Process engineering teams must embrace data and technology to survive the shale renaissance

Understanding and managing the trade-off between processing opportunity crudes and the effects it has on asset integrity while maximizing profits is perhaps one of the biggest challenges process engineer teams face in today's market.

Using big data analytics and trending from installed sensors of many different varieties (temperature, vibration, thickness, etc.) allows asset owners to tweak in near real-time, processes to maximize efficiencies all along the value chain.

Refineries are finding that using big data analytics and sensors are saving the day and the company’s earnings.

"Using big data analytics and trending from installed sensors of many different varieties (temperature, vibration, thickness, etc.) allows asset owners to tweak in near real-time, processes to maximize efficiencies all along the value chain,” said Dr. James N. Barshinger, Co-founder, President, and Chief Technology Officer of Sensor Networks, Inc.

Some analysts believe refineries without the capability to process opportunity crude will lose out to competitors.

Refiners such as Marathon Petroleum’s 106,000 barrel/day Detroit refinery in Michigan and Repsol’s 100,000 barrel/day Cartagena refinery in Spain are taking advantage of the opportunity crudes.

These crudes generally include heavy sour grades, oil sands/bitumen, extra-heavy oil, high-TAN (total acid number) crudes and oil shale.

Other analysts question if refiners can justify the capital investment needed to refine the hard-to-process opportunity crudes amid changing market conditions and new environmental legislation.

Process Engineering Challenges

More than $200 billion is expected to be invested in U.S. petrochemicals as the region becomes an energy exporter and the U.S. is not stopping.

The role process engineering teams play in North America’s tremendous growth is paramount to the success of the industry.

Making sense of how to process the shale crudes and gases and their impact on process equipment is an important feat process engineering teams are tackling.

Automation and process control are playing a pivotal role in these new manufacturing plants. Process engineering teams are tasked with improving product quality, plant efficiency, safety and reliability.

Challenges abound for the process engineering sector as a result of North America’s sustained petrochemical and energy growth.


To be able to accomplish this presents another challenge for modern day asset owners – data management.

“The main thing that needs to happen is a paradigm change in the way data is collected, managed, and decisions are made,” Barshinger said. “It truly is a case of working smart versus working hard.”

“If there is an issue in a process unit, don’t send a person out to manually collect data every day or every couple of days, install a sensor and let it do the work for you (more accurately and safely). Instead of taking a pipe or vessel out of service every X number years, why not try to safely extend its useful life by employing monitoring technologies which can paint a picture of the asset’s ongoing health status,” Barshinger added.

In order to be able to take advantage of all the data and inputs from each sensor that can be outfitted in a facility, refiners and petrochemical manufacturers simply cannot operate the same way they have in the past, he continued.

“It takes a concerted and organized effort in order to figure out how to get to this point, which does not happen overnight,” Barshinger said. “This is an evolution which needs to take place across a number of phases. Getting started is the hardest part, but once a broad path is established, momentum will gather and change can begin.”


The petrochemical and refining industry has been around for decades and has always been doing things ‘the way it’s always been done. For this reason, process engineers have many times been slow to take in process control innovation in terms of digitalization, automation, big data.

“Until the willingness to change and operate differently catches up with the technology, there will be slow adoption,” Barshinger said. “The faster asset owners can get on board and start gleaning small wins and base hits from deploying technology, the quicker economic scalability can be achieved.”

Think of this in terms of toasters, Barshinger illustrated.

If only 10% of households had toasters, the price per toaster would be $100.00. Since virtually every household has a toaster, economies of scale kick in, raw goods can be produced in volume, and the price per toaster is now $10.00.

“The same is true for technology. If 100 plants decide to install 1000 sensors, the price per sensor for everyone will reduce,” Barshinger said. “This will only happen through a widespread deployment and by changing the way asset integrity, inspection, and monitoring is done, in the case of corrosion ultrasonic transducer sensors.”

Sensor technology is one of the many different kinds of innovations available today and becoming more economically scalable than ever before.

“Technology will only be able to continue progressing if asset owners embrace them and work on ways to deploy, learn, and utilize the data to make more informed (and profit maximizing) decisions,” Barshinger said. “The technology is here. However, implementation is the next hurdle.”


Petrochemical plants and refineries are learning more about their assets than ever before and in many cases can move from a time-based maintenance interval to a predictive based model, Barshinger said.

“While using wireless ultrasonic transducer sensors, asset owners and operators are able to quickly and accurately track the corrosion rates of different units/assets throughout the plant down to 0.001 inches,” Barshinger said.

As the ultrasonic transducer sensor does not move, data is accurate, repeatable, and can provide valuable feedback around the resultant effects of using different feed stocks, effectiveness of chemical inhibitor, or different remediation/process changes.

This data is then stored for future use in a company database for the next time the plant wants to operate a particular way.

By Heather Doyle

Overcoming and solving major engineering, construction, supply chain and workforce challenges will be a key theme of the Downstream 2019 event.

In its 4th year and bigger than ever, the Downstream 2019 event will be held June 11 and 12 at the George R Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas.

The conference team is expecting more than 7,000 exhibition visitors, 3,000 conference visitors, 350 exhibition booths, alongside hundreds of strategy panel sessions and technical sessions.

This year, Downstream 2019 adds two new sections to its list of dedicated conference tracks. Process Engineering and Workforce Development will be added to the traditional tracks: Major Projects, Small to Midsize Projects, Shutdowns and Turnarounds, and Reliability and Maintenance.

Visit the conference website to discover more today!