Gassing up your car for the weekend, listening to the steady flow of fuel as it moves from the pump into the car’s tank, it’s easy to overlook the journey of those hydrocarbons — their birth at a remote offshore oil well more than 500 feet below the surface, being battered by turbulent waves in transport across the rugged North Pacific, only to find themselves traveling hundreds more miles in a pipeline across searing desert terrain.
A stop at the refinery and then they were off again, carried by train and truck until finally arriving at your local filling station. Along the way, they passed through countless pumps, holding tanks, meters, monitors and hoses. A failure at any one of those points, at any stage in a journey made countless times every day around the world, may have ruined your weekend.
To serve the constant demand for fuel and oil all over the globe, the petroleum supply chain hums 24 hours a day, from some of world’s most remote areas to its most accessible. The equipment involved in mining, moving, refining and selling it is expensive, and rugged, and comes from hundreds of manufacturers.
With so many variables, finding a way to monitor these expensive capital assets and use that data to improve efficiency, drive better performance, enable innovation and keep fuel flowing has always been a major challenge for the oil and gas industry — and a major untapped opportunity. Enhanced by the Internet of Things (IoT), Rockwell Automation is bringing its vision for The Connected Enterprise to life by building new forms of intelligence to transform the petroleum supply chain. In doing so, it’s also reaping bottom-line results in global productivity and competitiveness that could ultimately pay off at the pump.
“What we’re talking about is delivering a degree of collaboration and visibility unheard of in the oil and gas industry,” says Doug Weber, business manager, remote application monitoring for Rockwell Automation. “With sensors, software and the cloud, these disparate assets can become part of a Connected Enterprise, powered at its core by a rich flow of data.”
Founded in 1903 with a line of machine controllers, today Rockwell Automation is using Microsoft’s IoT services to extend its business and provide managed monitoring and support for its products in the field. The company has put years of research into developing cloud-based solutions, using software, sensors and devices to predict equipment failures along the supply chain, track its performance in real time, and help refine designs and processes to prevent those failures in the future.
Whether it’s on a drilling platform at sea, the filling station on the corner, or any of the thousands of miles in between, the company is not only ensuring equipment operates as it should but is building its own reservoir of data and drilling into new forms of value it never anticipated.
Keeping the crude flowing
It all starts in the chilly coastal waters off Alaska’s rugged Kenai Peninsula. Hilcorp Energy Company’s oil-drilling platforms operate there 24 hours a day, all year round. As part of this continuous effort to pull crude from beneath the ocean floor, Hilcorp recently upgraded its pumping equipment, choosing highly efficient and reliable electrical submersible pumps driven from equally reliable variable speed drives from Rockwell Automation that can operate for years despite the harsh environmental conditions.
Still, problems can occur, and a single pump failing in an offshore rig can halt operations and cost the company $100,000 to $300,000 a day in lost production. To avoid that scenario, Rockwell Automation has connected the pumps’ electrical variable speed drives to the cloud, so they can be monitored continuously from the company’s command room hundreds of miles away in Cleveland, Ohio.
Sensors throughout the system drive data into the control gateway from Rockwell Automation, and from there to the Microsoft Azure cloud, where it is pushed to the engineers through digital dashboards. These provide real-time information on the equipment’s performance and health — pressure, temperature, flow rates and dozens of other calculations. Not only are engineers from Rockwell Automation able to analyze data from the sensors in real time and ensure equipment is performing within its specified parameters, the system will also alert them the moment an issue is detected.
“The last time we had a well trip offline, within five minutes we had a phone call telling us what broke, what to look at, and how to test it,” Hilcorp’s facilities engineer Mark McKinley says. “It saved six hours of troubleshooting or more, and we got right back online. The staff is ecstatic, because they get support before they have to break out manuals and figure it out on their own.”
Transforming downstream transactions
While the oil and gas industry provides the lifeblood of transportation, it is also dependent on it. Getting the crude out of the ground is one thing, but once it’s out, it must be moved to refineries and ultimately to the pump. Accomplishing this is a vast network of ships, barges, pipelines, trains and trucks crisscrossing the globe.
At nearly every intersecting point in this network, there is a piece of equipment familiar to those in the industry that most people would never think about: The so-called “skids” that measure the amount of product transferred from one container to another as it changes hands.
Known as Lease Automatic Custody Transfer (LACT) units, these skids have historically been just one of thousands of assets scattered around the world and often located in the middle of nowhere. Doing their jobs in isolation with no connectivity, skids have traditionally relied on paper-based processes and periodic site visits for routine maintenance, leaving them vulnerable to inaccuracies and failures — until a company called Trigg Technologies changed that with the help of Rockwell Automation and Microsoft.
By modernizing LACT units with sensors and moving that information to the cloud with Azure, Trigg Technologies has enabled its skids for remote service and maintenance, including the ability to monitor the product being transferred to ensure it is correct, and coordinate immediate electronic invoicing
“The ability to automate these transactions across thousands of machines and countless miles is transformational for this industry,” Weber says. “Now all parties involved can have immediate electronic records of transactions, real accountability in these remote locations, immediate awareness for maintenance and diagnostics, and new levels of information about every transaction.”
Building a smarter gas pump
Hundreds of miles downstream and on street corners around the world is another piece of equipment that most people are familiar with: retail gas pumps. While most people use these for gasoline, today many delivery trucks are fueled by liquid natural gas, and so pumps designed to handle that fuel source are making their way to filling stations worldwide as well.
One major oil company is working with local gas stations to install liquid natural gas fueling lanes, and they’re taking it a step further, partnering with Rockwell Automation, to connect and cloud-enable the new pumps.
Cloud gateway appliances at each station collect the data and securely send it to a cloud platform provided by Rockwell Automation. Collecting and storing real-time data from hundreds of sensors, variable frequency drives and Rockwell Automation’s control systems allows each of the stakeholders across their supply chain to perform their function more efficiently: “On a basic level, there are reports on the functioning of the equipment, inventory of fuel, consumption rates, and analytics to predict when they’ll need to perform preventive maintenance, replenish supplies, etc.,” Weber says. “This drives significant productivity and cost savings.”
Rockwell Automation uses Azure to provide the resulting dashboards as a Web application that can be viewed on PCs, iPhones, Windows Phones or Android devices. According to Weber, this flexible platform allows various entities involved with the operation to access the information and put it to use.
As the project moves along, Weber says, the volume of data collected could facilitate predictive analysis to better anticipate imminent failures and maintenance needs. The data can also be used to improve the design of pumping stations and other equipment based on that long-term perspective. To facilitate these innovations, Rockwell Automation is beginning to tap into Azure Machine Learning to understand how the massive amounts of data being collected can create even more value.
“The more data we have, the more we can learn and put together algorithms to predict problems,” Weber says. “It’s about taking information from that control system and using it to make those systems even more efficient and productive.”
Though it’s still early, the oil company is already planning to expand the project across Europe and North America, with potentially hundreds of sites coming online in the next several months. For its part, Rockwell Automation is looking across the industry at how to enable hundreds of other vendors to service and maintain their own equipment in much the same way.
“With Microsoft Azure and the Internet of Things, we can now enable these multi-tenant solutions for the first time, where the machine builder can gain insight into its equipment in a new way to maintain it and improve it,” Weber says. “The end user can have a completely different but related set of views, and the two can now collaborate much more effectively. It’s just a level of collaboration and knowledge-sharing that really hasn’t existed in the past.”
Just something to think about the next time you’re putting gas in your car for the weekend.