Online Exclusive: Interview with AspenTech at Optimize 2019

Hydrocarbon Processing's Editor, Associate Publisher Lee Nichols met with Aspen Technology's Ron Beck (RB), Director of Industry Marketing, Oil and Gas, and Paul Donnelly (PD), Director, Industry Marketing, at AspenTech's Optimize 2019 conference.  The conference focused on optimizing asset performance in industrial sectors, featuring presentations from industry leaders and experts from around the world, including AspenTech leadership. Mr. Beck and Mr. Donnelly discussed the latest technological advances and how refiners and petrochemical producers can utilize digital to optimize operations.

HP: Give us a general overview of the AspenTech Optimize event for anyone who is not familiar with what the user group is about and what will be discussed here. What are the benefits of it for someone attending and why should they attend?

RB: AspenTech has been running this event for around 30 years and it has evolved into a fantastic event. The number of customer or industry presented papers are sort of unprecedented among user type events. I think this year we have something like 150 different presentations being given by customers and we sort of preselect them in terms of ones that are focused around not just technical solutions to problems, but business solutions to problems with concrete business benefits. So, it gives companies a really great opportunity to hear from each other and we have 50 countries represented by companies all over the world.

PD: For engineers: I agree that the number one benefit is the peer to peer networking and the peer to peer exchange of what they are doing and what is working and what is not working.  There is not a lot of conferences where you get to go hear from your peers. A lot of times it is just people talking at you, where this is a lot of great discussions in the hallways and in the presentation halls about what people are trying and what is working. I think the other benefit is there is a good mix as well of our corporate strategy and what direction we are going in as well as a chance for them to hear from our senior executives on the bets we are placing for the future especially today around the future of digitization. Digitization is not just an owner-operator issue either. I had a session on Monday where the engineering companies were talking about their own internal digital initiatives on digitizing all the data that flows across the design process. A lot of companies still do not have that. They are still document driven and document based, which introduces a lot of problems.

HP: How can producers and engineering companies use ApenTech's asset performance management suite and leverage that technology to optimize their operations?

RB: In the asset performance management suite there is the flagship product which is a solution we have brought to market called MTell. It is an acquisition we made about two and a half years ago and it leverages analytics technology called Machine Learning. That is really an artificial intelligence approach to collecting huge amounts of data and turning it into predictions of what is going to happen with your plant and your equipment in the future; Sometimes giving you as much as three months early warning of a failure. We had a very interesting discussion in our energy industry session on linking this prediction of problems in a plant with the refinery and petrochemical planning process. The question was if it was possible to know two to three months in advance that a unit would need to be shut down as opposed to five days before, what could the planners do to make more profit for the company?  And it turns out a lot. I think a lot of the companies there in the discussion were in agreement on that. You could buy different crudes depending on how long your contracts are or make different sales commitments so that you are ending up without a downtime where you cannot make the products you have committed to making.

PD: We also have another tool in that suite of products called Fidelis and it is used primarily as a reliability analysis tool. There is always tension in design of over design and not having enough design. One of the ways that engineering companies can use Fidelis is with the help it gives a designer and engineer to do it in a way that the owner still gets the resulting plans but just bill what is needed. One of the nice things about Fidelis is that it can be used in the design phase of the project to help the designers answer critical tradeoff questions

RB: One of the interesting things all this digital technology and digital transformation activity implies is that it really provides the opportunity for the owners of the oil and chemical companies to come up with different business models with the engineering companies. I have been a part of a lot of discussions recently where the question is, how is the whole industry going to change? This is one of the reasons executives are so focused on this area.

HP: You mentioned A.I. and things like predictive analytics, but what are the other benefits of using A.I. to increase plant optimization/operations and how can it be used on the engineering side as well?

RB: That's a really good question. To recap some of the things our CEO Antonio Pietri mentioned in his keynote and taking it a bit further; A.I., if you think about it, is a way of trying to capture the way of thinking of people. That is really the goal of Artificial Intelligence. What is happening very rapidly is the process industries and the capital-intensive industries are losing a lot of their expertise. There is a whole cycle where a lot of important people are retiring from these industries and a lot of Millennials are taking over important spots in companies. Well, they do not necessarily have the experience, but there is a different way of working. They are not going to necessarily work in one company or one job for 10 to 20 or 30 years to build up that experience. A.I., if you build in things like Alexa for the process industries, which provides guidance to that worker to make the right decision, is basically taking the built-up expertise that is ingrained in all the data the company has and automating the knowledge to give advice.

PD: It is really interesting on the design side. Multi-Case was presented in the sessions this morning, which is kind of the future of where I think the A.I. can go on the design side. Right now, the design team is kind of done when they run out of budget or hours and that really does not allow them to consider more than in many cases a few options. Computers can help them consider not just the mainstream cases but all the edge cases that really helps them come up with the best answer faster. The other issue that has come up this week is the workforce and as a lot of the older workers are retiring or aging out and moving on, this industry struggles more than others right now to attract the best and brightest. So being able to take newer engineers and have them leverage the cumulative knowledge of a firm and all the design work they have done over the past decades to a new specific scenario could be extremely helpful.

HP: How can AspenTech help firms—like Antonio Pietri mentioned in his keynote presentation—run safer, greener, longer and faster? Can you provide examples of how the technologies that AspenTech offers can increase a company's sustainability efforts or operations?

RB: One of the cases presented was for a Middle East company called ADNOC, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. It was a description of a project that was finished this year. They built a digital twin of their large gas plant. The plant is pricing about 10 percent of Abu Dhabi's gas and Abu Dhabi is about the 11th largest oil and gas producer in the world, so a substantial facility. Well, since they are in the Middle East one of their biggest challenges is water use. The other thing is one of the stated missions of the UAE and Abu Dhabi is to be a leader in sustainability. So, what they basically did was use our modeling technologies together to figure out how and make everybody in the plant aware of every decision they make every day and how it affects their water use in the plant. They have dashboards that show their minute to minute water use and how every decision can change that water use. So far, I think they reduced their energy use to around 10 to 15 percent. This is an oversimplification, but when you reduce your energy use by 10 percent you are also reducing your carbon footprint by a similar amount. So that's one example, but it is way more far-reaching than that

PD: I love the energy example. When people think of these things, they tend to think of new initiatives and new plants and how can we design them to do better. But the reality is 98 percent of what is going to affect the next 10 years is the stuff that is already running and existing. This is an opportunity for engineering companies as well to work with owner-operators to find opportunities to reduce their energy use and we have modeling tools to help them do that as well. It may not be as exciting as building something that is new and does things in different ways, but it is incredibly powerful because just by sheer number of the existing facilities versus, you know, things that are currently being planned or built. The other thing I think that will be interesting is, I think people inside AspenTech have expressed an interest in becoming more involved and in helping the community to solve some of these challenges. One of the slides today noted that we have over a hundred PHD's; We have tremendous intellectual capacity. A lot of which is right up in the Boston area where a lot of the cutting-edge universities are. Antonio mentioned getting involved in one of the organizations that is trying to help engineer plastics that are easier to recycle

HP: One of the last questions I have relates to the article that Ron authored in the Hydrocarbon Processing May issue, "A vision for the refinery of 2030" Can you speak to what the refinery, petrochemical plant of 2025, 2030 even 2050 looks like?

RB: I think that, well first read the article in Hydrocarbon Processing, but I will maybe comment a little differently than in there. I think in the process industry, people running refineries or working in refineries and petrochemical plants do not think their industry is going to change as much. Nobody is going to build a refinery in Texas or Louisiana to replace the ones that already exist; The space does not exist. But the change is happening. There are compelling things happening in the world. I come from Boston and Maine, which is just to the north of us, has passed the first legislation in the country, maybe the world, to ban Styrofoam cups. And now the other New England states are considering similar things. So, the industry is faced with a lot of change. They either lead it, or they are forced into it. For example, in India, they are now designing a 50-billion-dollar grassroots integrated refinery chemical complex. Well when they build that facility, how do they build it for the future? How do you build it so that you do not lock up 50 billion dollars in something that cannot change in the future?

HP: From your side Paul, how is modeling, engineering, and designing a plant going to evolve in the next 15, 20, 30 years?

PD: The people that are going to design and build these plants of the future are the engineering companies. I think to talk about their future you almost have to look a little bit at the past in the context. I think even just pre-2014 it was typical that decisions that were going to be made on a project were going to be done out of an office. For example, ‘we are going to do this project with the Houston office or the Calgary office or the Denver office.’ I think following the last four or five years where there is a tremendous amount of churn and mergers, acquisitions office closures and retirements, they are coming back up and backlogs are building, and the Capex is starting to flow a little bit more. I think the engineering companies are rebuilding themselves as well. Both their technology platforms and their work processes to have a much more global approach to project execution; Not just on the procurement and construction side, which is happening too, but for example a lot of the hiring that is going on now is in these high-value engineering centers in places like India and they do it for three reasons primarily. One is cost of course because it is cheaper there. Second and probably even more influential than the cost is access to talent. There simply are not enough qualified engineers. We have had this gap in hiring over the last four or five years. And a lot of retirements and so the engineering companies must go and find talent where it is and for a lot of places, it has not been in the Gulf Coast. So that is the second reason. I think the third one is speed and agility. To Ron's point, just like they want agility in operating the plant, well they want agility in designing and engineering the plant too because scope changes, schedules change, budgets change throughout the process. You start one place and end up in another. In engineering firms, the ability to be agile and respond to those changes quickly is very important and will differentiate them in what is starting to become seen by many as more of a commodities type of business. I think they will look to increase their levels of customer service through access to talent, through the ability to accommodate change and still deliver on time and on budget high-quality results.

RB: One final thought on that is there was one chart this morning that Antonio put up about projection by the visionaries of the world that the companies that aren't early adopters of A.I. will never catch up with the ones that are. They may even disappear and be replaced by other companies. So, to me I think the mistake people might make when deciding how to delve into the future world of A.I. and machine learning and using things like predictive maintenance, is you do not actually know today how you're going to use those but it's clear that the solutions are going to be required. I mean there was a news item today where scientists warned about the projections of the rate we are accelerating and the way we are changing the carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere and that in 20 to 50 years everyone is going to have to live with that. So that is going to require companies to adapt in ways and to move much more quickly in changing things. Well, we do not know what people are going to need to do in the future, but if you don't set up your technology to be able to empower your employees to do that, then they're not going to be able to do it. You know the simplest example being Google maps. I do not think anybody envisioned when people first started using it how it would completely do away with paper maps. I do not think anybody has a paper map in their car anymore and I do not think anybody really believed that it was really going to tell you up to the minute directions. I can call up my dad 100 miles away and tell him I will be there three minutes to 12 for lunch and know that is exactly when I am going to arrive, which is amazing if you think about it. But those sorts of changes in the process industry with process solutions will happen in a way we cannot really anticipate today. We do not know where they are going to lead. I do not think Google knew where that was going to lead when they introduced all those things.



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