Refinery operations gain from advances in digital automation

Advances in digital automation can better enable the next generation of refinery workers to operate more efficiently, reliably and safely

Emerson Process Management

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Article Summary

A significant number of experienced refinery personnel will retire in the next decade. With new personnel being younger and less experienced than those they are replacing, will refineries continue to operate safely, reliably and efficiently? The short answer is: “Yes, by utilising the recent advances in automation such as smart devices and accompanying embedded human centre designed systems.” The younger generations are more conditioned to current digital technology, embracing all of the real-time, online information and capabilities available from these smart instruments and systems. Smart devices replace the “ear of a seasoned field operator or technician”. With information about asset health and performance more readily available, refiners can achieve safer and more reliable operations than previously experienced. Asset health information can be used by maintenance for long-term condition-based maintenance on an as-needed basis, and operations can be alerted only on short-term imminent failure or abnormal operation.

The simplest analogy to represent technology advances is to look at the cellular phone. In the late 1980s, “The Brick” phone was available for about $4000. The main and only function was to make a phone call. Today, there is the Apple iPhone and other similar smart phones that are a fraction of the cost of a Brick, but with much more functionality beyond making phone calls, including many real-time applications. Many refiners still have DCS systems from the late 1980s and 1990s operating their plants. These systems are robust and control the process, but without additional features (no “apps”). Today’s modern systems include additional features not found in legacy systems, such as embedded advanced process control, statistical monitoring, smart device monitoring, asset health monitoring and more. Like the iPhone, the console operator is presented with more analysed information to make better and more informed decisions, with time to take corrective action. If the console operator continues to use the modern system in exactly the same way as the older replaced system, the benefit of additional functionality and information is lost (like people using an iPhone only for the phone call capability).

Refiners’ challenges
The challenge of getting skilled and experienced resources to replace seasoned personnel who are retiring is not limited just to the refining industry. Many industries are facing the same challenge with a noticeable gap in the availability of experienced staff. There are also fewer people wanting to enter the refining industry. This combination has led to changes in the way refiners operate to ensure reliable and safe operations.

In the past, a single train refinery had about 20 000 I/Os, whereas today that same refinery design can have 50 000 I/Os. This means there are greater challenges for older, well-established facilities in the US and Europe when competing with newer, modern assets in the Middle and Far East. The refining industry is faced with both competition and opportunity from the globalisation of fuels and petrochemicals distribution across regions and countries. For example, when demand is down in one region, opportunities arise to find consumers in other markets where production and distribution costs make this economically attractive. Basically, this means that modern refiners with lower operating costs can look for additional opportunity markets beyond their own regional markets.

This leads to the need to control costs. Most people consider gasoline, diesel and other fuel products as commodities, making it difficult to extract premium pricing and additional margins from a differentiated product. The reality is that additional margins come from operating the refinery more efficiently and more reliably than other refiners.

While there are niche market opportunities to extract higher margins, overall the refining industry is a commodity market where an individual refinery has limited control over raw material costs and finished product values. Refinery net margins have historically averaged below $2/bbl. Refiners have a significant investment in fixed assets, which are expensive to maintain and subject to on-going environmental, health and safety regulations. These realities give rise to an industry focused on cost reduction without jeopardising plant reliability or safety. Top quartile refiners with high availability also tend to operate more safely.

For the refinery operator, safety and environmental compliance are at the top of every refiner’s list of important concerns. Safety and environmental programmes represent a large, on-going cost to the refinery, and incidents can be extremely expensive. With hundreds of employees, many hazardous areas, and with the presence of explosive, carcinogenic and poisonous materials, refiners are extremely interested in systems that can provide early warning of pending failures and prevent unsafe or environmentally unfriendly conditions.

Unplanned shutdowns incur costs beyond lost production. Emergency shutdowns and subsequent startups put abnormal wear-and-tear demands on equipment, increase catalyst and chemical losses, produce off-spec products and require additional manpower, overtime and expedited 24-hour service. Just one unplanned shutdown in a major FCC unit can cost a large refinery over $1 million per day. Similar costs can be incurred by shutdowns in any of the refinery’s key process units. Based on the Marsh Report, a majority of severe incidents occur during startup and shutdown (transition) and piping:
“Losses in the refinery industry have continued to increase over the last few years and the causes highlight the ageing facilities in this category. A significant number of larger losses (over $10 000 000) have been caused by piping failures or piping leaks, leading to fires and/or explosions. Several large losses due to piping failures were due to corrosion issues or using the wrong metallurgy. ...Incidents occurring during startup or shutdown continue to cause significant dollar losses.” Marsh Report - The 100 Largest Losses 1972-2001, Large Property Damage Losses in the Hydrocarbon-Chemical Industries.

Utilising advances from digital automation
Operations and engineering personnel represent a large fixed-cost component in a refinery’s operating budget. Any opportunity to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of refinery staff can be translated into economic benefits by increasing the value of the activities they perform. Timely information that helps identify sub-optimal process control on critical loops is the key to augmenting the performance of operations and engineering. Modern systems with statistical monitoring can report on control loops with high variability or excessive alarms. What used to go unnoticed in the past is now front and centre to get attention.

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