The FT Digital Energy Summit in Houston on 6 December brought together leading voices from industry to explore how to unlock the full value of data in a rapidly evolving market.
Kicking off the first panel, “Digital Evolution of Energy,” Bruce McCullough, SVP of technology and innovation and CIO of Marathon Oil, noted how important it is to measure digital activities in terms of business benefit: production efficiencies, cost per barrel and safety improvements, among other factors. He also talked about the foundational steps to get to digital transformation: IoT consolidation, consistent data, data cleansing and real-time access — only with those in place is it possible to get to advanced analytics.
In addition, he shared his vision of semiautonomous facilities that can effectively leverage machine learning, AI and other integrated technologies. Meanwhile, Nikhil Patel, a partner at McKinsey & Company, was fairly bullish on predictive maintenance as well, seeing its total value yielding a 10-20 percent reduction in OPEX.
In a brief “fireside chat,” Sebastian Gass, general manager of technology, strategy and services at Chevron, described his approach to digitalization work. First, he also noted that the business case is critical. Second, the internal IT organization has to evolve to be more like a software company, becoming more outcome-based and more iterative in nature. Finally, he said, it’s about culture — the need to be more agile. He views his IT organization not as 400 people, but as 40 teams of 10 people.
AspenTech President and CEO Antonio Pietri was a guest on a subsequent panel on “Leading Company-Wide Digital Transformation” with Bert Natalicchio, VP of IT and strategic programs director at Shell Projects and Technology, and Eric Abecassiso, CIO of Schlumberger.
Antonio noted that if you look at areas like downstream and supply chain, you’ll see that digital technology has already been in use for over 30 years. This has been a critical capability for these sectors, as oil prices in recent years have forced upstream in particular to focus more on value. Bert confirmed that, despite the volatility in oil prices, there is still an appetite for investment in innovation. In fact, he said, the more difficult the economic situation, the more urgency there typically is to become more profitable.
When it comes to machine learning, Antonio echoed the importance of domain expertise in applying the technology. He also noted that implementing machine learning or AI doesn’t necessarily have to be a “Big Bang” revolution — in fact, there are already solid use cases of companies going after “low-hanging fruit,” such as recurring equipment failure, and achieving transformative results.
Finally, Antonio, building on Bruce’s earlier comments, talked about the long-range need for autonomous and/or semiautonomous plants. He noted how AspenTech closed the loop on process control in the past, and how it then became adaptive with models that can handle changes and controllers that don’t have to be taken offline. Looking three to five years out, he said other functions will likely go the autonomous or semiautonomous route as well, such as the rescheduling of workflows through the refinery.
All in all, it was a good discussion of how the latest advances in technology are going to lead the energy industry into a new era of operational excellence. There’s a lot of work to be done in the coming years, but we have the tools to make the vision a reality.
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