June 2016


Viewpoint: “Intelligizing” the refinery for business sustainability

In today’s digital world, the line between IT and OT is blurring, and connectivity has become both inescapable and necessary. Connectivity is driving an influx of data that is both beneficial and overwhelming, especially as we explore how to apply this data in meaningful ways.

Freburger, G., Schneider Electric

There was a time when industrial information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) could be viewed in isolation, as distinct entities with little crossover. Just a few years ago, hardware and software systems that monitor and control physical equipment (OT) were engineered and supported indepen­dently from the systems that process, store and exchange data (IT). That time has come and gone.

End users now leverage existing investments in technology and people to drive toward a safer, more reliable and efficient manufacturing enterprise.

In today’s digital world, the line between IT and OT is blurring, and connectivity has become both inescapable and necessary. More technology is connecting with more technology; more people are connecting with more technology; and more people are connecting with more people. All this connectivity is driving an influx of data that is both beneficial and overwhelming, especially as we explore how to apply this data in meaningful ways.

Challenges of increased connectivity

The hydrocarbon processing industry (HPI) is in the game, too. Business leaders continue to push for new and innovative ways to use technology, hoping to take advantage of this data without disrupting their operations. Technological advances can sometimes upset workflow, which, in any refinery operation, is inherently disruptive and potentially dangerous. Operators are being forced to reckon with new layers of connectivity across sensors and instruments throughout the plant. In many cases, they are not sufficiently able to integrate them. Beyond that, the massive volume of data generated and shared by these devices, as well as other systems, solutions and the people who manage, operate and maintain them, can be crushing.

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) presents a particular conundrum for refineries, which are always focused on maintaining and increasing the safety, reliability and efficiency of the processes and assets they control. This drives and creates business value, and it ultimately fuels a new level of business sustainability. However, to achieve business sustainability in today’s world, refineries need more meaningful data that can be easily translated into action. Perhaps more importantly, they need that data to be generated within and across multiple layers of cyber security, because as intelligent devices, sensors and systems expand, so too does the attack surface.

Increasing complications and risks

With the emergence of the IIoT, control systems have become even more complicated, and as complications and connectivity increase, so too will cyber security risks. There must be a balance between adding intelligence, securing devices and protecting data. Therefore, prior to any IIoT implementation, it is imperative to consider and understand how all this new connectivity will impact safety and security. After all, connectivity means little if the systems and plants are not inherently secure.

What is often overlooked in an IIoT engagement, along with cyber security, is how plant managers, operators and engineers connect with and make sense of all the data being generated. Accumulating, storing and securing data just for the sake of having more data is simply bad business. Why leave refinery operators swimming in data that has no context or obvious value? For example, adapting additional sensors and signals for a valve means generating more data, but this data by itself will not help an operator make a better business decision or increase the value of assets.

“Intelligizing” the data

Thankfully, this challenge can be addressed simply by changing the way we think about data and how we connect with it. We need to drive to the heart of data’s importance, and it starts by adhering to a concept I like to call “intelligizing.”

What I mean by intelligizing is devising a method and having the solutions in place to sort, categorize, format, prioritize and deliver data so that the system or operator receiving it can take a more valuable action or make a more informed, intelligent and real-time business decision. It is not simply a matter of contextualizing data; it is refining it so that it becomes truly meaningful.

Data is now being delivered in many different industrial contexts, based on countless variables and depending on who or what is creating the data, who or what is receiving it, where in the plant it originates, and even when it was generated. Because of all this new context, refinery personnel must take a new approach to applying the data to improve business performance. For instance, intelligizing data on a valve’s opening and closing speed, power usage, time of operation, type of material in the pipe and the current weather conditions can help operators understand how these factors are working in concert to impact the process and its profitability. It has gone beyond traditional concepts of trending, exception reporting and alarming, and has even extended to automation and control optimization, remote management and predictive maintenance. It is now all about enabling and driving more informed business decision-making.

Benefits of connection

Intelligized data benefits refinery professionals in many ways, most notably by improving their ability to increase safety, reliability and efficiency. For example, machine-learning pattern technologies can calculate the probability of failures and even predict them for different equipment. This allows operator and maintenance teams to cooperate more efficiently and take a preventative approach to unit shutdowns. Connected performance-monitoring technology and data can help them estimate the remaining life of heat exchangers, enabling operator teams to work together to prevent unscheduled maintenance. Operators can monitor profits closely as they perform functions by balancing unit-level costs with unit-level key performance indicators (KPIs). Predictive analytics assist with early detection and produce warnings of potential problems with asset health. Real-time finance data helps determine where to prioritize efforts.

Without intelligized data, responding to work disruptions or reacting to changing conditions and environments is considerably hindered. Operators will rely only on the critical information they need and can readily find. They will then take it upon themselves to make what they think is the best, most valuable business decision. However, this approach does not drive stronger performance and misses the point of the IIoT entirely.

Intelligized data is a valuable asset. When refinery personnel are truly connected to the best data, they are better able to mitigate risk and enhance the safety, reliability and efficiency of the refinery’s operations. This is the pathway to sustainable business success. With better-connected, more secure, safer, more reliable and more efficient operations in place, refiners will be able to achieve a new level of business sustainability, one that improves not just environmental impact, but also asset performance, regulatory compliance and overall financial performance. HP

The Author

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