Does big data mean big profits for refiners?

At a recent refining conference in Brussels, Italian refiner Saras’ managing director, Dario Scaffardi, extolled the virtues of big data and digitisation to a packed auditorium.

The possibilities, he said, are huge. Maintenance activities, process control and commercial marketing all fall under its umbrella. Digitisation has a role to play in simulation, additive manufacturing, 3D manufacturing and robotics, and in using virtual reality to predict how a unit will run — and when it will fail.

But after slides, a video and an energetic speech, Scaffardi’s talk failed to draw a single question from the audience. Part of the problem, perhaps, was that he did not put a number on what investing in all this tech could actually do for a refiner’s bottom line.

Speaking to Argus afterwards, he gave a rough estimate of an additional $1-2/bl margin improvement — more than enough to make the ears of any refiner prick up, even in times of relative optimism. Moreover, Scaffardi said, the cost is low, which is all the more appealing when one considers how expensive major engineering projects at refineries can be.

Saras has already put some money where its mouth is. The firm launched “Digital Saras” last year, focusing on three key areas — asset operations and maintenance, oil processing and supply chains, and people.

The programme is in its infancy, but Scaffardi did touch on an example of work done at the firm’s liquid fuel gasification plant — the largest in the world, the company says — including a range of sensors analysing data on temperature, pressure and stress to retroactively analyse and predict mechanical failures.

If Scaffardi’s $1-2/bl margin improvement is to be taken seriously, especially in the context of minimal upfront investment costs, digitisation does on the face of it seem a no-brainer for Europe’s refiners.

But Scaffardi was sceptical of technology’s penetration so far into the refining sector. He labelled it an “old industry” that had failed to fully embrace automation in the way that other manufacturing sectors, like the automobile industry, have.

Digitisation certainly seems to be more commonly discussed in the upstream oil sector. Earlier this year, BP’s upstream chief executive, Bernard Looney, said big data is revolutionising big oil. “Digitisation has helped our US lower-48 operations improve capital efficiency by 53pc and reduce production costs by 28pc,” he said.

In a strategy presentation in February, Looney said BP’s ambition was to become “the digital upstream company”.  His downstream counterpart, Tufan Erginbilgic, in the same presentation specifically discussed “digital” only in the context of “flight planning” and “integrated support services”.

Whether Europe’s refiners embrace further digitisation remains to be seen. But with Saras confidently setting out its stall, other refiners will be eagerly watching to see if big data really does mean big profits.

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