Flexible and Optimized Refining and Petrochemical Operations - Emerson Automation Experts

Flexible and Optimized Refining and Petrochemical Operations

Petrochemical producers and refiners are having to adjust to big changes over the last couple of years. With the large supply of natural gas and natural gas liquids (NGLs) from shale combined with the opening of U.S. oil exports and new LNG exports, prices and supply chains are being affected dramatically.

Emerson's Chris Hamlin

Emerson' Ed Schodowski

At this week’s Operational Excellence in Refining and Petrochemicals conference in Houston, Emerson’s Chris Hamlin and Ed Schodowski presented a plenary session on the path to top quartile performance. This presentation addressed today’s challenges and opportunities, adopting disruptive technologies to create long-term value, challenging conventional thinking and examples where these ideas have been put into practice to deliver business results.

The changing global supply of hydrocarbons has accelerated the need for flexible operations in order to maintain and grow market share. Ed shared one example for refiners in their use of “opportunity crudes”. These shale oil-based crudes, less expensive than traditional crudes, provide challenges in the refining process. We’ve touched on some of these challenges in a post, Optimizing Opportunity Crudes in Refining Operations.

Traditionally, refiners and petrochemical producers have planned operations on a periodic cycle. Given the flexibility introduced by today’s global markets, a shift to real-time decision making is required. This is where disruptive technologies—introduced by the Industrial Internet of Things can play a role.

Instrumentation and control systems have long been used with their wired sensors, final control elements and control and asset management systems to improve process operations. With the introduction of wireless sensors, deep analytics, and expertise that can be remote from the production facilities, much more can be optimized. This increased scope includes reliability, security and health, safety & environment (HSE), systems & data integration, workflow optimization and energy management.

These areas of additional scope not only reduce operating costs, but they provide a shift to real-time decision making to increase the flexibility to capitalize on rapidly changing market conditions.

Chris and Ed noted the key is in developing a strategy around the principles of competitive advantage by focusing on where to be different, starting with the end in mind to determine the systems and infrastructure required, and make sure to get the basics right. For example, if the data coming from the sensors and analyzers attached to the process have holes in coverage or are inaccurate, the most sophisticated decision support systems cannot provide quality recommendations.

Differentiators for a competitive advantage must be uncommon or unique, profitable, defendable and developable. Technology enablers for these differentiators must be reliable, low cost, and easy to use and implement.

reliability-quantified-resultThe roadmap to achieve this competitive advantage strategy starts from the bottom up. First the production process must run safely and efficiently. Next the instrumentation should be surveyed to identify missing measurements and inaccurate or unreliable ones—not only for control but for reliability, energy efficiency and HSE.

With the base established, the process controls can be optimized and advanced process controls added to push the production process to operate reliably at its constraints. The final step is to look holistically from an enterprise level for additional ways to minimize costs, maximize flexibility and use existing resources as efficiently as possible.

They shared an example of a large, Middle East refinery that had quantified business objectives to improve mechanical availability, reduce lost profits, and reduce overall rotating equipment (RE) maintenance costs. They performed a reliability assessment and benchmark which included a criticality and risk assessment, RE improvement roadmap, maintenance work process & diagnostics technologies evaluation, and change management & work culture training.

These impressive results began with a competitive differentiation strategy and clearly quantified business objectives. Each level of the operation was examined from the sensors monitoring the process and plant assets to the information flowing to the enterprise systems.

If you’ll be attending the October 24-28 Emerson Exchange conference here in Austin, make sure to catch the Refining and Petrochemicals industry forum and other industry sessions. You can also connect and interact with other refining experts in the Refining group in the Emerson Exchange 365 community.


  1. jonasberge says:

    Wireless corrosion transmitters can be used to optimize the amount of sour opportunity crude is used in the feed mix, and optimize injection of corrosion inhibitor chemicals. Learn how from this essay: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/your-corrosion-practices-getting-bit-rusty-jonas-berge

  2. Thanks for this interesting read. With many power generation plants aging in the US, maybe another area of focus should be safety. Even something simple as checking the reliability and flexibility of the solenoid valves or explosion-proof coils could make a huge difference in safety levels.

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