Smart Machines & Factories
Harnessing the true power of automation
Published:  24 August, 2017

In an increasingly competitive marketplace, operators up and down the hydrocarbon supply chain know that they need to fight for every penny of revenue. Industrial automation has emerged as a vital weapon in this fight, whether for refiners, producers, or pipeline owners. Where this industry is only now starting to see the benefits of automation, countless others have already gone much further along the path. What lessons can we learn from operators that have already faced up to the challenges that automation inevitably brings with it? Stratus Solutions Architect, Andy Bailey, reports.

Other industries that have already started transitioning away from the rigid and restrictive technologies of the past have had to find ways to deal with problems that were brand new at the time. The agile, open and intelligent technologies of today like the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) are today powering and running facilities around the World, and are seen as reliable options for when enterprises need five-nines availability. It was not always so. The road to this point has been arduous, so smart companies are using the lessons learnt by their forebears to make their own transitions as smooth as possible. There are four main lessons that have been learned since the advent of the new industrial revolution.

1. Embrace standards-based systems

Lots of downstream oil and gas operations run process automation infrastructure on outdated distributed control systems (DCS). This is hardly unique to oil and gas, but in those industries in which these closed, proprietary systems have been abandoned there has been an explosion of innovation and development. The benefits of moving away from these outmoded systems are clear - by running standards-based systems you are no longer limited to a specific vendor when you need to replace anything, leading to a further reduction in hardware costs. On top of this, you enable the kinds of innovation that the telecommunications industry has seen in recent years.

Telecoms companies used to rely on proprietary switch platforms in order to function, and incurred significant costs as a result. During the early 2000’s, innovative operators cottoned on to the fact that they could save a fortune by instead running low-cost, off-the-shelf computing platforms that could actually supply a better quality of service. These platforms were running operating systems at a universal industry standard, yielding massive savings that only got bigger as other carriers started following the same approach. And to cap it all off, it allowed an absolute explosion in innovation; developers were able to create groundbreaking communication applications that have ultimately led us to today’s generation of mobile apps.

Standards-based infrastructure has the potential to revolutionise industry in the same way that it has revolutionised telecommunications. By adopting this proven approach, the next generation of automation applications will go far beyond simply controlling process equipment.

2. Distributed intelligence

Of all the developments in industrial automation, it is arguably distributed intelligence (otherwise known as the IIoT) that is making the biggest splash. Simple in principle if not always in practice, distributed intelligence entails analysing data collected at the industrial edge in real time, and using it to optimise production in all kinds of ways. The benefits are enormous and are growing all the time.

IIoT technology is proliferating at an incredible rate. From domestic appliances that know when the milk’s run out to industrial asset management systems that can pre-emptively diagnose parts failure on the factory floor, the range of places where IIoT technology is making a difference is growing by the day. In factories, sensors throughout the plant continuously gather data on performance and operating parameters, sending it on to be aggregated and processed by analytics engines, which compare the data against established standards and previous readings to build up a detailed picture of where each component is in its life cycle. Insight like this means that historical data is put to use in eliminating unplanned downtime, rather than simply being lost as it would traditionally have been. The technology is useful for any operator interested in operating equipment efficiency (OEE).

The benefits for the oil and gas industries are naturally very significant. Monitoring and managing remote and unmanned facilities like natural gas pipeline compression stations is now the work of a few sensors and a processor rather than a crew of technicians. Unplanned downtime will soon be a thing of the past even at the most remote sites.

3. Don’t let fear of connectivity hinder you

It is fundamentally impossible to unlock the benefits of an IIoT system without collecting together an enormous amount of data. Bringing that data together requires enhanced connectivity, both within the organisation itself and with the World outside. Operators are understandably nervous therefore about the potential for security breaches and errors that could lead to their data ending up in the wrong hands. In particularly risk-averse industries like oil and gas this appears at first glance to be too great a risk. But is it really?

The financial services industry, one of the most risk-averse of all, used to conduct all their business in impenetrable bunkers. Over time they were eventually coaxed out by the dual promises of significant financial rewards and advances in security technology. Data protection technology goes from strength to strength and is now so important for the global economy that people have trust in the system that no expense is being spared in keeping everybody’s data completely under wraps.

4. Getting rid of unplanned downtime

Unplanned downtime is a curse for any operator, and that is particularly true of operators in the oil and gas industries. An effective fault-tolerance regime must be in place to help minimize the chances of disruption, not least because unplanned downtime in an IIoT system can entail a loss of data as well as all the other standard drawbacks. Data is becoming so important to the effective running of many enterprises that avoiding losses from anywhere in the system has become paramount – whether it’s the data source at the PLC/PAC, the historian database or the analytics engines that are so key to the whole process.

The building automation and security industry has made fault tolerance a priority, for the simple reason that if access control systems go down or lose data then building security is lost. The video surveillance systems need to run perfectly or they could lose valuable evidence. These risks will only be increased if the systems are part of an inadequately secured IIoT system. Fortunately there are a variety of strategies for achieving end-to-end fault tolerance at scale in a distributed environment.

Making the most of the opportunity

There are challenges in every industry, but the issues around industrial automation are pretty much the same wherever they occur. The need to be more efficient, more agile, and more productive is not confined to any single industry. The benefit of this is that pipeline owners, refiners and petrochemical producers can get the benefit of lessons learnt elsewhere without having to make the necessary mistakes themselves. Downstream organisations can harness the full power of automation by moving towards standards-based architectures, using distributed intelligence, taking care over data security and eliminating unplanned downtime. By committing to these steps now, they place themselves in a very strong position as we head into an increasingly automated future.