Cover story: Combining human and artificial intelligence: The new downstream perspective

By 2025, we will witness humans working with systems in a collaborative way in the downstream industry, using the frontiers of artificial intelligence, predicts Peter Terwiesch of ABB.

Peter Terwiesch, president, Industrial Automation Division, and member, Group Executive Committee, ABB Ltd, Switzerland.
Peter Terwiesch, president, Industrial Automation Division, and member, Group Executive Committee, ABB Ltd, Switzerland.

By 2025, we will witness humans working with systems in a collaborative way in the downstream industry, using the frontiers of artificial intelligence, predicts Peter Terwiesch, president, Industrial Automation Division, and member, Group Executive Committee, ABB Ltd, Switzerland, in an interview given to Martin Menachery.

ABB – the Swiss-Swedish- technology leader writing the future of industrial automation and digitalisation – holds a history spanning more than 130 years, operates in more than 100 countries and employs around 136,000 people. The company’s operations are focussed on the full range of electrical, automation and digitalisation technologies.

With a heritage of more than four decades at the forefront of digital technologies, ABB is a pioneer in digitally connected and enabled industrial equipment and systems. Refining and petrochemicals industry facilities around the world use the company’s equipment, systems and services for operational excellence. Currently, oil, gas and chemical companies worldwide are adjusting their business models to a period of recovery. According to global GDP forecasts, world economy is entering into a period of improvement which will automatically swell customer demand for various end products of the downstream industry.

With the rising standards of living and higher disposable incomes, the demand for oil, gas and chemicals will definitely increase. Certain degree of recovery is experienced as well as expected not only in oil prices but also in investments in to the sector. From that perspective, regardless whether centred around the exploration and production spend, or global rig count, there are signs of an improving economy in the oil, gas and chemicals sector.

ABB in the Middle East

In the Middle East, there is an overall strategic shift from producing commodity chemicals and petrochemicals to going further downstream into specialty chemicals, spreading further out into the value chain of the oil, gas and chemical sectors.

The region is also deploying more and more advanced technologies in many new mega projects as well as in upgradation and expansion programmes of existing facilities. ABB is providing its equipment, systems and technologies in some of these water-shed projects.

Sadara Chemical Company (Sadara) – a joint venture between Saudi Aramco and The Dow Chemical Company – is a striking project where ABB has delivered all process control systems across the 26 integrated world-scale plants. With a project value of $20bn, 19 EPCs involved, and annual planned output of three million metric tonnes, the Sadara project is a game-changing step for the Middle East. The project incorporates many firsts – uses new feedstocks; is powered with new technologies; and many first-time processes are deployed in the production. It is mammoth, complex and highly integrated, and is the largest such project ever built in the world in a single phase.

Sadara is a very important development for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as well as the entire Middle East since it produces a differentiated slate of products like plastics, chemicals and intermediates, and creates an entirely new value chain in the region. The endeavour will transform the downstream landscape not only of the Kingdom but also of the wider Gulf region.

Many industries in the oil, gas and chemical sectors as well as many allied sectors, which previously relied on importing raw materials, can now use the produce from Sadara as the feedstock, thereby further widening the downstream production into new specialty chemicals. The project will boost the value chain of downstream business in the whole Middle East.

“ABB was selected as the main automation contractor for the Sadara project in 2011. The role of the main automation contractor is very critical to the success of such a project, especially considering the highly integrated nature of the manufacturing processes involved. The consistency of the automation landscape and the degree of the integration we have built in for the project is outstanding,” says Peter Terwiesch, president, Industrial Automation Division, and member, Group Executive Committee, ABB Ltd, Switzerland.

“We provided a complete digital infrastructure with 18 control systems, 150,000 Input/Output (I/O) signals, 260 redundant controllers, 450 servers, 260 workstations, and 40 operator consoles across five control operator buildings for the project. This digital infrastructure includes the world’s largest Foundation Fieldbus installation,” Terwiesch adds.

Supporting the human element – the operators who work in these plants in a mission critical, real-time, 24/7 environment – in the best possible way is absolutely crucial for the performance optimisation of the project. According to available data, unplanned downtime costs the petrochemical industry approximately $20bn per annum. The leading cause for this loss is operator error.

“The human element in projects like Sadara is tremendously important. Empowering and supporting humans to make the best informed and supported decisions is really important, and that is what ABB is doing with its automation and digitalisation solutions,” observes Terwiesch.

Another important cause of unplanned shut downs in massive projects like Sadara are failures in large rotating machinery like pumps and compressors, and the drive systems around these. The ABB control systems play a critical role in the smooth functioning of these rotating machinery.

“Recently, ABB was selected as a preferred vendor by SABIC for distributed control systems (DCS). ABB has been the undisputed global leader in process automation and DCS for more than four decades. We are proud and pleased to be an approved vendor for SABIC with our DCS portfolio,” Terwiesch comments.

Localisation and talent development

The Middle East is heavily investing in training people so that they can progress in fulfilling careers and create value for the region. The region is continuously raising its standard of living which definitely results in demand creation for the end products from the oil, gas and chemical industries.

“The region – with its talented work force and thriving industry – is a fascinating destination for solution providers like us. Operating from different parts of the region, ABB is continuously localising its capability to make the best use of the talent available here,” remarks Terwiesch.

“Actually, all our customers in the Middle East also are currently localising their capabilities. Our training centre in Abu Dhabi is a marvellous example for the local talent development with expert training and advancement sessions for our own workforce as well as for our customers,” Terwiesch reveals.

“The theme of our business is leadership in automation. Leadership is always in the eyes of the customers. When customers build a new facility or upgrade/expand an existing one, we aim to be their partner of choice for perfection in electrification, automation and digitalisation,” asserts Terwiesch.

In terms of challenges, bringing in new technology and deploying it in the region has to go hand-in-hand with the development of the talent. It does not make sense to develop sophisticated talent in the region, if it does not incorporate state-of-the-art technologies. The talent would go wasted.

At the same time, it is not possible to have the latest technology, if there is no talent to use the technology. So, talent development and adoption of new technologies have to go hand-in-hand for any region to be successful. The Middle East, with its vast resources, is in an advantageous position to balance its technology adoption drives with its talent development initiatives.

“We are very successful in this in the region. When ABB teamed up with Sadara as its main automation contractor, we redeployed our best experts from around the globe to the Kingdom – particularly from the US, Norway, UAE and India. In the process, our experts could transfer critical knowledge and provide training to many Saudi nationals working for Sadara and ABB itself,” states Terwiesch.

“ABB always ensure that we provide our solutions and services in very close relation and proximity with our customers. We master technology challenges hand-in-hand with our customers and we advance together on the business and technology landscapes successfully,” Terwiesch mentions.

“In terms of the advantages and opportunities, we have a region on the go in the Middle East which has many of the prerequisites for an attractive industry destination – high degree of familiarity, capacity on the upper part of the value chain, eagerness to move further down on the value chain, and a good appetite for investing in people and technology,” notes Terwiesch.

Industrial Internet of Things

As far as the refining and petrochemicals manufacturing sector is concerned, there are real opportunities out of digitalisation for capital investment projects. In the project phase, the industry can use digitalisation to drive improvements which is all about cost, schedule and risk.

Digitalisation, and the convergence of information technology and operational technology can unlock a lot of opportunities during the operations phase. Digitalisation could also be used for further improving safety, productivity and energy efficiency, and to drive the overall equipment effectiveness of production to get enhanced uptime and reduced downtime.

“I think it is really an exciting time. In all our customer conversations recently, regardless whether it is with international oil companies or national oil companies, we are hearing everybody sharpen their strategies around digitalisation and the opportunities it brings. This is true both for individual companies as well as companies which work in partnership. This is really a very important trend for us,” Terwiesch discloses.

Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), on a very high level, is the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This is remarkable in the sense that the first three Industrial Revolutions got diagnosed only after those have happened. The current Industrial Revolution is identified while it is actually ongoing. This is a striking difference.

Another major milestone of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is that it is not only about mechanisation, electrification and automation of repetitive tasks. “It is also about automation of knowledge work and collaboration of humans and systems, which is really a watershed concept in a number of industries, including refining and petrochemicals manufacturing industry.” adds Terwiesch.

“With IIoT, we have not only continued exponential increase in the availability of data but also similar increase in the ability to process and make sense out of such data. Through IIoT, the industry is on a journey from isolated operations to more connected operations to more collaborative operations, and ultimately to more autonomous operations,” clarifies Terwiesch.

It means plants can handle far more processes and signals with actually fewer, better informed and equipped people. IIoT is enabled though cyber physical systems – it is not just the equipment alone, or the digitalisation alone – it is a combination of equipment, increasingly defined by digitalisation on how it should behave. This theme embodies the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“ABB AbilityTM System 800xA, for example, provides a secure way of connecting our customers to the opportunities of IIoT and the services and the expertise it offers. It sets the standard in automation engineering with the new technologies and methodology for faster and more cost-efficient project execution,” Terwiesch opines.

One of the exciting offerings of digitalisation is that it easily connects expertise across company boundaries during the project planning and execution phases. During the operations phase, beyond connecting subsystems and systems, it connects people for better productivity.

Key innovations from ABB

“The foremost recent innovation from ABB as far as refining and petrochemical industry is concerned is our Intelligent ProjectsTM approach. The core of this innovation is how we are reducing cost, schedule and risk in the project phase through digitalisation tools such as efficient cloud engineering, digital marshalling, standardisation and automated data management,” Terwiesch declares. Using Intelligent ProjectsTM, we see a potential to reduce both the capital and operational costs by 20% to 30%, compared to the conventional way of doing automation projects.

“An important ingredient of ABB’s ‘Intelligent ProjectsTM is a redundant Ethernet-based single channel I/O system called ‘Select I/O’ that we have developed and is a technology which comes with great customer benefits. It provides efficiency improvement for automation projects, as well as faster start-ups while decreasing complexity, project delays and cost overruns,” points out Terwiesch.

“Another recent innovation from ABB is our initiative in the digitalisation endeavour where we created a new industry-leading ABB AbilityTM cloud platform as the basis for delivering expertise and domain competence in the form of solutions and services. ABB AbilityTM Collaborative OperationsTM is such a solution. It connects ABB’s customers in production facilities and headquarters with ABB experts around the globe and ultimately changes how we work together. Asset and operational information is collected and analysed 24/7 at Collaborative Operations Centres to identify, categorise and prioritise actions that help prevent failures and make our customers’ businesses more profitable. This initiative has generated a lot of customer interest,” cites Terwiesch.

Yet another innovation from ABB is the transformational nature in the way the company integrated the process automation capability with the power management expertise. It is basically being able to speak one language between the automation and the power equipment, and helping to overcome power disturbances and manage the power and process side in an integrated way.

On the sensor side, the developments ABB made in instrumentation and analytical areas are contributing to making better process data available in a real-time environment so that the operator gets a more informed perspective on where the process actually stands.

“It starts with an interface between the physical and digital world. In the digital world, with the innovations described earlier, there are a lot of technology advancements – it connects the subsystems and systems. But, if we look beyond technology, more importantly, it connects people in working more effectively with each other across organisational boundaries,” Terwiesch rationalises.

“We spend almost $1.5bn on R&D every year. Digitalisation will continue to play a very significant role in our R&D budget. ABB AbilityTM, our digital portfolio, is one of the prime focus areas for our R&D endeavours. ABB AbilityTM provides a full-range of digital solutions that help customers including oil, gas and chemical companies manage complexity. From equipment condition monitoring to full-fledged collaborative operations, ABB AbilityTM offers tried and tested solutions for each stage of operational lifecycles in process plants,” Terwiesch explains.

“We are on a journey to unlock productivity potentials for our customers through digital technologies. And, we are probing ever new ways on how we can use technology advances to improve on cost, schedule and      risk in projects. That is a challenging but also the most exciting part of the journey,” remarks Terwiesch.

Advancing technology

“I foresee a massive impact of automation and digitalisation in the refineries and petrochemical facilities by 2025. We will reach much further down the road in our technology development in terms of not just connecting systems but running them in a collaborative way with an increasing degree of autonomy,” Terwiesch predicts.

“In this automation landscape, I do not foresee a scenario where humans are not needed any more to run a refinery. I think there still will be the human element in any refinery and petrochemical unit of the future but augmented with better systems and machine intelligence,” comments Terwiesch.

But, what humans will be doing in the refineries and petrochemical plants will change dramatically – humans will add increased value in dealing with processes and market interfaces. Most of the routine, repetitive work done by humans today in downstream facilities will be done by automated systems in the future.

Automation done in the right way will further improve the uptime, productivity, energy efficiency and safety in process industries.

“Human-system collaboration – humans collaborating with systems in order to get the best possible job done – will increase to a whole new level in the downstream landscape. Writing this amazing future together with our esteemed customers through our technology development journey is what we are aiming with our massive investment in technology and R&D, and with our exciting collaborations with our partners,” Terwiesch concludes.

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