The latest installment of Intel’s Customer Spotlight Series highlights the work done by teams at ExxonMobil to modernize the technology they use and to note the creation of the Open Process Automation Forum, a consortium created to address long-standing challenges with industrial control systems.

Throughout the discussion, ExxonMobil executives explained how their work innovating their internal systems with Intel inspired them to create the Open Process Automation Forum to help other refineries and petrochemical plants automate operational processes to maintain safe, stable and efficient operations.

For decades, ExxonMobil and energy providers like it have run mostly on proprietary closed systems and have been locked into single-vendor solutions, limiting their flexibility and ability to incorporate new innovations from a variety of vendors.

Hosted by the influential CIO and technology adviser Tim Crawford, the discussion featured commentary from ExxonMobil’s project sponsor, Kenny Warren, plus, Nick Clausi, senior vice president of research and engineering, Don Bartusiak, chief engineer of process control, and Brad Houk, project manager of open process automation.

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Updating old systems

Clausi explained teams at ExxonMobil have been tasked with coming up with solutions to the company’s “dual energy challenge,” which he said involved providing energy as well as chemicals to a growing population while at the same time reducing carbon emissions.

ExxonMobil is a direct descendant of Standard Oil, which was founded in 1870, and the company has had to survive more than 100 years in technological advances.

“Like many in our industry, ExxonMobil has a large base of proprietary control systems that are manufactured in our facilities, refineries and chemical plants worldwide. These have served us well with high availability as well as safe operations at all our plants,” Warren said.

“But our install base is decades old and the challenges we face are the high cost of replacement and the limited capability to access the current technology especially in a more dynamic future with more data analytics, sensor capability, wireless and growth in computing power. As we go about replacing our existing systems, we will require a more flexible, open system that positions us for the future with an architecture that allows for innovation and value capture.”

Bartusiak elaborated further on ExxonMobil industrial control systems, which he said was rigid and vendor proprietary. While this allowed for greater controls, he said, it was a huge barrier to innovation and became one of the fundamental business problems the company had to address.

He laid out all of the technology the company is now adopting to streamline its industrial control systems, which include greater use of wireless technology, 5G, IoT, cloud systems and artificial intelligence.

“We’re aggressively pursuing wireless tech in manufacturing, both for wireless connections to sensors or final control elements, which are things like valves that change the rate of flows of fluids. This is also to enable a digital, mobile workforce,” Bartusiak said.

ExxonMobil, he said, was eager to adopt this technology but had to make sure cybersecurity issues were addressed first due to the sensitive nature of their industry.

“In an industrial control context, cybersecurity is a very real concern for us. We’re talking about risk to life, risk to our neighbors who live near our manufacturing facilities. We take that responsibility very seriously. As we pursue these new tech, it’s always done with the constraints and realities that we have to do it in a secure way,” he said.

His team has also spent years working on “digital twin” systems, creating an entire suite of sophisticated, mathematical-based model based technologies that modeled the dynamic behavior of the company’s processes. Bartusiak explained that his team now uses those models to control and optimize the company’s facilities.

Houk went further into detail about the structured stage gating process ExxonMobil uses to develop technology, explaining that the process is designed to confirm key assumptions and reduce risk through each stage of development.

“We’ve applied ExxonMobil’s standard process as we work to converting open process automation from a vision to a reality, so specifically, we start the development with a proof of concept. We really look at some key technical feasibility issues,” Houk said.

“Once we’re able to demonstrate that we have confidence, we can move forward into a prototype system, expanding our confidence and the technical feasibility of the system and demonstrating some key concepts. We build on our prototype and build a test bed. The test bed will provide the basis for conducting a field trial around the development process. We’ve got key requirements at each gate and we’ve tried to eliminate risk, proving our confidence that we’re on a path to success.”

Working with Intel

The partnership between Intel and ExxonMobil started in 2014, when the energy company decided to compile its work into a set of papers that defined the functional characteristics of what we wanted in the system.

They began sharing the studies throughout the energy and chemical industry, leading to an overwhelming response from Intel. Within months, the technology company came to ExxonMobil with detailed prototypes of a part of the reference architecture that Bartusiak and his team called the “distributed control node.”

That prototype led to a fruitful partnership that served as the jumping off point for the Open Process Automation Forum.

“The contributions that we’re seeing from Intel take two forms. They showed us the possibilities to bring technologies into our space that we really weren’t aware of and one general category is network function virtualization technology. Virtualization software-defined networking, which is technology that Intel is strong in, showed us what’s possible to be done in ways that we really hadn’t considered,” Bartusiak said.

“The other area is showing us the way in terms of how we affect the business transformation. It’s more than the technology, you have to build that ecosystem to affect this transformation and to sustain it over the long term. Intel’s experience in affecting these types of transformations is another area that I would highlight that we’re really benefiting from.”

The Open Process Automation Forum

The changes ExxonMobil was looking to make were significant and too extensive to make without outside help. Bartusiak said officials began to take some cues from changes occurring in the defense avionics industry, which was also in the process of transitioning from a long series of closed proprietary systems.

Companies in the defense avionic industry were looking to reduce costs by reusing unchanged radar systems and did so by switching to modular, open and interoperable systems defined by industry standards and procurement specifications that required industrywide standards. This is part of what led to ExxonMobil’s focus on collaborative standards.

“But the actual standards process itself requires collaboration and consensus among the whole market, the end users, the system vendors, the hardware suppliers, the software suppliers, and the systems integrators,” Bartusiak added.

“And so the outcome that we aspire to get really is a win-win solution for the willing participants in this transformation.”

Bartusiak and the other ExxonMobil executives explained that they alone could not create new standards considering it is $15 billion per year industry that they only represent a single-digit percentage of.

Any effort like this would require collaboration, so executives at ExxonMobil began reaching out to other companies that they knew might be having similar difficulties. These kinds of industrial control systems were not just useful for oil and gas companies but any enterprises involved in chemicals, mining, pharmaceutical, pulp and paper.

Today, the Open Process Automation Forum has members across dozens of industries.

“The systems themselves are just enabling infrastructure. The way that we work with our peers in the standards activity is that we don’t share what we’re doing application-wise with our competition, but we all need this infrastructure. That’s the nature of our collaboration, that’s where the common ground is, where we can work together,” Houk explained.

While some of the suppliers previously involved in this kind of activity might feel threatened by this, Houk said the companies willingly participating are seeing changes in their business.

“The standards are largely about the interfaces between the components that make up an industrial control system. The inner content, the core intellectual property, is still protectable, licensable, capable of generating revenue both from hardware and software products as well as the services required to integrate a system that will work for the end user company,” Houk said.

“It’s protectable, it’s licensable, you can generate earnings with it. That’s the nature of the ecosystem we’re trying to build.”

Clausi told listeners that the Open Process Automation Forum was a breakthrough for multiple industries that use this kind of equipment in their work, and that this was an “enabling investment that helped lay the groundwork for future collaboration and innovation based on rapidly advancing digital capabilities.”

The open standards were allowing innovators to break out of the silos created by the closed nature of hardware and software while delivering real value to companies like ExxonMobil, according to Clausi.

“As a company, we view technical innovation as core to our business and a key driver for competitiveness,” Clausi said.

“The Open Process Automation Forum is really an investment that fundamentally lays the groundwork for that continued innovation that helps us meet our company objectives of supplying and meeting the global energy demand as well as chemical demand.”

Olivier Le Moal, Getty Images/iStockphoto