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Guest blog: This internet thing

In the final quarter of 2016 there was a blizzard of announcements about systems and shared technology deals from the big hitters of plant automation, all about shaping the future of the industrial internet of things (IIoT). It is a concept that seems to have arrived at a tipping point, just about where the plain old internet was in the 1990s, and is set to transform the value of plant data.

In some quarters of the world of refining and petrochemicals the internet has yet to catch on in any form. The internet is too big a security risk, is it not? Much bigger issues surely are where to find the next generation of plant engineers and how to avoid losing the experience gained over the years by retiring senior engineers. An opinion shared in a conference I attended is that the IIoT, its cloud capture of data and the possibilities of analytics can go a long way to solving these issues of employment and expertise.

Historically, that expertise is likely to have been acquired over the years in a single plant. Taking the case of a refiner with a fleet of producing sites, perhaps one involving several regions of the globe, what the IIoT offers (and to simplify somewhat) is a control system that captures and uploads key operating data from controllers, sensors and other “things” across those multiple sites to a corporate cloud resource. This compares with each site normally having only its own plant historian as a private repository of performance data. Data held in the cloud is then available to engineers across the company to perform analytic routines that can interpret issues that arise – or, more importantly, could arise – during plant operations. This cloud historian combined with data analytics in effect represents expertise of a very different order, even compared with a senior engineer’s career-long experience.

So, for instance, a plant engineer could explain, on the basis of company-wide operations over the years, why flooding occurs in the CDU. Better still, that engineer can interrogate years of multi-site records to determine which combination of key performance indicators could lead to flooding – a matter of envisioning the invisible.

Regarding employment, the aim of any refiner is to hire the best and keep them. The next-generation plant engineer, after all, wants to run applications on the internet and wants to know why the tools available at work in the plant might be inferior to the ones he or she runs at home.

Then there is the more basic question of place of work. Does a young engineer want to move from five years of education in a city centre with the prospect of spending some part of the career journey in a remote, near-dystopian environment? The world is just not moving in that direction. The facility to control and analyse plant operations remotely, via a multiple site cloud resource, provides the opportunity to install workers far from their refineries, at sites much closer to their personal preferences. And with potential handover of operations across the globe, there is the opportunity for a control room in one continent running a refinery’s operations on some distant land mass. Who, after all, wants to work night shifts?

First published in Petroleum Technology Quarterly Q1 2017.

Chris is The Editor at Petroleum Technology Quarterly, www.eptq.com.    

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Chris Cunningham

Editor, PTQ (Petroleum Technology Quarterly)

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