Like most modern industries, the downstream oil sector is seeing strong trends towards digitalisation. Digital technologies have taken hold in the consumer-facing segments of the sector and at import terminals already, while refining applications for digital are emerging. Net-Zero will see an increased impetus for more focused decarbonisation efforts in the UK and as well as will aid decarbonisation in the downstream oil sector digitalisation and can open up other environmental, cost, and health and safety benefits.
Digitalisation in the Downstream Oil Industry
Case Study - The Esso Payments App
The Esso App, introduced for use across the UK, enables remote payments at Esso-branded fuel and service stations. Customers at eligible fuel stations are able to pump their fuel and pay for it securely without entering the forecourt shop. The remote payment technology also gives allows consumers to set a maximum fuel spend limit and collect rewards for use at other shops.
In addition to the warning devices reminding users of the right fuel for their cars, the Esso App, and others like it, present a clear signal that digitalisation is progressing in the UK.
Technology Opportunities for Refineries and Terminals
Many digitalisation technologies are emerging and below are just some that have seen the most widespread investment and deployment so far.
Digital Twin | A digital twin is a model created to simulate an entire refinery. They can be used to model the effect of changing input parameters – such as feedstocks or weather events – and to perform training and maintenance simulations to help operators make better decisions. Although they have the potential to reduce maintenance and turn-around time, digital twins can be complicated to build at established sites. For older refineries developing a digital twin can be expensive and time-consuming. Instead, a digital twin of selected parts of the refinery, where the benefits of improved control and efficiency would be most profound, can be developed
Robotics | Robotics include a wide variety of technologies that can be integrated to work with or around existing infrastructure and technology. Robots can reduce or remove safety risks to human workers during plant operation. These technologies have achieved widespread acceptance and are typically used for maintenance procedures. These robots – or “cobots” – may often work side-by-side with human counterparts.
Artificial Intelligence | Artificial intelligence (AI) can often be integrated with existing infrastructure and technologies. AI and predictive learning technologies, used with advanced process control, can allow operations – especially of low-risk processes and plants – to be automated to improve efficiency thus increasing production margins. The expense and complexity of these systems requires a high level of business readiness to facilitate integration with similar issues found for old sites as for digital twinning.
Interconnected Sites | Greater site interconnectivity has a wide variety of operational benefits. Increased contact between centralised control systems and workers and units around the site can increase overall site efficiency and safety. Improved worker connectivity – such as through GPS tracking – can help maintenance workers pinpoint the location of problems and help alert workers to problems to be avoided. Improved connectivity between process units through a well-managed control room can improve process efficiency, thus increasing production margins.
Case Study: Shell Haven Import Terminal
The Shell Haven jet fuel import terminal on the Thames Estuary is a prime example of the well-planned, well-integrated introduction of robotics into site operations. Drones used for marine jetty inspections have reduced the time taken to complete inspections by 80% and have removed 100% of risks caused to workers by working at heights and over water. The terminal also uses robots for both internal and external tank cleaning. Electromagnetic robots are used to climb the outside of tanks to strip away old paint (reducing working-at-height risks for humans by 95%) and to clean and inspect the interiors of tanks (reducing confined space risks by 85%). Eventually, submersible robots may be able to be used to perform cleaning and inspection activities on tanks while they are still in use
Barriers to Digitalisation
Although the benefits of digitalisation are manifold, some early issues that are being overcome include:
Digital Maturity |A company’s digital maturity – their preparedness or ability to take advantage of technological development – may determine the success of a company’s efforts to introduce any of the above technologies. A company that is accustomed to working across organisational silos will be better able to integrate digital technologies.
Worker Skills |The continuous need to reskill and/or upskill workers is critical to successful technological integration. To overcome discomfort with new technologies, HR policies must be structured in consideration of technological advancements. Focused digital training programs can help build a positive culture for technological integration. Offering compelling career prospects for new apprentices and engineers will ensure that the sector continues to attract the best talent.
As discussed in our Transition, Transformation, and Innovation report, new demand for skills is expected in a wide range of areas from data science and analytics to materials science and machine learning. It will also result in the creation of entirely new job positions, such as for machine risk officers and unmanned vehicle pilots.
Established Sites |The legacy systems installed at established sites present challenges to digitalisation. These systems will require significant time and effort to incorporate into a unified system and may even require the installation of independent integration systems to standardise data across the site. New plants are much simpler to digitalise as the necessary systems can be built in from the initial engineering stage. As a result, digitalisation of refineries in Asia and Middle East is much further along than in Europe and North America. Digitalising established sites can not only improve margins, but can also modernise and improve site resilience to economic, social, and legislative change.
Cybersecurity Risks |Many of the systems required to increase site interconnectivity and introduce other digital technologies create cybersecurity concerns. Wireless signals shared across sites do not stop sharing information beyond the fence-line. Conversely, the need for 100% signal reliability across the site must be considered. At sites of national critical importance consideration also needs to be given as to external parties who might have an interest in acquiring or disrupting information within downstream oil sector sites.