle

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Cameron Furr works on building a sand screen winder at ARC Specialties, an automated manufacturing systems facility, Friday, May 20, 2022 in Houston. ARC Specialties builds robots for a variety of manufacturing needs, including robots for offshore oil and gas drilling.
Dan Allford, president, ARC Specialties, an automated manufacturing systems facility, takes a look at a robot in his shop Friday, May 20, 2022 in Houston. ARC Specialties builds robots for a variety of manufacturing needs, including robots for offshore oil and gas drilling.
Mikhail Krylov, CNC programmer, machines a part in the machine shop at ARC Specialties, an automated manufacturing systems facility, Friday, May 20, 2022 in Houston. ARC Specialties builds robots for a variety of manufacturing needs, including robots for offshore oil and gas drilling.
Keith Luce, programmer, works with a mobile robot used on submarines at ARC Specialties, an automated manufacturing systems facility, Friday, May 20, 2022 in Houston. ARC Specialties builds robots for a variety of manufacturing needs, including robots for offshore oil and gas drilling.
Joe Lopez, left, and Cameron Furr work on building a sand screen winder at ARC Specialties, an automated manufacturing systems facility, Friday, May 20, 2022 in Houston. ARC Specialties builds robots for a variety of manufacturing needs, including robots for offshore oil and gas drilling.
Jim Walker, robot programmer, runs a test on a riser robot on a PUP joint at ARC Specialties, an automated manufacturing systems facility, Friday, May 20, 2022 in Houston. ARC Specialties builds robots for a variety of manufacturing needs, including robots for offshore oil and gas drilling.
J.T. Tovar cleans off a milling surface in the machine shop at ARC Specialties, an automated manufacturing systems facility, Friday, May 20, 2022 in Houston. ARC Specialties builds robots for a variety of manufacturing needs, including robots for offshore oil and gas drilling.
Jim Walker, robot programmer, runs a test on a riser robot on a PUP joint at ARC Specialties, an automated manufacturing systems facility, Friday, May 20, 2022 in Houston. ARC Specialties builds robots for a variety of manufacturing needs, including robots for offshore oil and gas drilling.
Robert Kellermann works on putting together a “robo roughneck” robot at ARC Specialties, an automated manufacturing systems facility, Friday, May 20, 2022 in Houston. ARC Specialties builds robots for a variety of manufacturing needs, including robots for offshore oil and gas drilling.
J.T. Tovar sets up a milling program in the machine shop at ARC Specialties, an automated manufacturing systems facility, Friday, May 20, 2022 in Houston. ARC Specialties builds robots for a variety of manufacturing needs, including robots for offshore oil and gas drilling.
A knee replacement robot is shown at ARC Specialties, an automated manufacturing systems facility, Friday, May 20, 2022 in Houston. ARC Specialties builds robots for a variety of manufacturing needs, including robots for offshore oil and gas drilling.
Afredo Reyna wires a multi tool for an offshore unit at ARC Specialties, an automated manufacturing systems facility, Friday, May 20, 2022 in Houston. ARC Specialties builds robots for a variety of manufacturing needs, including robots for offshore oil and gas drilling.
Juan Valencia welds at ARC Specialties, an automated manufacturing systems facility, Friday, May 20, 2022 in Houston. ARC Specialties builds robots for a variety of manufacturing needs, including robots for offshore oil and gas drilling.
Dan Allford, president, ARC Specialties, an automated manufacturing systems facility, checks on a test run using a riser robot on a PUP joint Friday, May 20, 2022 in Houston. ARC Specialties builds robots for a variety of manufacturing needs, including robots for offshore oil and gas drilling.
Juan Valencia welds at ARC Specialties, an automated manufacturing systems facility, Friday, May 20, 2022 in Houston. ARC Specialties builds robots for a variety of manufacturing needs, including robots for offshore oil and gas drilling.
Robotics might not come to mind when thinking of “recession-proof” industries, but Dan Allford is delighted that his industrial robot manufacturing company ARC Specialities had what it took to weather the pandemic downturn in 2020.
“My biggest fear has always been a global recession,” Allford said, “because if all the business cycles go down at once, we’ve got a problem.”
And when COVID first hit, things weren’t looking so good. His company’s bread and butter, Allford said, is building robots for the oil and gas industry, which slashed budgets, lost billions of dollars and basically halted activity in 2020.
Fast forward to 2022, after ARC worked with other industries, things look better for oil and gas. Investment in both onshore and offshore drilling is expected to soar 20 percent to more than $340 billion globally this year, according to Rystad Energy. High oil prices are fueling that investment, and experts say oil is likely to trade at or above $100 through the end of the year. Rystad also predicts that public exploration and production companies will rake in record profits of more than $800 billion this year.
Meanwhile, the robotics industry also is expected to grow. In 2020 the industry was worth around $45 billion, according to London analytics and consulting firm GlobalData, and is set to experience a compound annual growth rate of 28 percent through 2030.
Enter Offshore Robotics in 2021, a separate company operating alongside ARC Specialties. Allford, one of three equal owners, said it was created to apply industrial robotics specifically to the offshore oil and gas industry, and ARC builds the robots for Offshore Robotics based on needed specifications.
“They say robots are good at the dull, the dirty and the dangerous,” said John Martin, president of Offshore Robotics and vice president of operations at ARC Specialties.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Could robots replace roughnecks? World’s first autonomous rig drills first well in Permian Basin.
In the oil and gas industry the dull, dirty and dangerous can range from inspections of hazardous or hard to access locations to complex tasks like drilling, according to GlobalData. The firm says energy companies from all over the world are adopting robotics, such as Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Aramco, Norway’s Equinor, France’s Total Energies, Houston’s Exxon Mobil and Baker Hughes, and the big three players in the Gulf of Mexico: Shell, BP and Chevron.
On the manufacturing floor of Offshore Robotics, Martin said, the company is getting ready to send its second robotic riser system to the Gulf of Mexico. Standing in front of two school bus yellow robot arms attached about a car’s length away from each other on an ocean blue hexagon-shaped platform, Martin said the first system they built — which was deployed about three months ago — was also the first time industrial robots have been used offshore in this capacity.
“The riser is what connects the drill’s drilling platform to the wellhead at the bottom of the ocean,” Martin explains as two workers move around the riser system, punching in commands on tablets that program the robots. “And so all those risers are connected by a series of bolts. This particular style of riser has six bolts.”
Each bolt weighs about 55 pounds, Martin said, and it normally takes four people to get them on.
“Two guys have to run the torque wrench,” he said. “And not to mention they’re underneath a piece of riser that might be 70 feet tall, suspended.”
Martin explains that the riser will be assembled high above the ocean on the drill ship before being lowered into the water. Putting the riser together is dangerous work in what Martin calls the “red zone” of the drill ship, a place you’d ideally like to keep people out of, he said.
Safety is a big draw for companies interested in adding robotics to their workflow, especially for offshore drilling. It was just a dozen years ago that high-pressured gas in a BP-operated Gulf of Mexico well expanded into the marine riser and onto the Deepwater Horizon drill rig, where it exploded, killing 11 workers and forcing about 4 million barrels worth of oil into the Gulf.
Allford said getting people out of harm’s way is the top thing driving demand for his products in the oil and gas industry.
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“We’re getting the robots to do the stuff that’s dangerous,” he said. “If we hurt a robot, nobody cares.”
For the ‘bots working on offshore risers, Allford said they’re “particularly challenging” because ARC Specialities needed to use nearly every sensor system it’s developed to solve oil field problems and put them together so that Offshore Robotics could build a system ready for places like the Gulf of Mexico.
But challenges are nothing new to Allford. Since he started the company in his Houston garage in 1983, he’s become accustomed to taking technology designed for one thing and redirecting it to another.
“It’s called analogous thinking,” Allford said with a hint of a smile. “Makes us look smart, but really we’re just taking old solutions and reapplying them to new problems.”
When Allford first started building robots, inspired by his business-owner dad, he just picked it up as a side gig. His first job was for a plutonium plant in Idaho.
“They didn’t know I was a kid in his garage building it,” he jokes. “But it worked so well that in the ’90s they called us back to do it again. So that’s how it started.”
VIDEO: Four-legged, data-gathering robot being tested on offshore oil rig
Since then Allford has had the opportunity to solve a lot of problems in his nearly four decades building robots, growing his company mostly by offering cutting-edge technology to the oil and gas industry, pivoting to other industries during the bust cycles, and now being part owner in the first company to deploy a robotic riser running system on an offshore drilling ship.
Over the years he’s collected experts in robotics, programming and engineering to craft highly technical and precise machines ready to answer some of the most pressing problems of safety and efficiency in industries like oil and gas.
“I can tell you it’s much easier to have a team of 60 engineers and craftsmen,” Allford said, “than it is to do it on your own, out of your own garage.”
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Kyra Buckley is an energy reporter for the Houston Chronicle, specifically covering the region’s oil and gas companies.
Prior to coming to the Chronicle, Kyra covered energy at Houston Public Media for two years. She graduated from the University of Oregon.

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