Challenging Automation Suppliers & Improving Automation Practices

  • May 23, 2014
  • Feature

By Bill Lydon, Editor

Exxon is improving the execution of automation projects. They are challenging automation suppliers to develop products that make installation, operations, and maintenance more efficient. Sandy Vasser, Facilities Electrical and Instrumentation Manager at ExxonMobil Development Company, gave an excellent presentation about their initiative at the Siemens Oil & Gas Conference in Houston, TX on April 22, 2014. ExxonMobil Development Company has been in existence for about 15 years, and they are solely responsible for executing major capital projects. They have active exploration in more than 50 countries, and they typically have 100 major projects under way or in the planning stage.

Vasser has worked with Exxon or ExxonMobil for more than 34 years. During his tenure, he has been involved in a number of upstream projects covering offshore facilities, onshore facilities, and cogeneration facilities. He currently manages a team of about 120 electrical and I&C professionals. The team is responsible for the design, installation, and commissioning of electrical generation and distribution systems, process control systems, and safety instrumented systems for all major ExxonMobil Upstream capital projects. In addition, they develop, promote and implement strategies, practices, processes, and tools for successfully executing project automation and electrical activities. The group has developed tools and processes that utilize conventional technologies.

While running and managing multiple mega projects simultaneously, they found traditional technologies and methods are not effective enough. So they took a step back to evaluate everything and challenge assumptions and tradition. Vasser starts every project by asking, “Do we have to do it that way?” He noted, “Whenever I meet with my team and they tell me we have always done it that way, the red flags go up.” This evaluation has led to ideas and insights to find better solutions.

Traditional I/O Approach – Where They Are Today

Vasser described the traditional approach with field devices terminated at junction boxes. Multicore cables run from the junction boxes to marshalling cabinets and “stitch” wiring between controller and I/O cabinets. This approach uses a large number of custom engineered cabinets that consume a large amount of indoor floor space. In addition, they require associated support, including HVAC and field power supplies. They use a huge number of copper cables and a large number of terminations (15-25) for each instrument. All of this requires intensive FAT (Factory Acceptance Testing) that can take many man months of labor and time. This creates a very sequential project execution process with various engineering and installation steps that are highly interdependent. For example, the addition of end devices later in the project requires changing many drawings and may require pulling extra cable.

Challenges to Our Key Suppliers

Vasser defined the challenges they are giving to key suppliers to help make improvements:

  • Eliminate, simplify and/or automate steps in the overall automation execution; Minimize custom engineering.
  • Shift the custom engineering to the software and rely on standard, not customized hardware components with minimal dependencies on the custom design; progress hardware delivery independent of software design.
  • Virtualize the hardware and prove the software design against the virtualized system via software FAT that can be performed anywhere; no hardware FAT.
  • Prevent design recycle and hardware/software rework.
  • Eliminate components not necessary in the architecture of the systems and standardize on the remaining components; all systems look alike between projects (i.e. design one, build many).
  • Eliminate or minimize physical, data and schedule dependencies with other disciplines.
  • Simplify the configuration of interfaces with all third-party packages (e.g. electrical systems, packaged skids).
  • More easily accommodate changes, including very late changes.
  • Mitigate the effects of hardware and software version changes.
  • Eliminate, simplify and/or automate the generation of required documentation.
  • Include alarm management and cyber secure by design.
  • Challenge traditional approaches and solutions.

Vasser emphasized, “The industry has to come up with a protocol that is more robust and much easier to execute.”

Barriers to Change

Conventional thought has been to focus on “perfecting” the way projects have always been executed. This makes people blind to new possibilities and impedes the identification of change. Challenging traditional and proven practices is difficult. Vasser emphasized, “Improving on what has always been done can only result in incremental improvements at best or continued complications.” “We have got to redefine and transform how we execute automation projects.”

Smart I/O Concept

Vasser described their vision of “smart I/O,” termed DICED I/O an acronym meaning auto-Detect, auto-Interrogate, auto-Configure, auto-Enable, and auto-Document, to streamline engineering and installation. This will result in fewer controller cabinets, space savings, 60-70% reduction in terminations, and many other benefits.

Thoughts & Observations

Sandy Vasser is on a mission to look beyond convention and tradition to make improvements. He is also challenging suppliers to become problem-solvering, collaborative partners.

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