The typical petroleum refinery is a marvel of modern engineering. On a daily basis, hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil flow through thousands of miles of pipe and dozens of process units to generate finished goods including fuels, lubricants, liquefied petroleum gases, sulfur, and asphalt.
Executives in the downstream petroleum industry count on refinery process engineers to fine-tune these complex processes in order to extract the maximum possible margin in a notoriously competitive business, while simultaneously maintaining the best possible safety record. In order to support this, companies have invested heavily in data acquisition and control systems to provide process engineers with the data they need to monitor and optimize refinery activities. However, that data has historically stopped at the desktop.
Refineries are 24 hours a day operations and not every expert can be on shift all the time. Process engineers typically rotate through on call schedules to ensure the facility has 24/7 support. The question is, what happens when the call comes?
The historical status quo has been that a process engineer has to get back to his or her desktop or laptop, log in, view the data, and then attempt to make a decision about the best course of action. This is far from optimal for a couple of reasons:
- Time is of the Essence: When dealing with high temperatures, pressures, and volatile chemicals, there is often no time to lose. In the best case, a slow response to data may mean loss of margin when an optimization decision cannot be made quickly enough. In other cases, even a small delay in analyzing data and taking action may lead to equipment failure or personal injury.
- Calls Reduce Employee Productivity, Morale, and Alertness: Mixed in with the real need to analyze data are the inevitable false alarms. The need to leave what they are doing, get to their computers, and log in continuously while on call reduces employees’ focus and can desensitize them to the real scenarios when they occur.
Luckily, there is no reason it has to work this way. With recent advances in mobile device security, network bandwidth, web services provided data acquisition systems, and the graphing capabilities of mobile devices, it is now possible to put powerful visualizations of real time data into the hands of process engineers using the smartphones they already carry.
At ChaiOne, we have worked with industry clients to build configurable data analysis and visualization tools for both phone and tablet applications. Using the rich user interactions now possible with mobile operating systems, it is possible to build applications that allow users to search for sensors within a facility, group those sensors by piece of equipment or function, and then view trend data for multiple sensors simultaneously on the screen of a normal smartphone. Indeed, the pinch and zoom capabilities of touch screens can provide for superior navigation of trend data compared to desktop applications; something which is even more true for tablet applications.
Allowing process engineers to view real time data and perform basic trending on their mobile devices has the potential to improve refinery performance in multiple ways:
- Improved Profitability: By making data immediately accessible to senior process engineers, they will have more opportunities to optimize processes and increase refinery margin.
- Reduced Downtime: By catching small variances more quickly, engineers will be more likely to be able to address issues before they lead to abnormal operations, shutdown, and potential equipment damage.
- Safer Operations: By speeding up response time in an emergency situation, engineers can act to control a scenario before injuries occur.
- Increased Employee Productivity and Morale: Last, but not least, by freeing on call engineers from the need to log in for minor issues, engineers are better able to enjoy their time off and will be more focused and happy on the job.
In conclusion, by using mobile technology to enable process engineers to view critical process data anytime and anywhere, downstream companies can achieve competitive advantage, improving both the profitability and safety of their operations.