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Cover Story: The digital future

by Martin Menachery on Feb 15, 2018


Domain experts from operators, EPC contractors and technology providers participated in a roundtable organised by Refining & Petrochemicals Middle East.
Domain experts from operators, EPC contractors and technology providers participated in a roundtable organised by Refining & Petrochemicals Middle East.

Domain experts from operators, EPC contractors and technology providers discussed the digitalisation drive in the downstream industry and its impact on it, in a roundtable organised by Refining & Petrochemicals Middle East.

Automation and digitalisation done in the right way will further improve the uptime, productivity, energy efficiency and safety in the downstream industry. The direction of this technology development is not just connecting systems but running them in a collaborative way with an increasing degree of autonomy. There is already a massive impact of automation and digitalisation in the refineries and petrochemical facilities, and this trend is going to be more powerful in the future. In every conference, seminar, workshop and industry events in the region, digitalisation is a core discussion point.

The roundtable was attended by Joerg Theis, global vice president, oil, gas and chemicals, ABB; Pierre Leretz, president and lead division manager, process automation, Middle East & Africa, ABB; Engr. Zaidan Mohammed O Yousef, director general, strategic planning and investment development, Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu; Bindu Satheesh, engineering director, Wood; Fadi Shanaah, regional director, business development, Smart Cities & IoT, Middle East, Africa and Turkey, Orange Business Services; Vinod Raghothamarao, director consulting, Energy Wide Perspectives, IHS Markit; Rakesh Kumar Mehra, strategic advisor, GP Global Group; Cristian Hedesiu, marketing manager, Orpic; Hamad Abdulsahab Mahdi, senior sales analyst, aromatics marketing department, Petrochemical Industries Company; and Martin Menachery, editor, Refining & Petrochemicals Middle East.

Chaired by Menachery and co-chaired by Theis, the roundtable discussed the themes of ‘Current Automation/Digitalisation Landscape of the Downstream Industry’, ‘Innovations in Automation and Digitalisation’, and ‘Humans Collaborating with Systems through Digitalisation’ in three separate sessions.

Many companies in the region are on hype when it comes to the adoption of digital transformation. Some of the companies in the region are really advanced in digital transformation, and those companies have innovation departments. Menachery set the tone of the roundtable discussion with a question to Theis on how digital technologies are transforming the refining and petrochemicals manufacturing industry globally.

“The reason why the downstream industry is going for digitalisation is that the industry is facing a huge competition. The companies want to improve their profit  margins. This is the only reason why the downstream industry is suddenly embarking on the digital transformation journey,” Theis observed.

“Interestingly, when we speak to customers, we see a common pattern in the way they think about digital – all of them are talking about improving operations and supply chain, and going in for new business models. Many companies are now having dedicated innovation centres. For me, this is the key element. All of a sudden, a very traditional industry is getting ready to be innovative,” commented Theis.

For the downstream industry, it is advantageous to go for big data and use it for bringing in value. It is a transformation process. Most of the downstream companies are looking at optimisation of plant productivity. By collecting data, and using better data algorithms, it is possible to find potential problems in a refinery or petrochemical plant. It is an innovation process.

“But, the data without a human element does not bring in any value. With data, we need experts. A plant is heavily depending on the operator. If there is a very good operator, the plant will always be running very smoothly,” Theis added.

Elaborating on the observation of Theis, Shanaah said: “The downstream industry is globally one of the most advanced in terms of digital applications and automation compared to other industries. Much before we started talking about digital transformation, many of the processes in the refining and petrochemicals manufacturing industry were highly automated. Now, with the new focus globally on IoT, a new era of innovations is coming in for the industry.”

“But, many people do misunderstand when we talk about big data today. The idea is not about collecting data. It is about what data you are collecting. How to utilise the data that is collected to bring in improvements is the most important question. And here the human factor is very important. Experts like data scientists know how to make algorithms which can give novel insights out of the collected data,” added Shanaah.

Bindu was of a totally different opinion about the digitalisation initiative in the downstream sector and said: “Globally, the digitalisation drive in the downstream industry is far behind compared to the automobile or piping industry.”


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