Technological development has a dark side
Published on : Sunday 01-08-2021
Dr Marcio Wagner da Silva, Process Engineer & Project Manager, Crude Oil Refining Industry.
The theme of connected plants has been promoted since long – decades even. It becomes an important topic in Industry 4.0 as well. So what is new – in the concept and in implementation?
I understand that the connectivity and agility to promote changes in the process is the differentiation nowadays. The ability to make changes in the process with velocity and accuracy is a powerful tool.
A fully connected plant seems utopian. What is a realistic vision that plant managers should aim for? And why should it be short of the utopian goal?
An efficient plant is one that complies with the production plan without giveaways in a safe manner, with minimum energy consumption and minimum environmental impact. I believe that the plant managers need to look for a level of connectivity capable to ensure these requirements and no more beyond this. It's important to remember that there is a trade-off between connectivity and cyber threats, especially in high risk business like Oil & Gas process plants; furthermore, some situations need human interference in decision making and a totally connected plant can be a threat to the process safety according to the risk scenario.
Connectivity protocols are a central topic for total interoperability, and today OPC UA appears to be dominating this space. What are the pros and cons of OPC UA, and would it hinder further innovation?
A standard in the connectivity protocols can lead to cost reductions and make the maintenance interventions easier, leading to lower operating down times. On the other hand, a standard can expose the process plants to cyber-attacks and create a block to innovative protocols once the fabricants and users tends to reject a new protocol due to incompatibility with the ‘standard’ or impossibility of interchangeability between fabricants, which tends to raise the maintenance and capital costs.
How much is the contribution from user-industry towards standard, open protocols for interoperability? A major issue is of course legacy controllers. What is the strategy to integrate older machines into new networks?
The participation of the end users is fundamental to any innovation and development effort, and it is no different in the automation industry. The feedback about the new technologies and improvement points is the driving force for the success. In my point of view, the strategy to integrate older operating systems with the new networks passes through a critical analysis of the process, in the sense to identify what are the key equipment and process steps. This adds more value and security to the overall operation and one can then proceed with a deep study of modernisation and integration with new systems, aiming to ensure a high efficiency process plant with low capital spending.
A connected plant offers advantages of efficiency. Does it also become more vulnerable to cyber-attacks, which become more sophisticated by the day?
Despite all the benefits of the technology developments, unfortunately, the technological development has a dark side, the malware has been increasingly sophisticated and harder to eliminate and to prevent. Cyber-attacks are a real threat and can't be despised by the energy industry. Some references relate that the energy industry was the second preferred target of cybercriminals in the recent years, and it is becoming a great concern for the energy industry, mainly for the oil & gas production chain, and the companies have included cyber-attacks as a major risk. The autonomous systems, like drones and connected devices that have benefited from the IoT (Internet of Things) technologies are the main concerns regarding the risks of cyber-attacks.
Despite the new threats, technology development and digital transformation in the downstream industry offers alternatives to keep under control the risks, allowing the players to enjoy the benefits of the connectivity to enlarge their competitiveness in the market.
It's always important to understand that the digital transformation is not only a technologic phenomenon, but it requires a mind change, and defines new strategies. Based on this concept it's possible to build a robust strategy to control the industrial assets based on continuous risk assessment and clear security policies.
The training of employees is another key factor to face the cybersecurity issues. Increasingly, continuous training and self-development are necessary as any operational system will present vulnerabilities and the continuous learning and training is a fundamental part of the strategy to deal with this threat. Unfortunately, any good result depends on investments, but it's important to be capable of deciding the best investment once the resources are always limited. Again, an adequate management system need to be implanted to help organisations to decide where the resources need to be applied, the modern management system needs to be based on two driving forces, the first dedicated to maintain the reliability and sustainability of the current operations and the second focused to build the desired future creating, innovative ways to destroy the current business through disruptive thinking. Based on this management system the organisations can decide what the best investments are and the IT (Information Technology) security has a strategic character in the current and future scenarios.
Dr Marcio Wagner da Silva is Process Engineer and Project Manager focusing on Crude Oil Refining Industry based in São José dos Campos, Brazil. A Bachelor in Chemical Engineering from University of Maringa (UEM), Brazil and PhD in Chemical Engineering from University of Campinas (UNICAMP), Brazil, Dr Wagner has extensive experience in research, design and construction to oil and gas industry including developing and coordinating projects to operational improvements and debottlenecking to bottom barrel units. Dr Marcio Wagner also has MBA in Project Management from Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and is certified in Business from Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV).