Combining the Power of Digital Twins with Cloud-based Collaboration Assures Optimal Refinery Performance

By Tim Shire, KBC

Increasing oil prices are reducing the relative feedstock and energy cost advantages refiners and petrochemicals producers have recently enjoyed. Allied with the high cost and growing scarcity of skilled staff, a fundamental shift in mindset towards plant operations and maintenance is required to assure organizational resilience. Therefore, the desire to achieve enhanced cost structures through innovation in operating models and digitalization has intensified.

Historically, refineries annually purchase thousands of hours of professional consulting services for troubleshooting and optimization under technical service agreements. Under these agreements, third-party subject matter experts are made available and charged on a time and material basis, acting as an extended member of the plant’s technical team.

These services are for the most part provided to reactively address plant issues. While these arrangements work well in some instances, cost containment of services is often an issue, as is the lack of proactive advice and assurance of outcomes. Customers have historically paid for the inputs in the form of service hour billings, but have not been assured of the outcomes.

However, outcome-as-a-service offerings are becoming prevalent. For example, in electricity generation, major equipment vendors have moved from selling gas turbines to selling “power by the hour”. Consumers no longer buy CDs, but instead subscribe to online streaming services with “all you can eat” listening. The proliferation of these subscription-based service models has been enabled by significant improvements in technology.

This outcome-as-a-service model is now being applied to assure plant performance in industrial settings, delivering Operational Excellence (OpX®) as-a-service through the cloud. This type of approach provides the ability to achieve plant troubleshooting and optimization objectives more efficiently and effectively.

To make these types of commercially-advantaged approaches work, the service provider must have a high degree of technical expertise with respect to refinery operations, and battle-tested capabilities for online streaming and management of operations and maintenance data. The service provider must also have efficient, automated algorithms and technology to process the information and generate insights.

Digital Twins in the Cloud

The KBC Co-Pilot Program® does this by creating high-fidelity, molecular-enabled (kinetic) digital twins of refinery and petrochemical plants in the cloud (Figure 1). The digital twin in the cloud gathers data from the plant distributed control systems, historians and labs—as well as from other sources such as feedstock and energy pricing. The data is constantly monitored and analyzed by deep subject matter experts with decades of worldwide plant troubleshooting and optimization experience to create insights for improving plant performance in real-time through highly-robust, cloud-based data sharing.

Figure 1: Digitally replicating live plant operating data and economic data in the cloud allows KBC to provide remote advice and assistance for improving plant operations.

The program also provides predictive capabilities, which improve upon purely reactive approaches. The molecular-enabled, digital twin is able to calculate equipment health parameters which cannot be directly measured by sensors, opening up the opportunity to identify and mitigate issues before they constrain or impact performance.

Reactive and proactive advice and recommendations are provided through an online, cyber-secured collaboration portal, allowing for real-time discussion and exchange of ideas among multiple external experts and plant-based engineering, operations, maintenance and planning groups. Advice and recommendations can also be pushed out to plant personnel through emails and texts, and by sending data and information to existing plant control and monitoring systems.

These types of service agreements apply to day-to-day operations, and also have longer term positive impacts on maintenance and asset integrity, and circle back to production planning, enabling the plant to achieve its full potential at all times in the most efficient way possible.

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