How digitization and automation increase profitability for chemical and refining plants

How digitization and automation increase profitability for chemical and refining plants

The chemicals and refining industry is changing, and with great change comes greater opportunities and greater volatility. Fuels and petrochemicals often carry slim margins and are vulnerable to shifts in demand and pricing, making for a challenging market. Recent increases in demand have enticed new entrants, increasing competition. Compound this with new regulatory and consumer pressures to reduce plant waste with more sustainable production processes and it’s easy to see the tricky landscape chemicals and refining companies face today.

In this environment, operational excellence is more important than ever. Improving plant efficiency boosts competitiveness and sets your company up for long-term success. It also reduces waste and environmental impact. New management and automation technologies hold the key to increasing efficiency, but they also offer a host of other benefits that impact both capital and operational budgets.

It all begins with design

Implementing new technologies early in a plant’s design phase has the biggest impact on steam and fuel consumption, the primary sources of energy waste in most plants. Older plants may try to incorporate new technologies into existing infrastructure, but realizing anticipated efficiency gains can be challenging. Plants that integrate new digital processes and automation into their design are, by definition, more efficient, cost less, produce less chemical waste and are more likely to render older competitors obsolete.

Solving complexity with automation

Another area where emerging digital technologies play a big role is in process integration. ABB has observed that integrated process automation and power management systems reduce energy usage by up to 10%.

Building a unified control system was essential for Sadara, the flagship petrochemical facility in Saudi Arabia. It relied on standardization (e.g., IEC 61850 for substation communications) and best practices, beginning with a front-end engineering design (FEED) study and an orientation for each of the 15 EPC firms working on the project. The result is an unprecedented facility comprised of 26 world-scale plants and more than 150,000 I/O points. The entire system—including power and automation—is managed from five control rooms that each have visibility to all assets and processes.

Sadara is only the largest example of a wider trend. The increasing complexity and interdependence of plant systems is why oil, gas and chemical plant maintenance and start up tasks are likely to be handled more and more autonomously going forward.

Greater safety, lower cost

Digital systems and automation also make modern downstream facilities safer and easier to manage—at lower costs. This is partially because it takes fewer operators to manage a semi-automated plant. However, the combination of a hazardous work environment and high labor costs makes the chemicals and refining industry ideal for automation since automated solutions works best in environments built around dangerous and repeatable tasks. Take augmented field procedures for example.

Proper field work relies on constant communication between field technicians and control room operators. Procedures are usually written on pieces of paper that can easily be damaged or lost. Augmented field procedures are digitized on tablets and prevent technicians from moving to the next step in the process before the current step is successfully completed. The technology keeps field technicians and control room operators on the same page at all times, ensuring the field tech is able to do their job in the safest way possible.

Great insight into plant maintenance

Digitization unlocks new insights into how plants operate, which can have a big impact, especially on plant maintenance. Applying statistical analysis to asset management unlocks valuable insights that would otherwise remain hidden in a traditional system. Understanding an asset’s condition allows it to remain in service longer, reducing downtime while preserving safety and operational performance. This in turn delays the need to replace the equipment before its time, deferring capital expenditures.

PKOP’s refinery at Shymkent (Kazakhstan), for example, is moving from an hourly-based, reactive maintenance system to a predictive maintenance strategy where maintenance activities are carried out based on the actual condition of assets and equipment. Shymkent aims to reduce the interval in maintenance downtime from annually to once every three years as it sets up a digital plant infrastructure to enable better maintenance and management of plant assets. With a typical maintenance period of one month, the benefit of extending the time between shutdowns by a factor of three is substantial.

Another way digitization improves and extends plant maintenance is with plant simulation technology, or digital twins. These simulations allow plant operators to run tests, virtually, on how certain pieces of machinery will perform in certain situations. These insights act as a health indicator, letting operators know how hard and how long they can push a piece of machinery before maintenance is needed.

Good for business, good for the planet

Extending asset life has a positive effect on the environment since the longer an asset stays in operation, the longer you can avoid creating a replacement and incurring the environmental costs associated with it. In many ways, sustainability and efficiency go hand in hand—the more efficiently a plant operates, the less waste it generates and the more product it’s able to produce. It’s a virtuous cycle that benefits both business and the environment.

The chemicals and refining landscape is shifting faster than ever. By integrating digitization and automation into new plant designs companies have the opportunity not only to increase efficiency, but also to improve safety, reduce waste and lower costs.


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