The Industrial Internet of Things in process industries: Challenges and opportunities

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and its associated functional agility and data management improvements will catalyse significant improvements in the process industries. But, it will be resisted by many, comments Bill Bosler

Bill Bosler is associate consultant at Euro Petroleum Consultants (EPC), which is a leading independent consulting company in the oil, gas and petrochemical sectors, as well as a producer of specialised annual international conferences and training seminars, focusing on market trends, technological advances and business strategies for the petroleum industry.
Bill Bosler is associate consultant at Euro Petroleum Consultants (EPC), which is a leading independent consulting company in the oil, gas and petrochemical sectors, as well as a producer of specialised annual international conferences and training seminars, focusing on market trends, technological advances and business strategies for the petroleum industry.

What is IIoT that it is so threatening? I prefer this definition: IIoT is a system comprising networked smart objects, cyber-physical assets, associated generic information technologies and optional cloud, or edge computing platforms, which enable real-time, intelligent, and autonomous access, collection, analysis, communications, and exchange of process, product and/or service information, within the industrial environment, so as to optimise overall production value. This value may include improving product, or service delivery, boosting productivity, reducing labour costs, reducing energy consumption, and reducing the build-to-order cycle.

IIoT is an ecosystem of agile functionality, including configuration and data management, with transparent, verifiable and actionable data visible to all. In other words, it is another example of the vendor-neutral componentisation of MES (Manufacturing Execution System) and control systems.

There are two prominent efforts to componentise those systems: (i) Industry 4.0 in Germany (This is a very broad effort that publishes its work for all to use. One can easily work with a demo system.); and (ii) The Open Process Automation Forum (It appears to be focused on reliable input to cloud-based servers to do basic control. It does recognise that control can be performed in the ‘Edge Device’, aka, the local sensor’s, or actuator’s controller. As such, its current scope appears to be much narrower than that of Industry 4.0.).

Both of these efforts are predicated on very distributed sensors and actuators from a variety of vendors with a variety of methods for using those components for more effective operations. These devices include not only many existing networked devices but also IIoT devices.

Benefitting the process industries
If you view IIoT as networked devices, then both of these efforts do that. The main difference between these efforts and IoT is that IoT uses more generalised communications methods and data communication structures. IIoT will derive from IoT. This difference brings more creativity and ingenuity to the table. This competition will benefit the process industries – after the disruption settles.

IoT devices are designed to operate in a variety of ecosystems, including 5G. (IoT devices are purportedly 5G-enabled. These just need the 5G infrastructure.) As such, fields like healthcare, home monitoring, etc. will evolve ways to manage and gain real-time, actionable knowledge from millions of sensors. Ecosystem providers, like Apple, Amazon and Google, will lead the way on innovative approaches to help us live longer and healthier lives. Some of these healthcare concepts will be applied to personnel working in hazardous environments.

As these IoT tools and techniques are brought to industrial devices, IIoT will develop quickly. It will provide the impetus for methods to manage and use distributed components manufactured by a variety of vendors in an efficient ecosystem.

Fortunately, new techniques, like those for configuration management by Industry 4.0, are being developed to define security zones and to identify unapproved changes to devices. (Image courtesy: Siemens)

Actionable data
The benefits of moving to a componentised, open, agile and transparent ecosystem are well documented. Many historical automation suppliers are now delivering solutions in parallel with their historical offerings. FieldComm Group (FCG) is leading the way to retrieve configurations from existing devices – independent of their communication protocol and system connectivity.

This data collection capability coupled with sophisticated site-wide configuration management will facilitate the move to IIoT devices. Such verifications can also be combined with cybersecurity techniques to ensure security at the same time as ensuring that there are no other unauthorised changes.

In many respects, FCG’s efforts will enable most traditional devices to be treated like IIoT devices. This will expedite the move to IIoT. But, it will be resisted, because it may expose the inconsistencies in thought versus deed. Please remember that Macondo Deepwater Horizon incident was preventable! Had the real capabilities and state of the equipment been exposed to the general organisation, management would have had no choice but to mitigate the situation.

IIoT facilitates broad exposure of the real state of capabilities versus the rosy picture depicted in the HAZOP (hazard and operability study) that sits on the shelf – totally unused! IIoT has the capability to convert the HAZOP to actionable data that can be periodically and programmatically compared to the current equipment capabilities and configurations. Such periodic verification will mitigate another Macondo Deepwater Horizon incident. When such verification is automatically performed and reported as a public record, trust in the process industries will increase.

The existing challenges
IIoT will not evolve without its challenges – for instance, ecosystem management, configuration management, security, and notification flooding.

By definition, every site is its own ecosystem. That is, the site has its policies, procedures, regulations, etc. that define the required capabilities of systems, components, sub-ecosystems, etc. to interoperate within the site. To provide a high return, all components must interoperate with as little effort as feasible (Plug and Play is the goal). IIoT requires formalisation and active management of those ecosystem rules.

Since these devices can be configured for multiple services, businesses will need to move to periodic and proactive verification that the configuration is as approved. Fortunately, new techniques, like those for configuration management by FCG and Industry 4.0, are being developed to define security zones and to identify unapproved changes to devices.

Since IIoT devices can send notifications in conjunction with, or independent of a control system, a single site-wide notification management system needs to evolve, or sites will experience ‘Alert Flooding’, like process units experienced ‘Alarm Flooding’ for decades.

This enhanced site-wide configuration management will expedite the move to each site creating their own Virtual Development Operations (DevOps) Ecosystem for MES and control systems. By definition, DevOps is an agile digital twin. It is cloud-based and will cause significant re-deployment of personnel and elimination of some in-house data centres. This will enable significant IT budget to be allocated to IIoT type projects and enhancements.

Path forward
Talk with your existing and possible automation vendors to learn the ‘Art of the Possible’ – changes that can be made in a relatively short timeframe without disrupting your existing systems. In PERA.net terminology, these are called ‘opportunities’ for improvement. Understand their cost and implementation timeframe with the associated benefits, ramp-up, and duration. Then, do your own www.pera.net style master plan to select opportunities that meet your investment criteria and prioritise those opportunities into projects to develop a transition plan.

IIoT will be the catalyst to evolve DevOps sooner rather than later. Yes, it is a component of digital disruption. As documented elsewhere, management must lead the way to breakdown the historical silos. Each process industry company needs its Satya Nadella. Yes, the potential benefits are so significant and the challenges so strong that the CEO, or at least the senior management must lead.

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