*As seen in Inspectioneering Journal’s July/August 2022 issue.
Earlier this year, Inspectioneering and Pinnacle co-hosted their 9th “Meeting of the Minds” (MOTM) roundtable discussion in Chicago, Illinois. This bi-annual meeting brings together a select group of leading mechanical integrity (MI) experts to discuss pertinent topics related to fixed equipment reliability and share their personal experiences and opinions. As with previous meetings, participants come from various sectors of the industry, including refining, petrochemicals, offshore production, and chemical processing.
Previous MOTM recap articles have summarized key takeaways from our discussions covering topics like emerging technologies, corrosion under insulation (CUI) programs, integrity operating windows (IOWs), corrosion control documents (CCDs), risk-based inspection (RBI), the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on mechanical integrity programs, piping RBI, and most recently, MI project hit lists. The theme of this meeting was data; in particular, data collection, data organization, and data analysis.
Data Collection and Organization
We opened the discussion on data collection by asking the participants to share their experience with robots and drones and whether they thought this technology will be used to automate data intake instead of humans in the next decade.
It was clear that all of the participants have used robotics and/or drones to help monitor the condition of their assets; some more than others. One individual from the refining industry stated that he has “seen a tremendous amount of improvement in drone technology over the last several years.” He shared that they were now using drones to take 3D scans of their assets, build models, take UT readings with magnetic sensors, and fly them inside difficult-to-access spaces like tanks and columns. While he was adamant that the technology is assisting his inspection program, he remains concerned about the quality of the data/readings. “I’m just not sure if it’s an adequate replacement for a seasoned inspector actually getting out there and looking at a piece of equipment with their own eyes,” he stated.
Another participant from the refining industry stated that they have a fairly robust drone program across their facilities and that their IT group has been instrumental in building the infrastructure to store the immense amounts of information coming in. “We’re building out a process right now to determine exactly how that data goes from that device to a server, wherever it may be; as well as the ability to tag it, timestamp it, and make sure we can go back and know exactly what we were looking at and where it’s located,” he added.
It’s no secret that the refining industry seems to be behind other industries when it comes to integrating new technologies like drones into business operations. A participant from the upstream O&G industry commented that they had been using drone technology to inspect their offshore assets for many years. He went on to share that they are actually using satellites now to effectively monitor methane emissions from onshore assets in the U.S. They are testing this technology on offshore assets as well, but it’s a little trickier getting accurate readings over water. So, they are using their drones to verify the satellite emission readings from their offshore assets as well.
When asked how their inspectors felt about incorporating new technologies like drones and robotics into their existing programs, one participant estimated that approximately 50% of his inspectors are resistant, stating that they want to put their hands on the equipment and “taste the metal.” The other 50% is probably split between “I don’t really care” and “heck yeah, let’s do it.” Everyone seems to understand that this transition is coming though. The role of the inspector has drastically changed over the last 20 years, and it will undoubtedly continue to evolve as technology keeps advancing and we bring in more and more data about the condition of our assets.
Permanently Mounted Sensors
As hardware becomes more economical and industrial facilities recognize the value of continuous monitoring to better understand the true condition of their equipment, interest, and installation of permanently mounted sensors has significantly increased. One participant shared that they’ve installed thousands of single sensor probes across all their sites with plans to install more. “The future is continuous monitoring, and I think we’re just now scratching the surface of the benefits it can provide. We’re seeing it already though; some of the data that’s come back has alerted us to issues with our equipment that we realistically wouldn’t have known for 5-10 years based on traditional modeling,” he said. However, he did note that there is just so much data coming in on a daily basis, you really need to have management systems in place to determine who reviews it, when they review it, and how they review it. They’re currently building modeling capabilities to alert key stakeholders when there is an issue that someone needs to take a look at.
Another individual said his company has been installing sensors across their downstream facilities for several years, but they do not monitor them daily. “We use our estimated corrosion rates and then go pull the data to make sure we’re still where we want to be,” he said.
One participant from the refining industry emphasized the importance of understanding the scope of your sensors. He went on to share an experience where they had a mix point in a sulfuric alky unit that failed, so they put a sensor at that precise location and shortly thereafter experienced another failure 1.5” away from the sensor. “We gave ourselves a false sense of security because we thought monitoring the location of the previous failure was sufficient,” he said. “We’re currently trying to put systems in place right now to better analyze the data coming in,” he added.
Another participant stated that they use a lot of permanently mounted sensors and are getting a ton of data from them, but currently, none of them integrate with his IDMS, which, as he put it, “is what we kind of hang our hats on in terms of our CMLs and corrosion rates.” So it’s become yet another system that they have to manage and interrogate, and it’s getting to the point of “Where do we start? When an inspector or corrosion engineer shows up in the morning, what is he or she supposed to look at? None of these sensor systems are notifying us of any red flags, so we all have to go on this fishing expedition every morning to query our IDMS, query the sensor data, query the IOW data, etc.” This is presenting a significant challenge for them. “We bring all of this technology together and it’s really not integrated under one roof, so it just becomes more difficult on the human to actively find and interpret all of that information,” he said.
Others at the table agreed that all of these new data acquisition tools are fantastic, but it is crucial to ask the right questions upfront, before you start implementing any new technologies. What are you going to do with the incoming data? Who’s going to monitor it? How does this change your work processes? How is the data going to be analyzed and leveraged?
When asked what some of the biggest challenges were the participants faced when it came to managing their equipment data, there were three common issues raised. The first major challenge is data silos within facilities and organizations. At any given facility, there are many different systems simultaneously gathering good data, yet they aren’t effectively communicating with each other. Unfortunately, this leads to a lot of data being rendered useless when it comes to making significant integrity and reliability gains.
One participant from the upstream industry commented that they are working to address this issue by combining their data silos into a centralized information repository (i.e., a data lake), and getting input from each of the various stakeholder groups (inspection, maintenance, operations, etc.). They ask, “how does this data interact?” and use predictive analysis based on experience and certain assumptions to train their model to provide outputs that are useful to their inspectors, engineers, and maintenance personnel.
The second challenge raised is the fact that currently in our industry there is no standardization of data outputs, data quality requirements, or data interactivity. The participants agreed that there is a strong need for governance on how the diverse types of data being gathered are incorporated into mechanical integrity programs. “The industry needs to come together and set up what that governance looks like. We need to review examples, outputs, successes/wins, failures/losses, and then put that governance in place,” said one participant.
The last challenge raised is the “shiny new thing” trap. “There are a lot of cool new things on the market that could have a place in our toolbox, but we can’t forget there are still a lot of fundamental things we should be constantly improving and solidifying,” said one participant. Owner-operators must make sure their teams remain disciplined and ensure that their programs are built on a strong foundation. For example, get your work processes optimized and nailed down before bringing in a shiny new tool that may or may not fit within your programs.
The goal of integrity programs is to be able to look at your risk profile and determine where your biggest risks are and how to best mitigate them. When you can effectively do that, you get more production uptime, more efficient operations, and more reliable predictions. Better data acquisition, organization, and analysis is an integral part of building a world-class mechanical integrity program. We hope that sharing some of the insights from our “Meeting of the Minds” discussion helps you in your journey as a mechanical integrity professional.
Inspectioneering and Pinnacle would like to thank all of the participants for sharing their insight and experiences. We sincerely appreciate your participation in these discussions and your dedication to educating and advancing the Inspectioneering community.