Flatter Architecture Is Key to Oil & Gas Success

Dec. 2, 2009
Rockwell shows off PlantPAx

Rockwell took the opportunity of the 2009 Offshore Europe event, held in Aberdeen, Scotland, from September 8 to 11, to stage the "exclusive press launch" of PlantPAx. If that strikes you as a little odd, since PlantPAx was launched at Rockwell's Automation Fair in November of last year, then you're not alone. In our case, the confusion was compounded by the fact that the invitation came not from Rockwell's U.K. operation in Milton Keynes, but from its ICS Triplex safety and critical control subsidiary in Maldon.

Seeking clarification from ICS Triplex marketing support manager Kelly Sutton, we were put in touch with Eric Fidler, Rockwell's Houston-based director of oil and gas operations who rapidly disposed of both issues. First, this is the launch of PlantPAx - incidentally, the ‘P', ‘A' and ‘x' seem to be pronounced separately and not combined into a single syllable―this is the launch specifically to the oil & gas market, which perhaps explains why the invitation describes it as "our end-to-end process automation solution for the Oil and Gas Sector", rather than suggesting a wider range of applications. Second, Rockwell has decided to locate the European base for Rockwell Automation Oil & Gas Solutions at the ICS Triplex facility in Maldon where, presumably, it will share many of the existing administrative and support resources, including Kelly Sutton.

So does what is being shown in Aberdeen differ significantly from what was introduced in Nashville back in November? Well, yes, says Fidler, it does. Specifically, they're now in a position to demonstrate even tighter integration between the core solution built around the Logix platform and the extended capabilities they have acquired, such as safety, critical control, advanced control, power and variable-speed drives (VSDs), all within a common environment and with common visualization.

And it's clear the aim is to target oil & gas to a degree which may not have been apparent at the earlier launch. "Our reach into oil & gas incorporates ICS Triplex," says Fidler who claims that PlantPAx is now integrated with the ICS Triplex SISs "to the same degree as a couple of our competitors.".. And he's not shy to name them―it's Emerson and Yokogawa who he's particularly got his eye on.

"Better Story"

Fidler's view is that Rockwell's flatter architecture gives it a significant advantage over conventional DCS vendors when it comes to the broader integration which he believes oil & gas users are now looking for. What he calls the "stacked" solutions which conventional DCS vendors are forced to adopt are creating DCS databases with 250,000 tags or more.

"DCS databases have gone beyond what is manageable," he argues. Likening Rockwell's approach to that of Siemens and, to an extent, ABB, "although we have a better story," he suggests that "federated" data ownership is a key differentiator which dramatically improves response times.

That's particularly important in critical control, where Fidler reckons Rockwell is now No 2 in the market. "That's critical to oil & gas where the big asset challenges are in rotating equipment." The result, claims Fidler, is that Rockwell can offer and demonstrate order-of-magnitude reductions in both installed cost and life-cycle cost compared with traditional solutions.

How crucial to this strategy is the alliance with Endress & Hauser? "It's very important," he says. "We have to have a solution for customers who need a bundled solution." To that end, Rockwell is in the process of pursuing a similar alliance with a major valve vendor. Negotiations are at an advanced stage and should be concluded, "hopefully by the end of the year."

Competitors Caught Sleeping

It's clear that Rockwell's approach is already gaining traction with oil & gas customers, despite their being relative newcomers. Currently in the first year of a five-year strategy, the aim is to be regarded as a serious player in the field by 2013 and that, in Fidler's view, means winning 50 to 60 orders. "We came to the market at a time when it was very busy. We caught our competitors sleeping and were able to pick off some key projects." As a result they now have 10 projects in hand, including "wins with some major companies." And they're taking two of them to Aberdeen as part of a campaign to gain acceptability among EPCs. As Fidler says, with some justification, "We're making good progress."

How seriously Rockwell's ambitions in the oil & gas and indeed the wider process automation market are to be taken should be judged in the light of the news that, just 10 years after starting its safety business, Rockwell now ranks first in the global market for machine and process safety solutions, according to ARC's recently published "Machine Safeguarding Solutions Worldwide Outlook."

That news comes, not from ARC, but, as is becoming common practice, from Rockwell itself. It also raises the question of whether machine and process safety taken together really represent a market at all, rather than just a combination of the markets in which Rockwell happens to have an interest. Less contentious, perhaps, is the claim to offer the world's largest portfolio of safety automation products and services, encompassing component, programmable and fully integrated safety solutions. Key Rockwell milestones highlighted in the past decade include its involvement in the development of the CIP Safety protocol, the introduction of the GuardLogix SIL3 controller, the 2007 acquisition of ICS Triplex, and this year's introduction of safe-speed core control.