January 2020

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Fluid Flow: Energy markets, product improvements drive growth in the global flowmeter market

The size of the global flowmeter market has followed the upward and downward fluctuations in oil prices and is now on an upward trajectory, according to a new study by Flow Research that provides total global market shares of the major suppliers of each flowmeter technology (except sonar and optical) by 2018 revenues.

Yoder, J., Flow Research Inc.

The size of the global flowmeter market has followed the upward and downward fluctuations in oil prices and is now on an upward trajectory, according to a new study by Flow Research1 that provides total global market shares of the major suppliers of each flowmeter technology (except sonar and optical) by 2018 revenues.

According to the study, the global flowmeter market totaled $7.06 B in 2018 and is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.6% to approach $8.85 B by 2023 (FIG. 1). Coriolis and ultrasonic flowmeters, which are industry-approved for custody transfer of both gas and liquids, are projected to experience the fastest growth rates over the next 4 yr. Custody transfer of natural gas is a fast-growing market, particularly with the increased availability globally of natural gas as an energy source.

FIG. 1. Total global shipments of flowmeters, $MM. CAGR = 4.6%.
FIG. 1. Total global shipments of flowmeters, $MM. CAGR = 4.6%.

Oil prices and product improvements forge a strong market

Oil prices are an index for the important oil and gas industry component of the flowmeter market as a whole. A downturn in oil prices 5 yr ago meant that many oil and gas exploration projects were postponed or cancelled, and associated instrumentation industries experienced a ripple effect. In 2015, for the first time in many years, new-technology flowmeter markets showed a decline. The only new-technology exception was a small revenue increase for magnetic flowmeters, which cannot measure the flow of hydrocarbons and, therefore, are not widely used in the oil and gas industry. The downturn especially impacted Coriolis and ultrasonic flowmeters, as well as three traditional technology flowmeters: differential pressure (DP), positive displacement (PD) and turbine.

Fortunately, in February 2016, oil prices began recovering and now stand at a more sustainable level to support new exploration and production, as well as many other processes further downstream. Consequently, the global flowmeter market is back on a healthy upward track.

In addition to growth factors related to the oil and gas industry, product improvements in both new and traditional technology flowmeters are contributing to the upward trend in the global market. These include modern materials for meter parts or liners, additional line sizes, increased accuracy and broader flow ranges. Suppliers are also making battery-powered units, smaller meter bodies for tight spaces, multivariable meters, and self-monitoring or self-recalibrating meters.

Regulatory reporting requirements and the need for continuous measurement without interruption are increasing the value of redundancy in measurement. Redundancy is rapidly taking its place alongside accuracy and reliability as key features to look for when selecting a flowmeter. In response, vortex and turbine suppliers have brought out flowmeters with two sensors, and dual flowmeters calibrated together. New differential pressure flowmeters offer fully integrated orifice plates with multiple transmitters. Dual-rotor designs in turbine flowmeters offer greater turndown flow range with enhanced accuracy.

It is an exciting time for the global flowmeter market. Oil prices have stabilized, and projects requiring new flowmeters are in full swing. Additionally, suppliers are introducing new product features that are revitalizing the market. A burst of merger and acquisition activity is almost certain to continue as companies position themselves to compete more effectively in an expanding market.

Switching to new-technology flowmeters

The need for increased accuracy, reliability and managed network capabilities are causing some users to make the switch to new-technology flowmeters. These flowmeters, first introduced after 1950, include Coriolis, magnetic, ultrasonic, vortex and thermal flowmeters. Traditional technologies include differential pressure (DP), positive displacement (PD), turbine, open channel and variable area (VA) flowmeters.

As some new-technology flowmeters become more familiar, garner industry approvals, decrease in price and expand the range of available line sizes, they are gaining converts. Their advantages include accuracy, repeatability, reliability, lack of moving parts subject to wear and low-to-no pressure drop. New features, options and applications are increasing their ease of use and integration into processes. Some new-technology flowmeters are benefitting from newer and expanding applications, such as hydrofracking and environmental monitoring.

While new-technology flowmeters are displacing traditional technology meters in some applications, it is clear that traditional meters are still a major force in the flowmeter market. Traditional technology flowmeters, especially DP flow, PD and turbine meters, have the advantage of a large installed base that is reluctant to switch without cause. These flowmeters were among the first types to receive approvals from industry associations for custody transfer applications. In many applications, traditional flowmeters remain the lower-cost workhorses of the flow measurement world.

Coriolis flowmeters

FIG. 2. A Coriolis flowmeter mounted in a European flow calibration facility. Source: Flow Research Inc.
FIG. 2. A Coriolis flowmeter mounted in a European flow calibration facility. Source: Flow Research Inc.

The most accurate and expensive flowmeters on the market are also one of the fastest growing. Coriolis flowmeters (FIG. 2) are highly reliable, require little maintenance, and can measure both liquids and gases, although they have an easier time measuring liquids because liquids are denser than gas. They are suitable for liquefied natural gas (LNG) and other cryogenic fluids that require highly accurate readings.

Despite Coriolis meters’ higher initial purchase price, users typically feel they are a good investment when considering the total cost of ownership. In an attempt to bridge the price gap, however, suppliers have introduced lower-cost models. They also have made a number of improvements in Coriolis technology.

Coriolis flowmeters traditionally have been unwieldy and expensive in line sizes more than 4 in. In the past several years, however, a number of suppliers have begun producing Coriolis flowmeters in line sizes up to 16 in. Coriolis meters are now much better able to measure gases, and most suppliers today offer meters that can measure gas flow. In addition, straight-tube meters have become more accurate and reliable, addressing the tendency of bent-tube meters to impede the progress of fluids, introduce pressure drop and experience difficulty measuring high-speed fluids. Other improvements include the use of stronger and lighter construction materials, such as titanium, that make the meters stronger and longer lasting.

One of the most important features of Coriolis flowmeters is their inherent capability to make multivariable measurements (mass flow, density and temperature). Mass flow has always been a critical measurement and continues to find new uses in process control applications.

Ultrasonic flowmeters

These flowmeters are also highly accurate, non-intrusive, highly reliable over time and have no moving parts. Size is a distinct advantage for ultrasonic flowmeters, since larger pipes have more room for the ultrasonic signal to cross. The rapidly expanding market for ultrasonic flowmeters includes measuring natural gas, process gases and flare gas flows.

One important technological improvement has been the development of multipath transit-time flowmeters, which are used for custody transfer of natural gas flow. Transit-time meters contain a pair of sending and receiving transducers that measure the time it takes an ultrasonic pulse to travel back and forth across a pipe. Multipath transit-time meters measure the ultrasonic signal, or “path,” at more than one location in the flowstream, leading to greater accuracy.

Transit-time meters are now capable of measuring many of the fluids that formerly only Doppler meters could measure and have cut significantly into the Doppler market share. It is now useful to segment the ultrasonic market into inline (spoolpiece), clamp-on and insertion (rather than transit time, Doppler and hybrid).

Magnetic flowmeters

Since they cannot measure hydrocarbons, magnetic flowmeters have very limited use in the oil and gas and refining industries. Magnetic flowmeters can only be used to measure liquid flows; they cannot measure the flow of gas or steam. However, they are the meter of choice for many liquid applications and are most widely used in the water and wastewater industry. Other popular industries for magmeters, as they are often called, include food and beverage, chemical, and pulp and paper. Magmeters can easily handle slurries and other wastewater and dirty water applications, as many have liners that tolerate these types of liquids. Magmeters are also used for filling machines that dispense soda and other consumer-oriented beverages.

Vortex flowmeters

These versatile flowmeters can measure liquid, gas and steam flows with relative ease and have certain technical advantages. However, since they first came on the scene in 1969, the market has grown somewhat slowly. Vortex meters are especially suited for steam flows because they can handle the high pressures and temperatures that typically accompany steam flow measurement. However, they are more intrusive than ultrasonic and magnetic flowmeters, since they rely on the presence of a bluff body in the flowstream to generate vortices. Even so, they are significantly less intrusive than DP or turbine meters, and also cause less pressure drop.

Thermal flowmeters

Used almost exclusively for gas, although some also measure liquid flow, thermal flowmeters have a relatively low purchase price and can measure the flow of some low-pressure gases that are not dense enough for Coriolis meters to measure. The main disadvantage of thermal flowmeters is low-to-medium accuracy.

Rather than using fluid momentum, thermal flowmeters use the thermal or heat-conducting properties of fluids to determine mass flow. They typically require one or more temperature sensors to measure the fluid temperature at specific points. Some thermal flowmeter technologies measure the speed with which heat added to the flowstream disperses; others measure the temperature difference between a heated sensor and the ambient flowstream.

Thermal flowmeters are uniquely capable of supporting many gas flow applications, especially in process gas, but they have a limited application for liquids and are not a good fit for steam flow measurement. Thermal flowmeters do not have the necessary industry approvals for use with custody transfer of natural gas in pipelines.

DP transmitters

These flowmeters have measured flow for more than a century and are among the most widely used flowmeters in the industry. The rise of crude oil prices and the subsequent increase in oil and gas exploration and production activity increased DP flowmeter sales significantly. The DP flowmeter market appears to be holding its own, and possibly gaining ground, when other traditional technology flowmeters are losing market share. Other factors in that growth include user loyalty from the largest installed base of any type of flowmeter; technological improvements by pressure transmitter suppliers; lower costs, including installation, due to the development of multivariable DP transmitters and flowmeters; and versatility—the ability to measure liquid, gas and steam flows.

DP transmitters rely on a constriction called a primary element in the flowstream to create a pressure drop in the line. They measure the difference between downstream and upstream pressure to compute flow, using Bernoulli’s theorem. A disadvantage of this technology is that it creates pressure drop and requires inserting an obstruction into the flow.

Primary elements

This market has benefitted from rising DP flowmeter sales, since suppliers combine primary elements with DP transmitters to create DP flowmeters. Environmental standards and regulations for monitoring flare gas and stack gas emissions are also fueling the growth of the primary elements market. In response to continuous emissions monitoring (CEM) requirements, primary elements companies developed averaging Pitot tubes that use measurements at multiple locations to compute flow for the entire pipe, duct or stack.

Orifice plates are the most common of the many types of primary elements; other types include Venturi tubes, flow nozzles, Pitot tubes, wedge elements and laminar flow elements. Of these, Venturi tubes, flow nozzles and Pitot tubes are the most common. Venturi tubes are inline devices with a narrowed throat that introduces a constriction to the flow and, therefore, a reduction in pressure downstream. They are often used for large pipe applications, including water and wastewater. Averaging Pitot tubes are the most popular form of Pitot tubes, and they are used to measure airflow and other forms of gas flow.

PD flowmeters

Essentially mechanical meters, PD flowmeters provide high accuracy and are very good at measuring fluid at low flowrates. PD meters do best in line sizes up to 10 in. One of their main applications today is utility billing applications. On the downside, PD meters cause pressure drop and contain moving parts that are subject to wear.

Gas utility billing applications primarily use either diaphragm or rotary meters. Rotary meters, which are smaller and lighter, are replacing diaphragm meters in many cases, including for other gas applications.

Turbine flowmeters

As the earliest meter invented among the flowmeters used in the modern era, turbine flowmeters excel at measuring clean, steady, medium-to-high-speed flow of low-viscosity fluids. They are used in the water, gas, oil and industrial liquid flow measurement markets.

Turbine meters compete with ultrasonic and DP flowmeters for measuring custody transfer of natural gas. They are widely used for custody transfer of natural gas in large natural gas pipelines. They are more complementary than competing with positive displacement meters, since they do best in larger line sizes (more than 10 in.). The drawbacks for turbine meters are that they have moving parts (mainly their rotors and blades) and that they cause pressure drop.

Among the more economically priced meters, turbine meters also have a significant cost advantage over ultrasonic meters, particularly in the larger pipe sizes. Their price may also compare favorably to DP flowmeters, especially in cases where one turbine meter can replace several DP meters.

While some customers have concerns about meters with moving parts, technology improvements and more durable modern materials are improving the reliability of turbine meter parts. Suppliers have been addressing some of the disadvantages of turbine meters by developing features and new designs that make them more efficient.

Variable area (VA) flowmeters

These flowmeters are used in the process industries and in laboratory environments to measure the flow of air and gases at low flowrates, to check on the performance of other meters when a visual indication is sufficient, and for low-cost measurement. Low cost is probably the most important advantage of VA flowmeters.

VA flowmeters typically consist of a tapered tube that contains a float. While most VA meters can be read manually, some also contain transmitters that generate an output signal that can be sent to a controller or recorder. While VA meters should not be selected when high accuracy is a requirement, they do very well in lower accuracy and non-critical applications or when a visual indication of flow is sufficient. They are very effective at measuring low flowrates and can also serve as flow/no-flow indicators. VA meters do not require electric power and can safely be used in flammable environments. HP

LITERATURE CITED

  1. Flow Research Inc., “Volume X: The world market for flowmeters,” 7th Ed., Wakefield, Massachusetts, 2018, online: www.flowvolumex.com

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