Enhancing Productivity of Plant in Manifold
- Tim Olsen, Refining Consultant, Emerson Process Management

While advances in sensors, wireless, predictive technologies and automation have significantly changed the way refineries operate today, the complexity in refinery operations continues to increase with refiners adding units to provide flexibility in processing opportunity crudes, and relying on crude blending to give the right feedstock properties to best utilise the refinery design coupled with complying with new and existing government regulations. The article explains smart refinery solutions that could enhance improvements to energy efficiency, safety, health and environmental issues, value addition, cost control, mass and energy balance and overall energy conservation of a refinery.

When managing a complex and dynamic operation like an oil refinery, having the predictability to minimise unplanned shutdowns and slowdowns is critical to safe, reliable and profitable operations. Having the visibility and insight to ‘be alerted and take timely corrective action’ is the characteristic of a world-class operation. It means being more informed and smarter about each decision made and action taken. In reality, ‘smart’ technologies have been around the refining industry for a couple of decades. In fact, process automation, control and monitoring technologies get smarter every year. But are they actually improving refinery business? Are they helping address the impending skilled workforce crisis all industries are facing? Are they helping provide flexibility to change production strategies to profit from opportunity crude oils? Are they giving confidence to operate the refinery at rated capacities while ensuring safe operating conditions? Access to subject matter experts whether onsite or remotely? Technology enables your staff the ability to operate reliably, safely, and profitably. What is referred to as the ‘Smart Refinery’.

The complexity in refinery operations continues to increase with refiners adding units to provide flexibility in processing opportunity crudes, and relying on crude blending to give the right feedstock properties to best utilise the refinery design. Product specifications have simultaneously become more geographically complicated and restrictive. Regional and local fuel specifications including the use of biofuels often lead to multiple product blending steps and transport restrictions. In addition, refiners require special processing for their unique needs in asphalts and lubricating oils. Complying with new and existing government regulations is demanding on resources. Now, more than ever, efficiency and consistent productivity are required to stay viable in a commodity based market with far-reaching boundaries for competitors. Advances in automation are enabling refiners to achieve these efficiencies and improve the overall performance of their plants - decreasing costs and increasing profits. The cost and size of computing elements, the continuing increase in communication bandwidths, advances in software and mathematical analyses and better modeling capabilities have provided new optimising tools for increasingly reliable refining operations. This is not just a vision of the future; it is today’s reality for top quartile performers. Many new developments such as improved process sensors and measurement devices are being applied. The era of the ‘smart refinery’ is today.

How is the smart refinery different? In a very important way, it is not. The operating objectives for the refinery still include Maintaining safe operations, Enhancing environmental stewardship, Sustaining high equipment availability and reliability, Maximising plant and product value through efficient and optimised operation and Ensuring refinery staff maintain required skills and stay updated with changing technology.

Advances in automation technology including the implementation of pervasive sensing to bring process and asset condition data to both operations and maintenance enable new and better ways to integrate work processes and improve the timeliness and accuracy of decisions. Significant improvements in plant performance are possible when the right expertise is applied at the right time; when personnel have the information they need to make quality decisions quickly, and when they have access to specialised supplemental expertise when they need it. Most processing facilities are balancing the needs for safety, quality, profit, environmental compliance, and reliability against the challenge of applying the right knowledge across organisational and geographic boundaries while simultaneously reducing costs. Therefore, many companies are taking advantage of technologies such as virtualisation, remote monitoring, enhanced KPIs and dashboards, co-location of personnel, control room consolidation, etc.

For example, a US West Coast refiner implemented wireless vibration sensors on essential pumps to monitor asset health (to improve production availability) where a wired solution was not cost effective. Similarly, a US Gulf Coast refiner showed sustained 50 per cent reduction in reliability risk (increased availability) by incorporating a smart refinery technology enabling refining staff the ability to effectively use additional information. It should be stated that technology alone is not the solution – staff need to be trained on how to use the new information.

The new smart refinery will complement the console operator, control engineer and maintenance technician, improving their efficiency and decision-making with timely, actionable information. With any new technology, ease of use and ease of integration with existing operations are key factors. For example, Emerson Process Management carefully considers the effects of smart refinery technologies, not only on present staff, but also on successfully transferring critical knowledge to younger operators as a significant number of older, experienced operators retire.

The continuing evolution in digital computing and communication capabilities – and the application of these technologies – has led to fundamental differences in the way refineries operate and will continue to change the way they operate in the future. However, staff needs to be trained to use the technology effectively to capture the benefits of new information. Improvements in information and processes in place to utilise the information can be worth millions of dollars a year, and competitive cost advantage.

In today’s economic environment, management demands that new investments provide low risk and expected rate of return on both new and existing assets, particularly automation assets. Investments in smart refinery technology often provide some of the highest economic paybacks of any possible investments, and these expected returns can be determined in advance and demonstrated after implementation. Both new and existing plants can get quick return on investment and sustainable value by investing in smart refinery technology. New plants can easily take advantage of state-of-theart technology and processes right from initial startup, but existing plants can also benefit. Existing refiners can start small and gain experience by implementing upgrade programmes at a measured pace that can be self-funding with benefits from early installations paying for the later stages. Smart refinery operators now have the opportunity to leverage these investments to enhance the safety, reliability, productivity and profitability.

Increasing regulatory requirements, refinery complexity and demands for higher quality continue to place higher economic demands on refineries while reducing operational margins. The new smart refinery can offset these barriers. Technology enables and enhances this smart refinery. For example, wireless technology extends sensor reach, enabling smart refinery operators to monitor areas of the plant that were previously inaccessible due to location or significant wiring installation costs. Because of automation, the smart refinery has the ability to predict maintenance issues, alert and take timely action to prevent failures and greatly improve plant and process reliability. Not only does this translate into more efficient operation, higher product quality and reduced maintenance costs, it also means that the smart refinery has improved and increased uptime, which adds dollars to both the top and bottom lines.

Smart refining offers more than just leveraging state-of-the-art technology. Evolving developments are leading to new methods and procedures for plant operation; increased monitoring capabilities that continually check the pulse of the refinery; advanced modeling and analytics that compare refinery production against expectations; earlier detection of abnormal conditions or imminent failure; and tools that can plan future operation with increased confidence. These technology developments enable significant changes in the way refineries operate.

Most refineries were originally constructed with the minimal amount of instrumentation required to operate the plant. What we see in the future is more use of collaborative software tools, and standards-based software and hardware to reduce ongoing support costs. The operating systems of the future will process, store and analyse much more data and information, including many more sensors in primary and secondary locations and a wider range of live video and spectral data. This data will be analysed and displayed as information to be acted on in a timely manner.

The technologies that are being put into the marketplace today are only the stepping stones to that future. Another smart refinery trend is toward increasing levels of remote operation. Individual refineries can be geographically dispersed. Control rooms can be many miles from the physical units. Complete information on the state of the plant can be communicated to the remote control room. Fully reliable automated plant startup and shutdown systems enable safe remote operations. Today, major sites operate across hundreds of miles. In the future, smart refineries will continue this trend, placing greater demands on reliable automation and communication.

Fortunately, the automation developments that support these remote operations have kept pace. While smart sensors, wireless, predictive technologies and automation continue to make the smart refinery even smarter, these enablers do not replace the power of the human decision-making process, nor the accompanying responsibilities. Technology must be used, not only to make the smart refinery more productive and more profitable, but to make it safer as well. Smart refinery operators have the opportunity to deploy these technologies to ensure the safety of their personnel, communities and the environment, while enhancing the productivity and prosperity of the enterprise. It takes a dedicated and deliberate level of commitment and vision on the part of refinery owners and operators to leverage this smart enabling technology to allow it to transform their facilities into safe and profitable smart refineries. Emerson has taken a leading role in providing smart refinery solutions, including improvements to energy efficiency, safety, health and environmental issues, value addition, cost control, mass and energy balance and overall energy conservation.