How Saudi Aramco is digitalising its operations

Published: 12 February 2020 - 6:15 a.m.

Klaus Schwab, who coined the term 4IR (the fourth industrial revolution), describes it as the first shift in which technologies actually intersect the physical, digital, and biological spheres. This exchange of information among machines, systems, and people changes everything – but so does the exponential speed of disruption, and the integration of multiple game-changers defining this new era.

From artificial intelligence (AI) enabling machines to learn and adapt to robotics that free up people from repetitive or risky tasks, 4IR technologies can inform decision-making, enhance efficiency, and save capital and operational costs like never before. The question is knowing which ones to adopt and how – before it is too late.

The urgency of reinvention
Many industries –and governments– are experiencing a disconnect between their deep investments in 4IR and the timely scale-up of viable technologies. According to McKinsey & Company, more than two-thirds of surveyed industries around the globe said digitalisation was a top operational priority, with most identifying at least eight solutions across their operations.

Yet three-quarters of those businesses were in “pilot purgatory”, stuck between implementation and deployment, in danger of being left behind. With 4IR is expected to create some $3.7 trillion in global manufacturing, that is a big risk to take.

All signs point to a fully digitalised, automated future, so it is important to determine which technologies can bring the greatest value to our work, and how to unleash their potential. For real traction, strategy must drive technology – not vice versa.

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A case study in 4IR strategy
Saudi Aramco’s goal to be the leading digitalised energy company by 2022 acknowledges that helping meet the world’s energy needs while shrinking the environmental imprint of the hydrocarbons shouldering much of that rising demand depends on advanced, integrated technologies and analytics. A few years ago, we launched the Engineering Solutions Centre (ESC), which became a launch pad for new predictive and analytics solutions covering a wide area of the company’s operations. This year, the ESC was transformed to meet that innovation ecosystem goal, becoming our 4th Industrial Revolution Centre, or 4IRC.

Data has been called this century’s raw material, as central to economic growth as oil.

In this industry, which generates massive quantities of highly detailed traditional and digital information, data is integral to finding and maintaining long-term energy supplies, integrating refining and chemicals, and making energy more sustainable at every stage. With digitalisation taking place across the company’s different businesses, this volume is expected to increase exponentially.

Each day the 4IRC, which works with above-the-surface businesses, connects to more than five million real-time data points, and records five billion events.

Our digital strategy is based on key technologies that, integrated with big data, can shine a light on unseen oil and gas resources for better decisions on the fly, optimise operations across the entire value chain, enhance safety – and drastically save money and time.

AI, arguably the most critical 4IR technology, can predictively process data for better energy efficiency, product quality and yield. At the 4IRC, AI makes use of operational big data from all facilities, with advanced analytics allowing us to generate value from the massive amounts of data generated in real time. AI’s pre-emptive capabilities are equally valuable, anticipating critical asset and machinery issues before they happen, preventing down-time that can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. AI can also be embedded in edge control devices and instrumentation, allowing them to make timely decisions based on operating parameters for a real impact on reliable operations.

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Additive manufacturing’s ability to craft bespoke solutions is another cost-saver; but the economics are just part of the story. The technology makes it possible to reverse-engineer obsolete components, scan existing components for redesign, and model completely new concepts for production. Rethinking fabrication allows a 360 degree view of possible microstructures and chemical composition that can make totally new specs of previously existing parts.

The cyber-physical realm also boosts productivity, making plants increasingly self-monitoring, self-learning and self-optimising. Augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR) lets users visualise process equipment, field instruments, piping and other systems for mission-critical procedures. Our Uthmaniyah Gas Plant’s “digital lighthouse” designation by the WEF is in large part due to wearable technologies like digital helmets that capture video images and glasses that load information directly onto the lens.

The ability to simulate the live plant experience makes AR/VR a training boon, helping workers hit the ground running on emergency scenarios, repair procedures, engineering parameters and installations. AR/VR allows the training asset to be visualised and felt in any class, anywhere around our facilities. This capability is especially helpful for coordinating with field personnel various activities such as equipment inspection.

Blockchain presents a new paradigm for cross-organisation transaction processing. The technology allows partners in a business network to work with one system of records or Distributed Ledger, enabling transparency and real-time settlement. At Saudi Aramco, the use of this technology in relationship with government agencies, suppliers, contractors, customers, banks, universities, and others will enable real-time, automated, trusted, and inexpensive transactional visibility.

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4IR technologies require higher security for integrating operational technology with IT to exchange valuable data assets more freely across the full spectrum. Cloud computing is seen as an enabler for reliable, secure, scalable and dynamic deployment of solutions utilising the above technologies. The investment and time required to pilot new solutions can be reduced significantly. Solutions that pass pilot stage can be scaled up and down based on need, and can be integrated with other solutions that are deployed on the cloud more efficiently.

One of the most impactful 4IR technologies, robotics is becoming mainstream in manufacturing-intensive uses. But industries like ours are using the technology both to automate tasks and reduce risk in extreme environments – such as crawler robots to inspect pipes and other subsea structures. SWIM-R, Saudi Aramco’s proprietary shallow-water pipeline inspection and modeling innovation, and other remotely operated robots can also perform asset predictive analytics and optimise performance.

Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, are used for automated tasks and for preventive measures such as gas-leakage detection, allowing the scanning of entire facilities much faster than a visual check during workarounds. Their use in security surveillance lowers risks for personnel, and provides real-time visuals and better monitoring of conditions for emergency support – for example, on-ground robots and drones used in firefighting and inspection of alleviated equipment. In addition, fixed-wing drones can cover long distances, such as pipeline inspection.
Moreover, we are using drones to easily gather vital oil and gas exploration data from high cliffs and other geological obstacles.

Digital use cases at Saudi Aramco 4IRC also demonstrate an investment in protecting the environment, such as preventive technologies that can predict possible marine flaring or hydrocarbon leakage; drones for monitoring company wildlife sanctuaries; and VR/AR use to raise environmental awareness as part of our mission.

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But the real beauty of digitalisation is how it creates synergies for organisational objectives. If a failing part is the problem, AI and data analytics can reveal the root cause. Additive manufacturing can uncover a possible redesign. AR/VR can trouble-shoot the issue, and a drone dispatched to the plant can provide real-time visuals.

Thanks to this level of efficiency, integration spells the end of the silo where studies show that three times the benefits can be achieved when technologies are combined. 4IR technologies will not impact Saudi Aramco core businesses only, but other areas of business such as procurement, sales, finance, transportation, and more.

Brave new digital world
With the world’s shift to all things digital, many business processes are becoming obsolete.
Innovation commentator Tom Goodwin captured the essence of this disruption when he observed that “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles; Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content; Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory; and Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.”

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In short, new and evolving models born of integrated technologies are redefining not just the nature of how the world works, but how we live. And thus global industries stand at a crossroads.

Digitalisation can be the key to reinvention, affording greater resilience in changing times, and a better bottom line. It can train a more capable workforce, and create new jobs. It can spur innovation, taking core-domain solutions from idea, prototype and pilot to full-scale development. But to fully realise these outcomes, strategy must map the path.

How? Comprehensive study of the organisation and its ecosystems; 4IR training and curricula; and change-management communication are key enablers. From there, benchmarked 4IR use cases can transform a digital vision into tangible applications for working faster, smarter, safer and greener. Strategic partnerships can multiply strengths toward shared goals, and an innovation culture can ensure digital readiness and spark human creativity.

In sum: venturing, investments in disruptive startups, and partnerships with leading technology providers and industry peers are key digital enablers. Such collaboration will not only accelerate the digital transformation journey, it will also generate new revenue streams.

However, technical advancement should be followed with regulatory advancement that will enable collaboration between private and public sectors and organisations for cross-organisational/cross-national solutions with greater impact on multiple industries and regions.

The winners in this Fourth Industrial Revolution will be those who push new technological boundaries for added value, navigating from investment to roll-out to full implementation.

In this disruptive new normal, there is no time to waste.

The future of work is now.

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