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Integrated refinery of the future

Integrated systems and visual interfaces will be created for the customer, like how assets are optimised to meet market demand and profitability.

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Companies need to be prepared and accelerate towards becoming a sustainable, highly diversified but integrated energy enterprise. Cybersecurity capabilities and warnings will be built into every layer of the future digital refinery.

YODA from Star Wars admonished, "Do or do not, there is no try".

With an all-in mentality, digitalisation has accelerated across the capital-intensive process industries, like how the sharing economy has revolutionised the way people live, work and play. According to Oxford Economics, most of the top ten fastest growing market economies are in Asia with Thailand in seventh place; Malaysia (5th); China (4th); Indonesia (3rd); the Philippines (2nd) and India in the lead with 6.5 per cent projected gross domestic product (GDP) growth. Burgeoning Asian middle-class populations are driving market demand for plastics and related chemicals. Renewable energy and electric cars are impacting the demand for hydrocarbon fuel. The demand for petrochemical feedstocks is also impacted by economic growth in Asia and the level of use for plastics. How can the industry expand fast and yet remain flexible enough to meet demand?

On the supply side, new multi-billion-dollar production complexes are nearing completion or being designed in South-east Asia and India. It is necessary for companies to adopt an effective digital end-to-end software environment to empower workers and allow them to make complex decisions, as accurately as possible. Efficient companies need to be integrated from oil production across to finished goods. Sustainability and cybersecurity are important elements for consideration. While jobs are tailored differently, humans will still be in control. Machine learning and artificial intelligence can decode a treasure trove of data, streaming off sensors in smart plants. By deploying low-touch machine learning, companies can now deploy business generalists to make the best decision possible.

THE NEXT GENERATION REFINERY

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Intelligent, flexible and adaptable - the plant of the future will be fully demand-driven, as decisions are made quickly and at the appropriate level. Knowledge workers need to constantly address customer needs better than the competition. Integrated systems and visual interfaces will be created for the customer, like how assets are optimised to meet market demand and profitability. Using Amazon's experience as benchmark, this connected supply chain will apply powerful artificial intelligence (AI)-assisted analytics to understand business opportunities presented by changes in market demand and supply.

This next generation refinery will operate with knowledge worker pods. Planning and scheduling will be fully integrated. The planner will be supported by an AI expert dashboard showing tradeoffs in areas, such as economics, sales, sustainability and operations. The creation of an optimal schedule is now fully autonomous. Prescriptive maintenance systems will flag up situations that can disrupt operational plans in a refinery. It will also provide alternatives for traders to buy the best crudes. In doing so, operators can derive the best possible asset utilisation, safety and profitability. This integrated plan and schedule will autonomously provide closed loop optimisation, using AI-assisted advanced process control (APC) software functionality. Other functions in the enterprise will have actionable insights on the changing imperatives of the plan, schedule and optimised production.

In leveraging the Industrial Internet of Things, data sensors will be pervasive in this plant. Real time analytics deployed at the edge will provide process stream compositions. Catalyst nano sensors will add to the array of data to better drive control over the process performance. All of which will drive APC and the underlying control software to operate via dynamically adjusted setpoints to achieve and exceed plan. Major process units and equipment in the next generation refinery will be smart plant-building blocks. This built-in intelligence will greatly improve its ability to run process-operating limits, which will be critical to asset flexibility. The asset owner will use this intelligence as an AI-based decision tool to model the configuration in a plant and shift product suites on demand. The next generation prescriptive maintenance system not only flags future failure models for equipment and units, it also links the planning and process models to process operating changes. With this approach, the risk of future failure is delayed or eliminated.

Advanced technological capability will take humans out of dangerous and remote areas of the refinery. Intelligence can be derived from further development of sensors, prescriptive maintenance AI solutions, unit analytics, etc. The futuristic refiner will be able to better understand physical asset conditions, trends, risks and emergencies. This reduces the need for workers to be physically present to inspect equipment and units for issues. AI-enabled virtual solutions can plan and manage startup and shutdown procedures from remote locations in most instances. Advanced plant robotics solutions will enable the next generation refinery to perform many tasks without sending people into dangerous situations. The combination of process and intelligent reliability, planning and execution systems will drastically reduce the need for workers to enter dangerous areas, which become risker places to be during dangerous situations.

THERE IS NO TURNING BACK

"In my experience, there is no such thing as luck," explains Obi-Wan Kenobi.

With little time to lose, refiners should not leave their chance of success to luck but accelerate and plan for its existence in a sustainability-centric future. Stakeholders will have immediate visibility on the impact of their tactical and strategic decisions - in areas such as, sustainability metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs). Online optimisation models will constantly optimise energy and water use in the asset and throughout the value chain. Individual knowledge workers will keep tabs on the contribution of workers to help companies improve their sustainability standing with the investment community.

The refinery of the future will also operate in a hypercompetitive, globalised and dynamic market. Management teams will need to adopt trust-based, blockchain-enabled connections between regional enterprises to negotiate and rapidly conclude agreements to collaborate and capture business opportunities. For example, supply and delivery agreements that can be negotiated and concluded using blockchain-based contracting and commitment systems, which enable rapid signoffs by the refinery's designated executive. This further entrenches the concept of leadership in the plant. Enterprise -wide next-generation risk models provide the ideal dashboard for the C-suite to reduce the level of risk undertaken when making business decisions. Cybersecurity capabilities and warnings will be built into every layer of the future digital refinery.

The force is strong with this vision. Companies need to be prepared and accelerate towards becoming a sustainable, highly diversified but integrated energy enterprise.

  • The writer is director of marketing strategy at Aspen Technology Inc.