Automation: It’s Time to Question the Way It’s Always Been Done

ExxonMobil is rethinking the way it automates operations, bucking the traditionally conservative mentality in oil and gas.

ExxonMobil is getting ready to start up a new facility in Papua New Guinea.
ExxonMobil is getting ready to start up a new facility in Papua New Guinea.

As the world’s largest non-government producer of both oil and natural gas, ExxonMobil has active exploration in more than 50 countries, with 100 major projects under way or in the planning stage. ExxonMobil has also been facing a whole lot of automation headache.

With its traditional I/O approach, a typical project could have 500 junction boxes, instruments wired in from the field. Some 100 marshaling cabinets would be needed to simplify the wiring, and then another 50 controller I/O cabinets from there. Not only did all of that take a large amount of indoor floor space and a large number of copper cables from the field, every one of those cabinets was custom-engineered; not a single standardized component in the bunch.

Sandy Vasser, facilities instrumentation and electrical manager for ExxonMobil Development Co., described the daunting scene in a presentation at the Siemens Oil & Gas Innovations Conference in Houston this week. “We spent a lot of time and money on the design of these buildings,” he said “It can consume five months to a year just doing FATs.”

ExxonMobil Development Co. handles all major development projects in the upstream for ExxonMobil. Vasser and his team finally had to take a step back and reexamine the way it was automating its operations. “We had a lot of incentive because of the amount of capital spend that we had,” Vasser said. “We looked at everything we do, and asked the question: Do we have to do it that way?”

The response Vasser questioned the most was, “That’s the way we’ve done it for 20 years.” It’s thinking like that that leaves them dependent on deliverables from I/O partners, a lot of copper cable/tray space and weight, a large number of terminations for the instruments, and other inefficiencies and cost adders. “The automation is executed in parallel with all the other deliverables,” Vasser said. “But it’s constantly changing. We can’t finish the design because it’s changing. So we freeze the design for FATs, and then we have to make changes in the field, which is very costly.”

This architecture wasn’t working for ExxonMobil, and they needed to find a new way. So they gathered a group of their key suppliers together, and issued a set of challenges:

  • Eliminate, simplify or automate steps in the overall automation execution.
  • Minimize custom engineering.
  • Shift the custom engineering to the software and rely on standard, not customized hardware components with minimal dependencies on the custom design.
  • Virtualize the hardware and prove the software design against the virtualized system via software FAT that can be performed anywhere; no hardware FAT.
  • Prevent design recycle and hardware/software rework.
  • Eliminate components not necessary anymore.
  • Eliminate or minimize physical, data and schedule dependencies with other disciplines.
  • Simplify the configuration of interfaces with all third-party packages.
  • More easily accommodate changes including very late changes.
  • Mitigate the effects of hardware and software version changes.
  • Eliminate, simplify and/or automate the generation of required documentation.
  • Alarm manage and cybersecure by design.
  • Challenge traditional approaches and solutions.

What ExxonMobil is pursuing now is a smart I/O concept. It’s an architecture with fewer controller cabinets without I/O and field power supplies. Those controller cabinets are standard, ordered by part number. Customized marshaling cabinets are eliminated altogether. System design is contained within the software, which is validated virtually and separate from the hardware.

What they want, Vasser said, is to be able to order standard factory junction boxes with easily configurable I/O. All they would need is an approximate I/O count to order those boxes, and boxes could simply be added to accommodate additional I/O. They want to achieve a 60-70 percent reduction in terminations, streamlined commissioning, and simplified and/or automated documentation, he added.

A key barrier ExxonMobil—and the oil and gas industry as a whole—faces in this plan is that conventional thought has always been to focus on perfecting the way projects have always been executed, Vasser said. “But if we’re only improving the way we’ve been doing things, at best we’ll have incremental improvement. That’s just not enough,” he said. “We have to challenge traditional practices and technologies and look for opportunities to make giant leaps in improvements.”

ExxonMobil is interested in sharing these ideas of smart I/O throughout the industry, Vasser said. “This is not proprietary. Most of it is just common sense,” he said. “If we can get everyone adopting a similar approach, we’ll benefit from that. Our suppliers will get better at it, and we’ll get a better solution.”

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