Special Report - Editor's Comment: Digitalisation in the refineries of the future

Technologies will create an end-to-end understanding of business processes focussing on operational excellence and move away from the traditional siloed functions.

Martin Menachery, editor, Refining & Petrochemicals Middle East.
Martin Menachery, editor, Refining & Petrochemicals Middle East.

The nature of refineries is predicted to change dramatically in the next 10 years. For example, onsite staff could shrink by 50% and personnel might venture onsite only to accomplish certain manual tasks. While automation will fundamentally transform many of the routine jobs traditionally handled manually, robotic drones will find out fugitive emissions in hard-to reach places. It is also predicted that chemical engineering breakthroughs might result in catalysts that continuously regenerate while the process keeps running.

In the global refining industry, digital technologies will drive integration to more effective business processes in the future that provide operators with actionable data on their businesses. These technologies will create an end-to-end understanding of business processes focussing on operational excellence and move away from the traditional siloed functions.

Vendors who have been active in the Middle East refining industry are starting to implement their own platforms and analytics capabilities to meet the need for asset performance management and operations optimisation from the industry. Some of these implementations are proliferating vendors, but others are using a more open source approach with the aspiration of becoming the ‘de facto industry implementation model’.

Historically, the expertise built in the refining industry was vendor-specific due to the proprietary nature of the legacy systems. That meant the industry professionals turned to their existing vendors for their solutions and what was made available to them, rather than driving their business-specific requirements into the solutions they received. This created a further proliferation of specific solution silos.

With better connectivity, ability to capture, store and manage data from different sources and different formats, and improved analytics, and ubiquity of access, there is a window of opportunity that refining industry professionals are exploring and they are now starting to drive the breakdown of silos in their environments.

Skilled resources are not in abundance and during the daily demands of the job. Refining industry professionals are finding it difficult to improve on their understanding and building the expertise to bridge the skills gap. Some companies are addressing this gap by hiring external vendor-neutral expertise to build the know-how in their teams and others are creating specific events that allows for the implementers and vendors to communicate and educate their decision makers and staff to learn from the trends.

The business imperative is to implement solutions in less mission critical parts of the refining business, demonstrate the value, get internal buy-in and expand the solution in a gradual manner to the rest of the operations, while maintaining the competitive position in the market.

There are also additional opportunities presented by Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) as implementation allows for an examination of the existing operations technology infrastructure and the potential for its convergence with the IT infrastructure. While this can be seen as an indirect benefit, it is in fact one of the main transformation benefits. It is driven by assessing the existing infrastructure for its readiness to support implementation of IIoT and the amount of data that would be generated by the end points.

Today’s refining companies know that they need to pick the right provider to deliver this. Their precious, usually very sensitive, data must be managed by a company that can ensure security and confidentiality, while still delivering the flexibility, mobility and service quality expected by global organisations.

Digital transformation of refineries puts the focus on customer-centricity and this is achieved not only by identifying the most critical customer touch points and exploring the opportunity to improve them through digitalisation but also the organisational culture change required to support it. The digital transformation journey of a refinery embraces production, supply chain, manufacturing and distribution, and efforts to focus only on parts would usually result in sub-optimal solutions. Refiners should adopt and integrate innovations now to have a respectable place in the refineries of the future.

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