In some parts of the world shutting operations to inspect refinery pipeline stacks and masts, sending out engineers in trucks to check the length of an oil pipeline, or for that matter giving out clunky health and safety manuals to new starters at plants, are rapidly going out of fashion.
That’s because augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies, once the sole preserve of the gaming industry, are incrementally reducing maintenance downtime at energy and utilities sites, and cutting costs of mobilizing and sending specialized personnel to actual sites for the purpose of a mere inspection.
At the recently concluded Honeywell Users Group conference in Madrid, Spain, the global software-industrial giant’s annual jamboree for its automation clients, your correspondent got an up close and personal feel of the changing landscape.
Trying on an AR headset with ‘smart’ goggles (pictured above) brought up a plethora of solutions ranging from digital plant operating manuals to VR premised health and safety training environment, all linked up via a wireless connection directly to a mock off-site “centralized” hub with connectivity to “colleagues” for information exchange and guidance – all in real-time, with video, audio and graphics.
With an eye-flick or tap or audio command comes up the instruction manual; don’t recognize a part, an instant search mechanism is at hand; want a demo – a video will play; need back-up – the gadget will help you call a colleague. At an enclosure, not all that far away, a drone capable not just of inspecting pipelines, masts and power lines, but also collecting copious amount of data for myriad usage and analytics appeared in demand, and that too can be controlled by the headset if needs be.
Little wonder its then that the automation vendors are claiming plant and output downtime reduction by as much as 30%, and as a domino effect an uptick in throughput by as much as 10 times over. Of course, such AR, VR and robotics-premised solutions constitute excellent news for an industry that has already cut costs across the board in the wake of the 2015-16 oil price slump in order to re-position itself to cope with lower oil prices.
And the vendors hope to smile all the way to the bank too. ABI Research recently put the total AR market for energy and utilities sector at $18 billion by 2022. However, industry sources seem to suggest that might be too conservative an estimate given the exponential growth seen this year alone. Many in the industry reckon the figure might be nearer to $25 billion by 2022.
Regardless of valuation projections, it is a”multi-billion dollar” business for his company says Jason Urso, Chief Technology Officer at Honeywell Process Solutions (HPS), the company’s automation unit.
“We’re at a crucial juncture in the industry with AR and VR which is making industry folks sit up and take notice. Real-time AR and VR enabled health, safety and process solutions versus the old way of doing things would be akin to comparing physical maps to Google maps.
“It’s not just digital, it’s interactive. If Google only put a digital map on your phone it will have value, but not as much value as what you have now – it is interactive, offers suggestions, train times, traffic information, journey times – you name it!”
Similarly, albeit in a very different context, AR and VR technologies are enabling an outcome based combination of competency and real time risk assessment that has resulted in this multi-billion dollar segment within the wide spectrum of automation solutions the energy and utility sector is increasingly warming up to, Urso adds.
Survey evidence supports this, according to KPMG. As part of its annual poll of some 1300 global CEOs, when the global firm quizzed energy bosses within that group about the biggest long-term benefits of AI, robotics and digital transformation, 46% pointed to an acceleration of revenue growth, 39% indicated increased agility as an organization, and 39% pointed to improved risk management, all within a three-year time frame.
“Emerging technologies are disrupting the status quo in the oil and gas industry. Digital solutions can help us create models that will predict behavior or outcomes more accurately, like improving rig safety, dispatching crews faster, and identifying systems failures even before they arise. This level of predictability can have a profound impact on the industry,” says Regina Mayor, Global Sector Head, Energy and Natural Resources at KPMG.
Yet, for the all innovations on the AR and VR front, there seems to be a tacit acknowledgement in the industry that the U.S. remains the “epicenter” of digital innovations, opines Dr Carole Nakhle, CEO of Crystol Energy.
“Initial gains and what the technology can bring to the table in terms of training, process efficiencies, and health and safety, are visible stateside. The question is whether the wider industry, beyond North American shores, will adapt or not, and if so, how fast? Anecdotal evidence suggests an old fashioned global industry is attempting to change its ways and technology is the driver. That can only be a positive thing.”
HPS’s Urso agrees global progress is visible even if, as Dr Nakhle suggests, its not happening at a pace some in the industry and leading vendors would like.
“The rate of change in technology is unprecedented. That is, admittedly, very unfamiliar to a conservative industry. But it is feeling the winds of change. We are going to see technologies that are going to help [field or on-site] operators go about their work more optimally. AR and VR play a pretty big role underpinned by big data.
“As for the power of big data, we’re still only scratching the surface of it. The more data we collect, the more use cases and reduction in unplanned downtime we’ll see.”
Urso says every company is in a different space and there are early adopters as well as cautious later stage adopters. But they’re all ultimately adopters.
“We tell the late adopters, it may take more time for them to see and believe, but we often approach the customer and say “don’t be too late” because you could find yourself noncompetitive in an industry that is rapidly improving its level of standard.”
Looks like the drones, goggles and interactive equipment isn’t going anywhere, but maybe the clunky printed manuals are about the gather dust in the approaching decade or two, if not sooner.