ExxonMobil commits to thinking differently with electrical integration, configurable I/O

May 24, 2016
What prompted ExxonMobil to start thinking and doing things differently? Sandy Vasser, I&E manager at ExxonMobil, explains the transition.
About the author

[embed width="80" height="90" class="left" thumbnail=""][/embed]Mike Bacidore is the editor in chief for Control Design magazine. He is an award-winning columnist, earning a Gold Regional Award and a Silver National Award from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. Email him at [email protected].

Think before you act. Several years ago, ExxonMobil began its journey to act differently, trying to find ways to improve success. However, acting differently first requires the ability to think differently, and that is a significant change.

“In the old days, we would improve processes incrementally and consistently. It’s a lot more complicated than that now,” explained Sandy Vasser, I&E manager at ExxonMobil. He spoke at Schneider Electric’s CONNECT 2016 user group event this week in New Orleans. Vasser has led a charge to change the way his organization acts by changing the way it thinks.

“We had to challenge our traditional automation practices and technologies,” he said. “We really had to think completely differently and put the old practices to the side.”

Vasser also stressed the importance of not waiting. “The oil and gas industry is currently at a low point in terms of number of projects, but this lull won’t last forever,” Vasser said. Further, all disciplines—not just automation—can make these changes. They translate well to other disciplines within the organization.

Because that’s how we’ve always done it

What prompted ExxonMobil to start thinking and doing things differently? Historical challenges were many. “There were numerous dependencies on other disciplines, and this forces sequential execution,” said Vasser. “Design input was provided throughout the project lifecycle, and this forces numerous changes. The resulting designs are highly engineered, which makes them very customized and frequently changing.”

“We had to challenge our traditional automation practices and technologies.” ExxonMobil’s Sandy Vasser on the company’s move to re-examine decades-old project execution practices.

To reduce customization and rely more on standard solutions, ExxonMobil has pushed customization to the software, which allowed it to use standard hardware. This eliminated the need for custom project specifications and for the infrastructure to support customized solutions.

By reducing complexity and simplifying designs, it reduced the component count and the number of divergent systems, taking advantage of the capability of the installed systems. It simplified interfaces; it automated and sometimes eliminated processes; and it mitigated the effects of dependencies. “Intelligent I/O has allowed us to progress the hardware design without even knowing how the I/O will be used,” said Vasser.

ExxonMobil reduced the amount of documentation or often generated it automatically. It accepted managed risk and compromise, as it developed and enabled trust with suppliers and contractors.

“All of this has resulted in fewer components, reduced engineering, fewer drawings, reduced number of design reviews, elimination of FATs [factory acceptance tests], shortened schedules, smaller project teams, higher quality and lower costs,” explained Vasser.

Configure this

Smart, configurable I/O in standard field junction boxes is one of the key enablers that Vasser cited. Virtualization, not just of computers, but complete hardware virtualization has allowed the company to validate control system logic independent of system hardware.

“When we can test out all of our graphics and our alarms, that’s a significant improvement,” said Vasser. “Customization has been pushed from hardware to software. Cabinets, for example, were all different. But today all of our cabinets are a standard solution.”

ExxonMobil also is seamlessly integrating its automation and electrical systems. “We’ve combined them, and it’s all included in the automation systems,” explained Vasser. Instruments are automatically detected, interrogated, configured, enabled and documented (DICED).

“We’ve used smart I/O to replace MCC [motor control center] wiring, simplified package PLC [programmable logic controller] interface solutions and increased use of dc power distribution. The smart I/O has allowed us to eliminate 60-70% of cabinet wiring; we’re getting rid of a lot of hard wiring between the packages and the MCCs. Electrical control interface improvements include monitoring of the electrical system. We’re always looking at ways to take advantage of smart I/O.”

Age in place

One of the important new opportunities, or challenges, depending on your perspective, that updated control systems bring is the concept of “aging in place,” where the infrastructure allows for upgrades as the system ages or technology changes.

ExxonMobil has embraced this by making system architectures simpler. “Systems consist of building blocks that can be easily upgraded to current technologies,” explained Vasser. “Upgrades or repairs will not be intrusive, disruptive or unnecessarily costly, and rip-and-replace will never be necessary. Control system selection for a facility is for life.”

As connectivity concerns become more prevalent, ExxonMobil has adopted cybersecurity by design. “Security can’t be solved only by rings of protection, such as firewalls, or by reactionary measures such as virus protections,” he said.

“We started with how to deal with change,” explained Vasser. “There are many opportunities to eliminate or streamline processes. Think about what you’re trying to achieve, and think differently about how you’re going to achieve those things.”

Read more about Schneider Electric's FLEX methodology, the company's different thinking about project execution.

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