Open Process Automation Movement Taking Form at ExxonMobil's 2nd Industry Day

  • September 29, 2016
  • Feature

By Bill Lydon, Editor,

It’s not enough to have the latest and greatest equipment, especially if it’s based on proprietary architecture that limits flexibility. That was the message presented to the business leaders that attended the 2nd Industry Day for End Users hosted by ExxonMobil. The Industry Day event, in support of a next-generation open interoperable process control framework, was co-hosted along with The Open Group at the ExxonMobil Research Technical Center in Paulsboro, NJ.   The event, a follow-on to the successful 1st End User Industry Day event in June, provided the opportunity for more users to learn about and consider joining the new open process control standards initiative.

A Clear Goal for Open Architecture

The Open Group Forum, referred to as Open Process Automation™, was formed with the goal to define and certify a standards-based components architecture for secure and interoperable process control systems.


Don Bartusiak, a Chief Engineer at ExxonMobil in Research & Engineering, described how ExxonMobil Research launched the Breakthrough R&D project in 2010, emphasizing the initial goal of making a step change improvement.  Some of the trends and influences that lead to the project intiation include:

  • ExxonMobil Development Company’s, “It Just Happens” initiative to speed and reduce the cost of project delivery.
  • Avionics Industry use of open system architecture: The Open Group FACE (Future Airborne Capability Environment) consortium proved it can be accomplished.
  • Virtualization and software-defined networks used in telecommunications.
  • Cybersecurity innovations for process control.
  • Internet of Things (IoT), wireless, and cloud services drive expectations for change.

Competitive Imperative

ExxonMobil believes they are competing on a global stage, and to remain competitive over the next several decades, oil and gas, refining and chemical companies must lower capital cost and improve profitability. Simply using state-of-the-art DCS will not provide the flexible and innovative automation platform that industrial organizations need to be competitive in today’s world markets.  This is a primary reason why, in 2014, ExxonMobil organized a team of their employees along with several outside consultants to write Functional Characteristic documents that could be shared with industry at the ARC forum and discussed with multiple suppliers, providing a foundation for a potential open architecture.

These articles provide more background:

End User DCS Issues

ExxonMobil and other users in the industry have regularly expressed frustration when observing the major step change improvements that open technologies are enabling in adjacent industries, while little progress is made in Oil & Gas. Many of these adjacent industries have now deployed significantly higher function software that lowered lifecycle cost and delivered higher return on investment, because they were able to leverage technological ecosystems of innovative companies. For example, the defense and avionics industries have transitioned from a proprietary stovepipe model to fully open systems architecture, as demonstrated by the Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE™) Consortium standards. Lockheed Martin’s Dennis Stevens, elected Chairman of the (FACE) Consortium Business Working Group (BWG) shared that the FACE standards have improved systems, increased innovation, and lowered cost.

User Survey

The problem of replacing legacy systems is prevalent throughout the industry. The results of a Frost & Sullivan survey were presented, which asked DCS system users the question: “What are the top five issues with current distributed control system architectures?”

  • 68% agreed – the difficulties associated with replacing a DCS are significantly higher than for replacing or upgraded other computer-based systems.
  • 61% agreed - The cyber security models for currently available DCSs will be difficult to adapt to future cloud-based services/managed cyber security services.
  • 61% agreed – the pace of innovation for DCS’s is typically slow compared other IT systems.
  • 54% – DCS is at my facility/organization require replacement large part due to system obsolescence (inability to integrate with newer equipment or systems).
  • 53% agreed – DCS compatibility between generations is poor (even if the supplier stays the same).

Note: the results are based on 53 survey completions and 13 interviews.

Open Standard Value

Presenters noted that a lot of the value created in DCS systems is at level 3 in the Purdue model, where there are open hardware and software platforms that allow innovative companies to provide new functions and features to improve productivity and operations. 

The levels of the Purdue model

It was observed in the meeting that there have been a lot of efficiency gains from the use of virtualized systems to run software. This further reinforces a widely-held belief that the only place innovative “off the shelf technology” can be applied, in today’s systems, is at level 3 where applications run on open platforms.  Even at this level, there are only loosely-coupled methods for innovative third parties to add value to DCS systems. In contrast for example developers creating iOS and Android apps have full and efficient access to resources and communications.


There are two projects resulting from the ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company work:

  1. ExxonMobil engaged Lockheed Martin as general contractor to develop and a build prototype open platform DCS funded through an ExxonMobil R&D program. The plan is to build a system based on these concepts and deploy in field trials.
  2. The Open Group is seeking members to create the Open Group Forum - Open Process Automation™ that will lead to a standards-based, open, secure, and interoperable architecture that is commercially viable and to which multiple companies supply software and hardware components.  This is analogous to The Open Group FACE (Future Airborne Capability Environment) consortium.

ARC Advisory Group Comments

Harry Forbes, Research Director of the ARC Advisory Group, described the problem situation which results when each supplier has proprietary software and hardware that are unique from each other. 

Forbes observed no compatibility between suppliers, a situation which plagues PLC, CNC, and SCADA offerings.  He also noted the lack of common modeling/description language across applications or vendors.  Since users cannot directly deploy applications and control schemes, they are forced to develop specifically for their proprietary processes, across systems from multiple vendors, and rewrite all of them.  

The real problem as Forbes describes, is illuminated by a recent ARC a report. It shares how suppliers view, “locked-in customers as an annuity” and vendors fear open systems would create a loss of their annuity.

Forbes presented ARC’s assessment of the Open Process Automation™ Forum project:

End User Risks

Many different and commercial grade software capabilities must be integrated.

Need to cultivate a long-term support ecosystem and business models.

Program schedule is very ambitious.

End User Benefits

Extract greater value from investment in automation and people.

Simplified automation system architecture.

Easier to update or extend the automation system.

Smaller and more incremental system upgrades and extensions.

Greatly reduced automation vendor “lock-in”.

Probability of Success

ARC’s view is that this program carries significant risk, especially for schedule.

However, the traditional DCS upgrade path remains available.

Thought Provoking Questions

Concluding the event, Bartusiak asked three thought-provoking questions:

  • Would you accept your Verizon cell phone if it couldn’t talk to an AT&T, Sprint, Vodafone, and others?
    • That’s where we are with control systems today.
  • Would you accept if you switch your home computer from a Dell to an HP that you would have to rewrite all your word documents, all your spreadsheets and presentations?
    • That’s where we are with control systems today.
  • Would you accept that you must have a dedicated router from your Dell PC, a second router for your Apple computer, third router for your Samsung phone, fourth router for your iPhone?
    • That’s where we are with control systems today

The entire point, as Bartusiak emphasized, is that control systems today are so tightly-coupled functionally that end users cannot integrate best in class solutions since they are trapped by the current closed architectures.   These are major problems that this open architecture initiative can address.

Open Group Forum - Open Process Automation™

A number of organizations have joined and member names will be made public with the launch of the Open Group Forum - Open Process Automation™ when it meets for the first time in conjunction with the 2016 AIChE Annual Meeting November 13-18, 2016 San Francisco, CA.    

The Open Group will be announcing a webinar the Open Process Automation to be held prior to the November meeting.  Interested parties can contact Mike Hickey [email protected] Phone: 512-343-9159

For more information from The Open Group, visit the Open Process Automation™ Forum

The Open Process Automation™ Forum – Status Update Webinar will be held Thursday, October 6, 2016 12:00 pm Eastern Daylight Time (New York, GMT-04:00)   Panelist include Steve Bitar (ExxonMobil R&D), Harry Forbes (ARC Advisory Group), David Lounsbury & Jim Hietala (The Open Group)  

The webinar agenda will include:

  • Current Forum status and membership update
  • Problem statement and work to date – ExxonMobil Customer Perspective
  • Problem statement – Pulp and Paper Industry
  • Common industry issues with process automation
  • Schedule of upcoming events and how to participate
  • Q&A taking audience questions.

Register for the Webinar Here

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