Nearly two-thirds of refiners plan to increase their investments in digital technologies over the next three to five years, although digital is not one of the top plant investment areas for refiners today, according to new research from Accenture.
The Accenture Connected Refinery research – based on a survey of more than 200 executives, functional leaders and engineers at refiners globally – shows that more than half of respondents (57 per cent) said that their current level of digital investment overall was more or significantly more than 12 months ago.
While this spending is set to increase, only 19 per cent of refiners rated digital as one of their top three priorities for spending on plant efficiency and productivity over the next three years, Accenture said.
When asked to identify the most important benefits that digital technologies will provide, respondents most often cited more-effective plant management (63 per cent), reducing operational risk (59 per cent) and more-efficient and predictive maintenance (54 per cent).
Reducing operational costs appeared most frequently in the top three business priorities that will drive refiners’ next digital investments, cited by 39 per cent of respondents, yet the most frequently mentioned barrier to digital implementation was the investment required, cited by 50 per cent of respondents.
“Investments in digital technology, when deployed at scale, can generate operational savings far exceeding the investment costs, even in the short term,” Andrew Smart, the managing director who leads Accenture’s Energy practice, said in a statement.
“The fact that refiners plan to spend more on digital shows that they are cautiously optimistic about the incremental benefits to operations that new digital technologies can provide. While there is also concern about the cost of deploying these new solutions, leveraging big data and analytics for real-time operational insights could help refiners achieve best-in-class operational performance,” Smart said.
Tracey Countryman, managing director, Asset and Operations Services, Accenture, added, “Now that computing power is cheaper than ever and mobile and Internet of Things solutions are more viable, refiners must move beyond simply piloting new digital technologies and into deployment at scale to see the benefits of digital. They will then recognize the significant reduction in operating costs and the potential for fundamental business transformation that these technologies can enable.”
Data security concerns
When asked to identify the digital technologies that drive the greatest impact in operational performance, respondents most often cited analytics (74 per cent), cybersecurity (41 per cent) and mobility (38 per cent).
The inclusion of cybersecurity among the top three suggests that companies are seeking to offset the greater risk of cyberattack that comes with more-connected refinery operations. Some of the current and future planned business investment areas that increase this connectivity include more automation, moving operations to the cloud, mobile solutions, AI and robotics.
“As the number of connected systems and devices that share data in the energy value chain continues to grow, so does the scale and impact of any potential cyberattack risk,” Countryman said. “Historically, refinery execution and control systems have been on premise, locally maintained and fairly isolated compared with enterprise systems. With increases in wireless infrastructures connecting people and connecting machines, and manufacturing execution system applications moving to cloud, new operational technology security measures are required.”
Showing the need for new measures, more than one-third of respondents cited data security as a barrier to adoption of digital technologies; this figure rose to half among IT professionals surveyed.
The online survey was conducted in March by PennEnergy Research in partnership with the Oil and Gas Journal. The survey was developed with HSB Solomon Associates LLC, a benchmarking and global advisory services company for the global energy industry. Respondents are subscribers to PennWell publications and comprised more than 200 refining industry professionals, including executive and mid-level management, business unit heads, engineers and project managers from a cross-segment of the industry.