Clearly, computers have become indispensable tools for petroleum geologists -- every office and cubicle at virtually any oil company is crammed full of the latest computer equipment.
But what about the growing ranks of independent geologists?
When geologists strike out on their own, whether by choice or by force, is the PC the kids play games on at home enough?
Or do they have to take a second mortgage on the house to duplicate that system used at their former company?
The answer, according to some who've been through it before: It all depends on what geologists want to do with their careers.
"The first task for anybody starting out is identify what aspect of the business they want to focus on -- with or without a computer," said Paul Britt, an independent geologist in Houston.
That's sound advice. Computer hardware and software -- especially the software -- is a big investment, and geologists starting their own business should have a definite idea of what direction they want go before investing in a computer.
"First, identify what you want to do," Britt continued, "and then from a marketing standpoint what is expected of you by the people you will be working for or presenting prospects to."
Deborah Sacrey, a Houston-based consultant agrees.
"What kind of system you need depends on what you want to do with your career," she said. "The needs of someone focusing on 3-D seismic interpretation versus a focus on geologic mapping are very different both in hardware and software and price.
"So, it's critical to determine up front what direction they want go."
It might come as a shock, but not everybody may need a computer immediately.
Houston independent Craig Moore said geologists just starting out on their own often do more consulting projects where they often have access to clients' computer systems -- and in that case, simply bill for their time.
"However, at some point consultants find their salary tops out at what they can charge per hour, and at that point it may be time to look at other options," Moore said. "That's certainly what happened to me."
Three years ago, he said, he began working with smaller independents that didn't have enough computer equipment on site to have a consultant come in and work.
"So I negotiated with several independent companies to do interpretation work on a 3-D workstation I was planning to purchase," he continued. "I was obviously concerned about making that kind of investment without having work already lined up."
What Price is Right?
Once an independent geologist has determined the focus of his business, there are still many considerations when looking at computer systems.
These include price, size and sophistication.
"There is obviously a wide variety of products available and every independent geologist has to find what works best for them," Moore said. "But one important thing to keep in mind is technical support -- scientists with a background at larger companies have had a computer department to handle all their computer woes.
"When you are contemplating a computer system as an independent you need to determine if you are willing to embrace the fact that you will be formatting your own disc drives and performing your own system maintenance. It's just you, you and you. So you have to decide if that is something you can do or is it just not written in the stars for you to work on computers."
If not, he said, "you will have to find a vendor that offers help in this arena -- or a very understanding friend in the business."
For geologists focusing on 3-D seismic interpretation Sacrey said she recommends building a clone system with three monitors, a dual 450-pentium chip, 512 megs of ram, 36 gigs of hard drive and an internal exobyte.
"Clones have the same internal parts as the canned systems you can buy, but you're not paying for the advertising," she said. "Plus, you can take advantage of a little known tax law that says if you build a unique machine for exploration purposes you don't have to pay state and local sales tax.
"On a $12,000 system that's almost $1,000 in savings, depending on where you live," she added. "I've probably built 20 clone workstations for people here in Houston."
Moore said another option is purchasing a used system.
"Companies are downsizing and merging and suddenly they find themselves with excess computer systems," he noted. "This can be an excellent opportunity for independents to acquire a system at a substantially reduced cost.
"But," he added, "I would caution that you must have some knowledge of what you are looking for before buying a used system -- or you should hire someone to advise you."
Tools of the Trade
From a hardware standpoint, independent geologists focusing on geologic mapping can set up a system very affordably.
"Somebody who is just starting out with a limited budget and just wants to generate prospects or provide geologic consulting services can get a multimedia computer in the $1,000 range that will do all they will need," Britt said.
While the system the kids play games on at home can run many of the geologic packages available, Moore said a geologic professional should have a reasonably powerful computer.
"A computer that does not have enough resources runs very slowly and that becomes very frustrating," he said. "You will find yourself abandoning that system in a short period of time, which is not cost effective. So you need to think about that when you are buying a computer."
For geologic applications Sacrey said an IDE drive, which goes up to 10 gigs, is more than ample -- and they are extremely affordable. A four gig IDE runs about $300 and will handle almost all geologic mapping.
Of course, the world of 3-D seismic workstations is a different story.
"In the seismic industry it's recommended to go to a SCSI type drive because they are faster and they work with your memory and mother board a lot better than an IDE," she said.
The standard SCSI has a 10,000-rpm hard drive that comes in nine, 18 and 23 gig sizes.
"I have 40 gigs of hard drive on my system and it's full, which isn't uncommon when you have two gig seismic files," she said. "And by the time you build time slices, etc, you get projects on the order of 11 to 12 gigabytes."
Sacrey emphasized using the largest, highest quality monitor possible.
"I had 17-inch monitors on my first system because I saved so much money over the 21-inch monitors that I could buy my Exabyte drive," she said. "I was poor-boying it. But, after a year of using those monitors I was about to go blind, so when I could afford to upgrade I put in the 21-inch monitors -- and it made a tremendous difference."
They are more expensive, however, at about $1,000 wholesale.
Sacrey and Britt agreed that a large digitizing board is expensive and unnecessary.
"Large digitizing boards are cumbersome and expensive," she said, "and there are several products out that make these big boards obsolete."
She cited a product that allows you to use a fax machine to digitally record logs and then basically fax them to yourself.
"For geologists, a hand-held, portable digitizing tool that you can use anywhere is an important item to have," she said. "These hand-held tools can input directly into a laptop computer and make collecting data very simple."
Moore agreed that a hand-held scanner is a necessity for geologists working in all different arenas.
"These hand-held scanners are a complete system for capturing paper seismic sections, paper maps and paper logs," he said. "With this tool and a laptop computer you can go anywhere and collect data."
A scanner is also a necessary tool for independent geologists, Britt said, and everybody has to determine which type is best suited for their needs.
"I started out in 1992 using a fax machine and a fax modem as a makeshift scanner because at that time scanners were still fairly expensive," he said. "Today I have three different types of scanners -- one that will do long strips, a flatbed color scanner and a hand scanner. Each is excellent for different applications."
A good printer is extremely important for any independent geologist, regardless of their focus.
"The world of printing has progressed so far that today you can get a small ink jet, high quality color printer that will do 11x17 (inch) size documents for about $400. The larger format is a necessity for geologic work," Sacrey said. "If you are doing large scale seismic work and clients want real size maps then you get into bigger plotters. These will go up to 36 inches, and with stand and roll kits they go for about $3,500."
Of course, hardware is the easy and inexpensive part of a computer system. The real expense is in the software, so it behooves independent geologists to choose wisely.
"Again, I counsel people on software issues to have a definite idea of what they want to accomplish with their computer system," Sacrey said. "Most of the PC software packages geared to geology have export and import routines that make them pretty compatible with one another.
"You definitely want to look for that export and import capability and fluidity as well as ease of use -- what's your learning curve."
"With any software package there is a block of time that it takes you to become familiar with the software," he said, "so it is important to consider the ease of use and the ramp-up time it will take to get familiar with the program."
Typically it's best to consider purchasing the industry standard software packages, Sacrey said, because if you have the same programs as your clients and other professionals it makes life much easier.
"The ability to communicate with your client base is very important," she noted, "but the bottom line is everyone must evaluate their needs and their budget when they look at buying software."
However, Moore said, the cost of software shouldn't necessarily frighten off an independent.
"Software is the most expensive item out there, but there are many ways to reduce the impact of that expense," he said. "For example, you can work out some type of leasing arrangement with vendors, or you can volunteer to work with vendors in some type of marketing capacity to actually use their software.
"Software vendors will work with you," he continued, "so don't be put off immediately by the price.
"At the same time we all have to realize geologic software is a specialized product, and you're not going to pay the same price as you will for Microsoft Word. It's important to recognize vendors have to survive and we need them to stay in business."
So what software does an independent geologist need?
Every independent geologist needs good accounting, word processing, drawing, database and spread sheet programs to handle the business side of their work.
"You have to think about other aspects of your consulting business besides the science," Sacrey said. "Sometimes that's the most difficult thing for scientists starting their own firm."
"For geological applications there is a host of programs in the full range of prices from $500 to $8,000 and there's more or less a correlation between price and functionality," Britt said. A good mapping package that allows you to input digital information and has a lot of CAD built into it is a fundamental tool for geologists."
For geologists focusing on 3-D seismic work, 3-D interpretation packages range from about $10,000 to $100,000, but Sacrey said the software programs in the $10,000 range are "generally adequate."
"A basic interpretation package that will accomplish virtually anything you want to do short of high-end geophysics runs about $10,000," she said.
"(That cost) for software sounds like a lot of money," she said, "but compared to setting up a Unix workstation for $150,000, an independent geologist can buy a high-end PC workstation, the basic interpretation package, and have money left over to buy a plotter for less than $30,000."
In fact, oil companies are starting to go to PC-based or NT-based systems primarily because of the cost and functionality.
"When there are products that can do 90 percent of what gigantic workstations can do for about one-fourth of the cost on a platform that is accepted throughout the business world, that has to get everyone's attention," she said. "You can't ignore the economics."
Britt agreed that while the costs of geologic computer systems and software can seem daunting at first, geologists looking at starting their own business are actually in a unique position.
"Frankly, the tools are becoming so affordable that for a relatively small business investment, compared to almost any other start-up business, an independent geologist has as much access to as many computing tools ... as people at large companies," Britt said, "with the added bonus of more control."
"A lot of people with large companies are stunned," Sacrey said, "when they walk into a small shop like mine and see what we are doing.