July 2020

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Executive Viewpoint: Digital transformation and how it is advancing the processing industries

Hydrocarbon Processing was pleased to speak with executives Peter Herweck (PH) and Chris Dartnell (CD) of Schneider Electric.

Herweck, P., Industrial Automation; Dartnell, C., Schneider Electric

Hydrocarbon Processing was pleased to speak with executives Peter Herweck (PH) and Chris Dartnell (CD) of Schneider Electric. The following Q&A provides insights on the oil and gas industry’s digital transformation and how it is advancing automation, sustainability and future operations.

HP: How are challenges in interoperability slowing the drive for digital transformation?

PH: I would say we are seeing, and driving, advances in interoperability that are pushing digital transformation at a faster pace. It is critical that future architectures and systems are more portable, configurable and interoperable, and this is now becoming achievable. Technology advances help separate engineering software from hardware and, because of industry standards like IEC61499, ensure that solutions that decouple hardware from software are compliant.

CD: Our oil and gas customers see interoperability as one of several technology enablers of digital transformation. Our solutions automatically grant interoperability and interconnectivity, which is one way past this challenge. We are taking interoperability a major step further with EcoStruxure Power & Process, an approach that proposes integration and interoperability of the electrical and process automation systems. This begins at the early stages of design and implementation of a digital twin, through the system integration, and finally allowing a more comprehensive and digital approach to asset performance management throughout the asset lifecycle.

HP: How is digital transformation changing/benefitting automation systems, primarily in the processing industries?

PH: Digital transformation allows us to overcome major industry challenges as traditional automation systems are augmented with digital technologies. These advances include:

  • The push for improved return on investment (ROI) over the lifecycle of the asset
  • The need for more sustainable operations and new energies development
  • Addressing the evolution of the workforce.

We see four important inflection points. First, a key transformation in automation systems is delivered through the integration of power and process. Traditionally, electrical power management and process control/automation have been designed and operated independently throughout the lifecycle of a plant which, in today’s digital economy, can put organizations at a competitive disadvantage. Multiple systems lead to multiple databases, additional engineering tools, different operator stations, multiple supply chains and more system administration, maintenance and costs. The landscape of what we call EcoStruxure Power and Process can mitigate this.

Leveraging the industrial internet of things (IIoT) to deliver a single view of asset management, energy management, automation and safety monitoring systems can extend the life of the asset and reduce both capital expenditures (CAPEX) and operating expenditures (OPEX) significantly.

Second, the easy ability to bring a single data point to the cloud allows for more ROI through additional processing capability to optimize the process, extend the asset life and improve the supply chain.

Third and consequently, we move from site-by-site to a company-wide optimization. Remote/centralized monitoring and analysis of process information can allow for real-time decisions. When knowledge from various plant teams is no longer siloed or inaccessible, it creates previously unattainable transparency and enterprise visibility. Integration saves oil and gas companies millions of dollars in engineering, operations and support/maintenance costs.

The fourth inflection point is the end-to-end digital thread for software—design, build, operate and maintain.

HP: In what ways can digital technologies help companies move closer to sustainable and energy-efficient operations?

PH: Helping the industry ensure more sustainable operations is a key challenge, and digitization will be a major factor in addressing that challenge.

We need to use current technologies as many economies will continue to need traditional fuels for the foreseeable future. The technology is there for deployment in brownfield plants and new installations where it is easier to start from scratch.

We believe the journey to more sustainable operations starts with efficiency—an optimized design of complete asset and power systems, as well as process optimization in operation and over the asset lifecycle, resulting in better energy and feedstock efficiency and accidental leakage avoidance.

To meet sustainability goals and remain competitive, companies must also take actions such as committing to more modern equipment—such as innovative SF6-free medium-voltage switchgear, a proven switchgear solution that replaces the greenhouse gas sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) with air and vacuum. Several digitization technologies and offerings help this journey to efficiency, often reducing energy consumption by more than 10% and avoiding accidental leaks and flaring:

  • Digital twin-enabling power system design optimization, heat balance design and design optimization and operations optimization of the carbon impact of the complete plant
  • Simulation and optimization of process over lifecycle, electrical distribution and process automation integration ensure reduction of CO2, NOX and energy density and predictive emissions monitoring.

Another area to explore is the benefits electrification provides for better control and optimization of operations for more sustainability. This may include replacing mechanical drives by electric motors and variable speed drives in gas compressors, water injection pumps, electric heating of large furnaces, valve actuators, etc. These benefits are realized by digitizing the management of electric loads and generation capacity and using microgrid applications managing local consumption, batteries and generation.

HP: How is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) enhancing/optimizing refinery and petrochemical plant operations?

CD: Oil and gas companies should prioritize operational efficiency by leveraging AI, digital twins and analytics, as well as integration of electrical and process systems. This means focusing on lengthening asset uptime and use. This can help reduce costs and improve productivity gains, keeping companies prepared to weather an unstable market.

New AI tools have been deployed to collect data from plant machines and use that data to build performance models and make predictions. Comparisons are made between the “to be” model and a database of “as is” real-time information. A machine learning engine in our software provides early warning notification and diagnosis of equipment behavior anomalies—days, weeks and even months prior to an actual failure. This provides valuable insights to engineering and operations teams to support their decision-making process and reduce unexpected production loss.

HP: What does the future refinery/plant look like?

CD: It will be more sustainable, with less carbon impact, as digitization allows more optimized processes and stronger energy management. It will be unified as systems such as electrical and power and automation are integrated for greater visibility into the process, stronger asset lifecycle management and a true digital twin.

The digital twin and digitized refinery will ensure better safety as people and assets will be less exposed to accidents, and more able to simulate changes and training. It will be less manned with an increase in remote access and the ability to share expertise across the fleet. The operations will be smarter and more agile due to integrating AI-based knowledge, creating more predictability of assets and operations.

HP: How does the current major drop in oil prices challenge your customers?

CD: This creates many challenges for producers and downstream operators, though we see more positive signs for natural gas. In the upstream production business, the availability of storage will become more important as oversupply is exacerbated.

Although many painful financial measures will need to be taken, those with the ability to model their supply chain and capability to address demand will have a better ability to remain profitable. Secondly, they will need the flexibility to adjust products and geographic locations quickly to meet regional market needs. In summary, visibility and agility will be key. The application of integrated, cloud-based digital technologies will be a critical step to providing the visibility to assets, market opportunities and production capabilities. The connection of these technologies—from global cloud applications to plant operations (with appropriate cybersecurity safeguards)—will provide the agility to respond. HP

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