Digital solutions improve refinery operations

Digitalising and standardising the tasks and activities of plant personnel improves efficiency and safety, resulting in greater uptime and throughput.

Yokogawa Electric Corporation

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Article Summary

As markets change and global competition intensifies, refineries are faced with the challenge of minimising costs and ensuring high profitability. It is particularly important to improve operational efficiency, facility utilisation and productivity – all while ensuring the highest levels of safety.

In response to these needs, operations management software solutions utilising digital technologies are required to optimise and automate workflow processes, enable sharing of operating information, provide easy access to data and allow better utilisation of historical information. These solutions help optimise plant operations, manage risks and make the most efficient use of plant assets to ensure safe, reliable and profitable operations.

As the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and the use of big data and artificial intelligence (AI) gain momentum, attention is being focused on the collection, analysis and digitisation of data. Done correctly, these activities add value by identifying problems at an early stage to make operations more efficient, enhance management processes and accelerate decision making.

By digitising and standardising information based on accumulated know-how, and by facilitating the exchange of information within and between groups of plant personnel, operations management software can improve work efficiency and plant performance.

Mobile management functionality should be used in conjunction with operations management software because it is an enabler for digital transformation of field activities such as operator rounds, basic equipment care, predictive maintenance and so on. It helps to enhance safety, reliability, efficiency and seamless communication – not only for work inside individual departments, but also for cross-organisational work.

Mobile management functionality is provided by an operations management server exchanging data and information with smartphones and tablets. In many if not most refineries, Wi-Fi coverage is spotty or non-existent in the plant, so this data exchange should be done in the control room or other safe area via either Wi-Fi or a hardwired connection. Information is typically loaded onto a mobile device before a worker goes to the field, and data gathered from the field is transferred from the mobile device to the operations management software.

Dealing with human factors
In the last few years, operations management software is being utilised more and more to enable digitisation of the control room. More recently, mobile tools are extending digitisation to field operations. Combining operations management software with mobile tools creates a synergy to aid with digitisation and standardisation.

This helps mitigate human factor issues, which are often the cause of emergency shutdowns and other issues impacting operational efficiency at plants. In many cases, the issuance of work instructions, the monitoring of progress and other related activities are done verbally or with written documents, and the absence of a digital record can lead to a number of problems.

For example, verbal and written procedures make it difficult or impossible to check work progress in real time. It can take a long time to collect necessary information, errors can be made when adding information to shift handover reports, and it can be difficult to locate and retrieve records on past operations.

Safety can also be compromised by issues such as failure to report near misses and incidents and take appropriate countermeasures, and by misunderstandings between field workers and control room operators. In response to these and other issues, there is a growing awareness of the need for operations management solutions to enhance efficiency and safety.

Operations management software addresses these issues by providing tools to digitise and standardise a wide variety of information for sharing among plant operators and managers. This can range from information on anything unusual noted in plant operations to the status of a task or the workflow for a specific operation (see Figure 1).

Operations management software helps to improve reliability and safety by ensuring plant operators and other personnel have the information they need to carry out their work correctly, and it also helps to improve operational efficiency. To support safe and secure operation management, this type of solution can record event actions and work carried out based on work instructions, and enable the retrieval and use of information representing the knowledge and know-how of skilled operators.

When applied correctly, operations management software helps ensure safe, reliable and efficient plant operations and regulatory compliance by digitisation of information related to work practices. This results in improved productivity through standardised work practices, streamlined processes and improved communications and coordination across departments.

Software requirements
For operations management software to effectively digitise and standardise plant procedures, three main capabilities are required.
1. The ability to digitise work instructions and information based on the results of actions by operators in the central control room
The software must be able to digitise, manage and share information on plant operations such as work instructions and progress updates. In addition to incorporating all the functions used to record operation and work instructions and prepare reports for shift handover, the operations management software must have the following functions:
a. Incident management: a function that ensures the workflow for the handling of near misses and incidents is carried out in a unified manner, from the recording of the incident’s occurrence to the implementation of countermeasures and verification of results.
b. Management of change: a function that ensures the workflow for changing plant facilities or operation processes is carried out in a unified manner. Such workflows may involve the performance of risk assessments, the reporting of changes to relevant personnel and the actual implementation of changes to a plant’s operation.
c. Permit to work: a function to digitise the performance of field work, assessment of resources and scheduling, providing of work permission and work reporting into a single, integrated workflow
2. Intuitive user interface (UI): optimised so that operators can understand with a single glance the status of an operation, and quickly find whatever information they need. Users should also be able to import operating instruction checklists created in Excel into the operations management database.
3. Use on mobile devices for improved efficiency in the field: maintenance and other tasks are often performed at locations other than the central control room. To enable work instructions, permissions and histories to be viewed easily anywhere at a manufacturing site, there needs to be a mobile version of the software for use on smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices. Instead of relying on paper notes or the use of transceivers, workers in the field can use this type of software on their mobile devices. This allows them to quickly and easily view all necessary information, thereby increasing operational efficiency and helping to ensure that all required tasks are carried out.
Let us look at how a field technician in a refinery would use operations management software to improve his or her efficiency.

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