Data & Analytics

ExxonMobil and Intel Collaborate on Open Industry Standards Technologies

Innovating internal systems at Exxon inspires executives to create a forum for the oil and gas industry.


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 chief information officer and technology adviser Tim Crawford, the discussion featured commentary from ExxonMobil's project sponsor, Kenny Warren; 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.

Clausi explained that 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 were 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, Internet of things, 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 because of 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."

Find the discussion here.

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