August 2017

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Automation Strategies: Navigating automation in oil and gas—Lessons learned from other industries

In today’s economy, industrial automation has become absolutely essential for refiners, petrochemical producers and pipeline owners looking to maintain profitability and competitive advantage as market pressures bear down on them.

Fryer, J., Stratus Technologies

In today’s economy, industrial automation has become absolutely essential for refiners, petrochemical producers and pipeline owners looking to maintain profitability and competitive advantage as market pressures bear down on them. Fortunately, oil and gas is far from the only space in which companies are navigating the complexities of developing an automation strategy. This means that a number of lessons can be learned from other industries with similar challenges.

From telecom to financial services to manufacturing, companies have successfully made the transition from the inflexible, proprietary technologies of the past to the agile, intelligent and open technologies of today—this is the ideal of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) that is transforming the industrial landscape. As energy companies find their way, they can glean from industries already reaping the benefits of next-generation automation.

Adopting standards-based systems

The challenges for industrial companies often begin with aging infrastructure. Many downstream oil and gas operations are still using process automation infrastructure built on distributed control systems (DCS) that are either approaching or have reached their end of life. Moreover, these are generally closed and proprietary systems that limit upgrade options to a single vendor, driving up costs. Making the decision to replace these systems with standards-based platforms can not only drive down hardware costs, but will enable more flexibility for innovation.

Consider telecom companies, which once relied on expensive switch platforms for basic communications services. In the early 2000s, certain carriers saw the advantages in using low-cost, off-the-shelf computing platforms running industry-standard operating systems, and chose to innovate with these technologies to deliver “enhanced services” applications. Beyond driving down the costs associated with their central office infrastructures, it freed their developers to innovate new systems and create breakthrough communications applications.

For energy companies, a move to standards-based infrastructure can similarly introduce operators to a new generation of automation applications that are much more intricate than simply controlling process equipment.

Implementing distributed intelligence

The rise of distributed intelligence, one of the more exciting developments of the IIoT, involves gathering data generated by process equipment and sensors for analysis. This analysis is then used to inform decision-making for optimizing processes, uncovering potential problems and identifying new areas for improving a business.

FIG. 1. Historical data can be analyzed down the line to develop predictive models and optimize operating equipment efficiency.
FIG. 1. Historical data can be analyzed down the line to develop predictive models and optimize operating equipment efficiency.

Internet-connected devices have driven the growth of the IIoT in a variety of industries—from connected appliances that automatically reorder groceries to industrial asset management systems that control a factory floor. In the latter, sensors on manufacturing equipment continually gather, aggregate and process data to identify early signs of potential failure. When operators evaluate machine insights against certain benchmarks, they can be alerted before a failure might occur and help avoid unplanned downtime (FIG. 1). When we look ahead, this historical data can then be analyzed down the line to develop predictive models and optimize operating equipment efficiency (OEE).

These same benefits of the IIoT can extend into the oil and gas space with the proper infrastructure in place, particularly when it comes to monitoring and managing remote or unmanned facilities, such as natural gas pipeline compression stations.

Letting go of the fear of connectivity

Bringing together disparate sources of information is a key aspect of the advanced automation side of the IIoT, including Internet- or private cloud-based technologies that breed connectivity. The oil and gas space tends to be risk averse, and companies have often equated increased connectivity with increased risk, which explains their apprehension toward adopting the IIoT. However, as the use of data becomes more central to successful operations, this increased connectivity is inevitable. Companies should instead turn their focus to ensuring their ability to identify and protect potential points of vulnerability.

If we look at the financial services industry, which can be equally or perhaps more risk averse than oil and gas, we can see the effect that connectivity has had on banks and credit companies that are unafraid to change. Once known to barricade transaction systems behind impenetrable walls, these companies— if they wanted to survive and thrive—recognized the need to allow their customers to connect with their money whenever and wherever they wanted via mobile devices. The shift has since only sharpened the financial services industry’s focus on security and uptime, and has led to the creation of some of the world’s most secure infrastructures.

Eliminating unplanned downtime

Unplanned downtime has long topped the list of things that many oil and gas operations would like to avoid. As data use becomes increasingly central to operations, protecting the availability of automation systems and the data they generate has grown into a mission-critical capability. This means ensuring that data is not lost at any point—from the data source at the PLC/PAC, to the historian database, to the analytics engines that drive IIoT processes. The closer the data loss is to the source, the greater the impact. If data is lost at the point of collection, it is lost forever. Data lost at the historian level can spell the loss of valuable information pulled from thousands of endpoints over time. Making fault tolerance a priority is a key means of avoiding this loss.

When we look at industries that are prioritizing fault tolerance, building automation and security stick out as industries to watch. If access control systems go down or lose data, the building in question is no longer secure. If the data produced by video monitoring systems (VMS) is lost, valuable evidence could be forfeited. If the environment uses virtualized systems or has IIoT elements, these risks may be magnified. To avoid these issues, those responsible for building security employ a variety of strategies for achieving end-to-end fault tolerance at scale in a distributed environment.

Designing an automation strategy must specifically address the unique challenges of the oil and gas space. When it comes to industrial automation, a number of commonalities between industries can help inform this strategy: the need for agility, efficiency and productivity are only a few of the examples. Refiners, petrochemical producers and pipeline owners stand to learn a lot in this regard, specifically by moving toward standards-based infrastructures, implementing distributed intelligence, embracing connectivity and making fault tolerance a priority. Downstream organizations that recognize the importance of each, sooner rather than later, will be putting themselves in a much stronger position than their competition to survive and thrive in the IIoT. HP

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