Automation gains momentum in digital movement

Feb 05, 2019
8 min read
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Havard Devold, group vice president and digital lead for the Global Oil, Gas & Chemical business at ABB speaks to Pipeline Magazine’s Nadia Saleem about the company’s digitalisation journey, rooted in automation

How is ABB playing a role in the digitalisation of the industry?

Mid-sized companies are a going to vendors like us to get more of the infrastructure or eco system that is aligned with their new business models.  This environment fosters collaboration as we navigate and formulate our digital offering based on the customer’s requirement. We have a target to replicate our applications across the energy industry, into this one common solution which will then also have common applications for the common things we do across all these industries.

In maintenance for example, there is little difference between a valve at a refinery and a valve at an offshore platform - there are some speciality solutions but overall a pump monitoring algorithm will be the same whether or not it pumps chemicals or oil. It’s a great opportunity for us to realize synergies there. 

What is the main aim of the company’s technology?

Analytics comes in to answer the question ‘how well are we operating right now?’ That’s really the ultimate target of the customer, improve their operations and reduce their costs.

If you look at this, on the cost side, it’s really thinking of the small and large efficiencies across the organisations. This might be resolved by energy management, maintenance, which really add up to high numbers. If you look at maintenance for instance or overall OPEX of a plant and then you take license and raw materials, what you’re left with then is net operating cost and 40 per cent of that is maintenance related.

Plant or plant management - there are some barriers to tear down here.  In principal, there is over 15 per cent of equipment in the plant where you can see a visible deterioration by a form of physical inspection, such as a sealed junction box, which once opened will not be sealed perfectly and become exposed to deterioration. The best way to prevent this is to add a small humidity sensor inside.

The challenge with our evolving digital landscape today is that technology like sensors are much cheaper - this is correlated to how IoT is becoming even more prevalent. That can address half the devices in your plant. The other half, have more complex mechanism failures such as predictive or prescriptive analytics. Analytics can be added on existing devices for example to gather data. This is a maintenance related example.

There are similar examples from many applications in a plant, in pipeline gas compressor for example, which can give you 15-20 per cent energy efficiency. There are many things that are not optimal today and most people say 25 per cent of the cost base can be addressed with some applications, while some companies are looking at a 40 per cent reduction in cost. This is important because depending on where you are in the hydrocarbon supply chain, industry trends can change.

It’s not just about producing at the lowest cost but also about reducing the environmental footprint and reduce emissions. It’s a solution for both problems. This is why they say digitalisation can be an overall disruptive solution.

Other than maintenance, what are other areas of ABB’s focus?

While one focus is maintenance, the other is enterprise analytics which helps to know how you’re operating. This can address production decline, increased HSE incidents and help answer other such operational questions.

Somewhere in there, is the automation system - which is a bridge between the real time and intermediate time. We tend to look at ourselves in having the biggest knowledge in the millisecond to the month range in knowing what’s happening in the plant and then other companies can be used for the range of months to year’s type of analytics. 

We are particularly good at real-time optimisation, process optimisation, process and safety management, everything electrical, rotating and even some of the security issues such as parameter control with control and such things. This is what we are going for, while other companies do other things because it is a collaborative system and no one company will do everything.

What sets ABB apart from others in the industry with multiple digital solutions?

We set ourselves apart in where we do analytics on the data we handle in our systems. In a big plant, when we do the automation and electrical, we tend to handle all the information around that.

If we control the compressor, we also have the process data for the compressor and we can do the performance analytics to see what’s operating well and how that can be optimised.

If we do the process safety, we have all the data related to process safety management.

Improvements in the industry have been going from lean to remote to un-manned and into the autonomous now.

Most people are targeting in a few years, at least where they can go autonomous in plants, which means you need the ability to handle the unexpected by programming systems to handle predetermined known conditions and unforeseen situations.

In remote monitoring, someone needs to make sure they can do certain things, like control a safety situation from far away and not need to suddenly have to go on site to flip a switch.

To go fully autonomous, we are not quite there yet but making great progress - the licenses to operate and start the plant are based on classical procedures so how would you verify an AI system, which by nature handles new systems and you don’t necessarily know how to predict how the system will handle new situations before they actually happen. How then would you obtain the permissions to operate the plant?

We still have some gaps in regulatory things and interfaces but a lot of the remaining technology has seen evolution and its coming together.

How are you seeing response to automation in the Middle East and attitude towards the new technology and costs associated with it?

Most large oil companies have a big organisation and they have commercial and operational procedures that need to change to take full advantage of these things. Take maintenance for example, if you don’t change the way you maintain based on new principals, you will gain nothing.

And to change that in a big organisation, will take some time.

There is also an issue here with safety. In some regions of the world, the fastest evolving companies open up their databases to let external companies work on it to propose solutions, yet keep commercially sensitive data private.

(But the non-commercially sensitive data that can be read and not changed is made available in the top oil companies to find the best solutions)

Some companies, at the moment, allow access to data on premise only. This is limiting and inefficient because experts have to be flown in from across the world, while from their locations, they can work on multiple projects at one time.

Data can be categorised, so that some is accessible anywhere, while some is read-only and not changeable.

As the next level of trust, key vendors can assist in changing parameters – we have those type of relationships in other parts of the world. Getting to this position with companies in the region, is somewhat limiting the speed of adoption.             

How do the key cost benefits of automation come about?

The biggest cost in plant operations is because humans make mistakes. Half the shutdowns at a plant are caused by operator or maintenance error. So the biggest gain is in reducing shutdowns through automation. The value to automation, with access to data is unimaginable.

According to ExxonMobil, two-thirds of projects in the oil and gas industry tend to have cost overruns and more than 75 per cent of projects tend to be delayed by two months or more.

If you can standardise plant designs, the hardware can be produced in less variations, the software is pre-tested on the digital twin and this is the key to cost efficiency. The more standard you can get, the more automated you can be.

What do you see as the next big thing in digital technology in the upstream and downstream industry?

All of the companies are aware of the technologies and they are working on them but there are certain limitations to how fast this is going.

The next generation of these technologies is evolving into Advanced Analytics, Prescriptive Analytics, Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Fleet Analytics and how drones can be used.


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