This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode features first-time guest Vicki Knott of Crux OCM discussing the advancement of innovative and cutting-edge automation capabilities in the pipeline control room.
In this episode, you will learn about robotic industrial process automation, how this process can be utilized to support control room personnel, and the challenges of bringing this creative new idea to the market. Listen for a fascinating discussion of where technology is heading to support the control room.
Automating Tasks in the Pipeline Control Room: Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms
- Vicki Knott is the CEO and co-founder of Crux OCM. Connect with Vicki on LinkedIn.
- Crux OCM enables the autonomous control room of tomorrow, operating within the safety constraints of today. Combining advanced physics-based methodologies with machine learning, CRUX software helps clients increase throughput production and energy efficiency (up to 10%), improve safety, and ensure operators stay safe while contributing to a seamless, continuous operation. Find out more about their technology at CruxOCM.com.
- Robotic Industrial Process Automation (RIPA) is a form of business process automation that automates work flows undertaken by people that affect industrial processes in the field (i.e. procedures, checklists and rules of thumb), minimizing human errors, and maximizing productivity (a form of software robotics).
- Fatigue Mitigation, as outlined by PHMSA, requires operators to implement fatigue mitigation methods to reduce the risk associated with controller fatigue that could inhibit a controller’s ability to carry out the roles and responsibilities the operator has defined.
- Alarm Management is the process of managing the alarming system in a pipeline operation by documenting the alarm rationalization process, assisting controller alarm response, and generating alarm reports that comply with the CRM Rule for control room management.
- Alarm Rationalization is a component of the Alarm Management process of analyzing configured alarms to determine causes and consequences so that alarm priorities can be determined to adhere to API 1167.
- PHMSA (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) ensures the safe transportation of energy and hazardous materials.
- Transient Simulation is the calculation of a network’s response to arbitrary excitations. The results are network quantities (branch currents and node voltages) as a function of time.
- DNV GL is a global provider of software for a safer, smarter and greener future in the maritime industry.
- PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) is an industrial digital computer that has been ruggedized and adapted for the control of manufacturing processes, such as assembly lines, or robotic devices, or any activity that requires high reliability, ease of programming and process fault diagnosis.
- LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) is natural gas that has been cooled down to liquid form for ease and safety of non-pressurized storage or transport.
- SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) is a system of software and technology that allows pipeliners to control processes locally or at a remote location.
Automating Tasks in the Pipeline Control Room: Full Episode Transcript
Russel Treat: Welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast, episode 132, sponsored by Energy Worldnet, a worldwide service provider to the oil and gas industry making the world safer by providing pipeline operators and contractors innovative solutions for operator qualification, safety training, content authoring, and guidance as pipelines operate in compliance to PHMSA, OSHA, and other regulatory requirements. To learn more about Energy Worldnet, visit energyworldnet.com.
Announcer: The Pipeliners Podcast, where professionals, Bubba geeks, and industry insiders share their knowledge and experience about technology, projects, and pipelines operations. Now, your host, Russel Treat.
Russel: Thanks for listening to the Pipeliners Podcast. I appreciate you taking the time. To show the appreciation, we give away a customized YETI tumbler to one listener each episode. This week, our winner is John Lynk at PRCI. Shout out to you, John. Thanks for the cool tour of the TDC here in Houston a couple of months ago. Congratulations, your YETI is on its way. To learn how you can win this signature prize pack, stick around till the end of the episode.
This week, Vicki Knott with Crux OCM is joining us to talk about automating repetitive tasks in the pipeline control room. This is another one of those pretty geeky technology kind of conversations. I hope you enjoy it. Vicki, welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast.
Vicki Knott: Thanks for having me.
Russel: I’m really glad to have you. We actually had a conversation, I guess about a month ago now. We connected through LinkedIn. You were telling me about what you’re doing. I’m like, “Okay, that sounds like nonsense.”
Russel: Frankly. Then we had a conversation.
Vicki: Then you gave me a chance. [laughs]
Russel: Then we had a conversation. I’m like, “I think the people that listen to this podcast might be interested in hearing about what you do.” Thanks for coming on.
Vicki: Awesome. We connected right as the world was exploding.
Russel: Exactly. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in pipelining.
Vicki: Chemical engineer, Canadian, spend a lot of time in Houston, though. I got a job at a very large operator in Calgary after university and spent a lot of time working in their control room. Trained as a control room operator. Worked commissioning control systems in the field. Worked with control management, management of change regulations, as well. That was the intro.
Russel: Just to pick up on that, tell me what you do and maybe tell me why I thought it was craziness.
Vicki: Since your great feedback, we’ve done some more work on our website, too, to make things a little more easy to understand.
We are a startup company. We have developed software to enable more autonomous control room operations in major industrial assets.
Helping to fully automate control room operators’ procedures, checklists, and rules of thumb to enable them to get back to the higher-level things that really demand their attention, such as answering the phone for the field folks, talking to oil scheduling, and executing on those high-value tasks.
Russel: We talked a lot about…You hit this pretty quickly, but you said running procedures. Immediately, when you talk about running a procedure, I’m thinking about something like doing a pipeline startup.
I’ve got a pipeline. It’s sitting. No pumps are running. It’s sectionalized. I’m going to hit one button and everything that needs to happen to get that pipeline flowing at a target flow rate, the computer’s going to do all of that.
Vicki: That’s exactly what we’re going for and have already done.
Russel: You’re going to have to slow down a little bit with me so I can unpack this for people because I think anybody who operates in a pipeline and has experience in the control center, particularly if you’re running a long run, large diameter pipeline.
It’s a pretty big leap for most of us to say, “How would I push one button and have a pipeline startup when I’ve got to move a bunch of valves? I’ve got to start a bunch of pumps. I’ve got to do that in a particular sequence. I’ve got to watch it to make sure that it doesn’t go out of kilter.” How is that even possible?
Vicki: First of all, to make sure we’re always staying on the same page there, somebody still has to be there watching it. I like to say pilots in planes have autopilot. Nobody wants to get in a commercial flight from Houston to New York without autopilot software, but they also really want the pilot there, too.
You definitely need both. Then, in terms of the technical capabilities of how these things are possible, we call what we do robotic industrial process automation. Folks are getting more and more familiar with robotic process automation, so working to fully automate human workflows.
We like to think of this as something similar except we incorporate fully dynamic transient hydraulics, as well as more sophisticated control scheme, and then logic. Open this valve under these conditions, some more stuff that’s a bit more rules-based for control room operators.
Wrapping those things into a full package enables a control room operator to set one flow rate set point. Then, the software will execute and continually recompute on the internal transient models to move the system to full flow rate while also executing pump starts or valve openings if the control room operator so chooses to have those automated in the correct sequences to enable the startup.
Russel: What would be the most common practical use of this kind of technology?
Vicki: Right now, startups is definitely what we’re seeing to be a quite a bit of pull for on the oil pipeline side. People are also quite interested in it from handling batch transitions in steady state. Ensuring that you’re always maintaining max rate as much as possible. You’ve got your control room operator that’s babysitting the pressures to maintain max rate during steady state.
Another one we’re getting a lot of interest in is maintaining minimal power utilization in real-time during steady state operations. Right now, folks are seeing some really great software and models that create a printout for control room operators of how they should be operating pumps to minimize power.
What we’ve done is close the loop on that so that a control room operator can put in the inputs of what would be the least power utilization on that system. Then, they know it’s being taken care of. They’re not constantly babysitting that while answering the phone and while figuring out pump orders, and swings, and all that stuff.
Russel: I guess, said another way, what you guys are really doing is you’re pulling together a number of existing technologies and a number of existing algorithms and you’re automating all that under the cover.
Vicki: Yeah, exactly. We know that everyone has the subsystems, is what we call them, automated. Everybody has an automated holding valve. They’ve got some automation to make the pump starts as fast and seamless as possible. We’re putting a wrapper around all of it.
Another example that I’ve talked about before is if you think of the journey of a car. In order to get to the point where a car can be fully autonomous or even a car that has automated parallel parking, there’s a whole bunch of subsystems that have to be automated. Then, they’re starting to get wrapped around. We’re another step on the journey of these types of asset automation.
Russel: I guess the point I’m trying to make, thinking like a software guy, is this is more of an integration activity than a development activity.
Vicki: Yeah, sure. It’s an integration. Our platform will then integrate the various different subsystems. Then, there is an additional level of control required to operate those subsystems, correct.
Russel: I guess the other thing to think about, I actually like the idea of the electric consumption optimization because if that’s something I’m having to watch as a controller and tweak continually to try and maximize things, that’s a very different problem than I know my system’s going to maintain pressure and flow.
The system, under the hood, is going to do things to optimize electrical consumption. That’s easier to visualize. That seems less intrusive.
The other thing about all this is, just on the surface of it, to me it sounds risky. I’m actually going to rely on the system to do everything necessary to do a safe startup? That sounds…For me, the first time we talked, I’m listening and I’m like, “No. That’s crazy. That sounds risky.”
Vicki: We get that initial reaction, as well. That’s where I like to bring it to fatigue management. Fatigue management in control rooms is a significant concern. There’s a lot of great work done in that space.
If you think about fatigue, you’ve got all sorts of different methodologies to minimize that. You have alarm rationalization. You’ll have different kinds of shifts for people. You’ve got gyms and massage chairs.
We’re doing all these things that help manage fatigue, which is a very significant contributor to safety incidents on pipelines as reported by PHMSA. When Roger and I started this company, we started it because of that concern. I was working in control room management, management of change. A lot of these things that are being done, they’re great at treating the symptoms, but not the cause.
If the cause is fatigue, what exactly generates fatigue? It’s an overwork. It’s people executing, pushing lots of buttons, doing all sorts of highly repetitive tasks, especially for someone when they’ve become well trained and they’re a very well experienced operator. A startup becomes a repetitive task.
For us, how can you reduce the repetitive tasks that then contribute to fatigue and therefore you are reducing the cause as opposed to the symptom? Working automated, yeah, it might sound a little scary because it’s new, but if you think about it from planes or cars or all sorts of other things that we do in our daily life, an elevator, even. We have buttons in an elevator. It’s actually a step along the path to increased safety and reducing human factors and incidents.
Russel: Yeah, so, to me that’s an interesting analogy, Vicki. This kind of plays to my domain. When you talk about fatigue in the control room, that’s a very interesting…It’s a very detailed subject. Doing repetitive tasks under a time crunch and with stress, it is fatigue creating. It will wear you out.
Vicki: It’s really hard.
Russel: On the other hand, not having enough work is also fatigue creating.
Russel: It’s a matter of having the right level of work and the right kind of work that mitigates fatigue.
Vicki: Yeah. Humans are really good at complex, higher-level tasks, right? I’ve been in there. I’ve been starting up lines. I’d rather be on the phone with scheduling, trying to figure out this current trade that happened and how we can get that batch from this delivery to that delivery than I would be pushing buttons and checking off the checklist. Right?
Russel: Right. That’s right. You talked about the aircraft example. Original aircraft, all the control systems were mechanical. They were wire or hydraulic. Nowadays, they’re all digital. They’re all automated. All I’ve got to do is…
Like many of the state of the art aircraft and combat aircraft, you can’t even fly them with a human being. You’ve got to have a computer that creates the ability to fly this complex thing because there’s so many things that have to happen to make it flightworthy. A machine has to do that. Then, the human is worried about, “What’s the mission? What do we got to do to fly the mission?”
Vicki: Exactly, and highly trained so that if anything goes wrong there’s someone there that can think on their feet and react and make sure to maintain that safe operation.
Russel: Really, what you’re talking about here is automating those things that are on the rails, commonly done, and semi-complex tasks that are repetitive, not necessarily those things that are outside of that kind of domain.
Vicki: No. We’ve been asked that. People are like, “Do you have the scheduling software that will optimize on the network which batches are coming in out of where?”
I was like, “We don’t have that and we haven’t targeted that. Our goals is to automate the more procedural stuff and get that out of the way so that people can focus on those higher-level decisions.”
Russel: Shut downs, startups, changing my flow rates, managing batch transitions, managing takeoffs of the pipeline and injections into the pipeline. All of that kind of normal, through the workday, kind of stuff.
Vicki: Yep, exactly. You get the call from scheduling. They’re like, “Hey, can you deliver this batch? Instead of at point A, can you send it to point B?” Instead of that being a 15 minute, 200 or 300 command job, it’s one.
Russel: Every time you say that, you talk so fast and so matter of factly. Every time you say that, I’m like, “Yeah, but I just have a hard time believing you, Vicki. I just have a hard time believing you.”
Vicki: I don’t know if I showed you the video, but we’ve got a great video that shows a pipeline startup. It’s a 300 kilometer, five pump station oil line moving 460,000 barrels a day. We can start it in one.
Russel: Again, but you get why that’s a big leap mentally, right?
Vicki: It’s interesting. I get it, but I also…I don’t because…I’m sure, years ago when you’re turning the crank on the front of your car to get it going, nobody would have thought you could have got in with a key in your pocket and pushed a button.
Russel: Maybe. I don’t know. I think as things become more and more abstract and less and less tactile, it becomes harder to make the leap and have confidence.
I have not driven one of these cars that will self parallel park itself. I don’t know that…I’m sure it works fine. Once you’ve done it once or twice you go, “Hey, that’s pretty cool.” I think the first time I’d be nervous it was going to hit something.
Vicki: For us, when we’re working on this stuff, we’re going to first do a proof of concept right now. We want to take a transient simulator of your system. If you’ve got one on the DNV GL software, great. Excellent. Let’s make that look exactly like your system. Let’s put the software on it. Let’s run the tests to start building the confidence.
We’d want to take it a step at a time for those reasons exactly and show folks that it can do it and that they’re still in control.
Russel: What kind of after analysis can you do to make sure that you’re staying inside the parameters or even well inside the parameters for whatever procedure you’re running?
Vicki: We actually do hard code in the same pressure safety limits into our software that are in the PLCs in the field and also in the SCADA system. We like to think of it as an additional redundant safety system. Making the test that we run to make sure that we’re operating well within those is a comparison to historical data sets.
Let’s run the system doing the same set of commands or actions that a control room operator would do. If that’s a startup, then let’s compare that to historical data and prove that it’s behaving in the same way and, hopefully, better.
Russel: Interesting. What kind of challenges do you have in terms of getting people to actually accept this in operation?
Vicki: We are still just pre in the field live. We’re working with two very large customers right now, one in Canada, one in the US in proof of concept stage where we’re doing everything on the simulators. That’s the exact steps that we’re taking, is to show them on the simulator.
One customer has actually already entered into enterprise discussions with us because they are quite excited and the folks are…Everybody’s buying in. We’ve got executive sponsorship. We’ve got control room sponsorship.
I think it’s going to depend on the companies and company culture. These folks happen to be excited to try something new. We’ve definitely had that not be the case at some pipeline operator companies where they want to wait and see other folks have tried it first.
Russel: Change is risk and risk is bad is…That’s not necessarily a bad thing, that there’s a high bar, right?
Russel: There is a certain level of diligence required. This is a pretty radical departure conceptually. It’s a pretty radical departure, I think, for a lot of people about how you operate a pipeline system. You guys, you’re certainly cutting edge, if not bleeding edge a little bit around this kind of technology.
What are you finding as somebody who’s an engineer and has worked in pipeline operations? What are you finding challenging about trying to bring this creative new idea to market that you didn’t anticipate?
Vicki: I think what we didn’t anticipate was we thought there would be more push back from control room operators. That has not been the case at all. Control room operators themselves, they’re so busy and they have so much work that they’re grateful to see something that can help them perform better, and add to the bottom line, and be safer.
Based on mine and my co-founder Roger’s experience speaking with control room operators in our small subset, we saw…That’s one reason why we pursued the company, is because we saw that they were excited about it.
Then, as we broadened out to go to market and talking to lots of folks, control room operators unanimously, once they understand what’s going on, aren’t nervous or scared of it. They’re quite excited.
That we weren’t expecting. On the flip side of that, we thought that engineers, because engineers like to do new things and they like to build things…We thought the engineers would be more excited. They are actually less excited.
Russel: Fascinating. Why do you think that is?
Vicki: I am not quite sure. It’s definitely company culture to company culture. Some companies’ engineers are quite excited. Others, they want the ownership of something like this.
We get challenged a lot that they can build it in house. Of course, you can, with enough time and money, you can build anything yourself. It just becomes a higher level question, then, of what is the actual business case and business drivers? Does it make sense to build a software package and maintain it in house when your core competency is operating an oil pipeline? Would you want to be a software company, too?
Russel: Being a guy who’s been in the software business for 30 years, that’s always the challenge.
Vicki: Yeah, absolutely.
Russel: What you said is true. It’s just a matter of time and money. Yeah, you could throw enough money at it. Yeah, you could build something like this, but it’s different when this is our core business and this is a side business for you. It’s just different.
That’s an interesting conversation, I think. What do you think the future of this technology is?
Vicki: We’re moving. We were wondering if we were in the right timing. We’re starting to feel much more confident that we are in the right timing, given the traction that we are getting, especially in such a slow to adopt and slow to change market. We’re very pleasantly surprised by the traction we’re getting.
For us, working in pipelines is where we’ve started. We’re working in, currently, gathering systems and oil pipelines. We’re getting a lot of interest in gas plants. Quite a bit of interest in upstream on well pads for folks that have automated chokes.
We’ve had some traction in LNG. I had interest in refining. This type of technology, we’d love to create RIPA or Robotic Industrial Process Automation. That’s working in as many industries as possible to make control rooms more efficient and safer.
Russel: …industrial process…
Russel: You guys are what I…We didn’t talk about this when we got on the call before we were teeing all this up, but you guys are what I call evangelical technology. You’re out having to give the sermon and convert people to your way of thinking, which is…
Vicki: It’s why I’m on your podcast, Russel.
Russel: Yeah, I’m glad that you think this is a vehicle for that. Hopefully we can help get people thinking. That’s part of what we’re trying to do, is educate and inform. Just knowing that there’s somebody out there doing something like this in our space is kind of interesting, to be quite frank.
Vicki: It’s an opportunity for folks to ask questions. If there’s anything that we haven’t quite figured out yet, it’s a vehicle for folks to come and let us know and to make sure that we’re making this software as safe and user friendly as possible, right?
Russel: I do want to ask one question. I’m a guy who’s spent a lot of time doing SCADA systems in control rooms and all of that. I have often talked about for every point in the automation system, for every individual tag, I’ve got to configure that thing in multiple places.
I’ve got to configure it in the PLC. I’ve got to configure it in my communications server. I’ve got to configure it in my SCADA system, I’ve got to configure it in my hydraulic model. Now, I’m adding another one. I really mean this as a question.
I’m going to add it into my industrial robot. It actually is a whole additional system that has to be configured and maintained within that…what is already a complex enterprise.
Vicki: Yeah, it is. From doing the value prop analysis, it’s worth the additional effort from multiple cost savings, enhanced safety, reduced fatigue. We see it as a worthwhile task.
Longer term, I actually talked to one control room group just last week. They were able to successfully move all of their control room operators to setting up four to six monitors in their kitchens. They went fully work from home. They were the only folks that I have heard of that were able to do that.
We see what we’re doing, combined with those more flexible work styles. What you see is, longer term, you can have those folks are able to work from home. Control systems are in the cloud. You’ve got more automation around it. What if, in 10 years, people can operate a pipeline from a fully secure laptop that’s got their fingerprint login or their face recognition login?
If the rest of the workforce can work from home, and be safe, and be flexible, then why can’t control room operators?
Russel: That’s a whole another podcast conversation right there, Vicky, because now you’re talking about putting SCADA in the cloud. I know some people that are doing it, but I don’t know anybody doing it yet for mission-critical SCADA.
Vicki: No, I think it’s a good 5, 10 years out. It’s like, “Hey, if we’re going to talk…”
Russel: Then, you’re talking about, I’m going to have a console operator as a permanent condition working from the house. Immediately, I start thinking about distractions, and screen real estate, and a whole bunch of other questions come up for me.
That’s a whole another conversation, but when you start talking about industrial robotics in this way, and you start talking about what that can mean in terms of safety, and productivity, and optimization. There’s a lot of places this could go.
I think there’s probably a leak prevention aspect to this around limiting pressure cycles because putting…One of the big challenges in all of this is anytime you try to optimize one part of a system, you deoptimize others. When you start trying to do an industrial robot, at least you’ve got a framework where you can optimize the entire system and have a meaningful context and conversation.
If you were going to make your last two or three minute evangelical pitch around why people ought to at least be looking at this, what would that be? I’ll give you an opportunity to get on your soapbox for a minute here.
Vicki: Yeah, I’ll get on my soapbox for a minute. I think I covered a whole bunch of them. The reason why we started this was having sat in the control room and breaking a sweat myself starting a line because there’s just so much going on. It’s really to help out folks, to make their jobs a bit more enjoyable and a bit more doable.
To get on my soapbox there, as well, we’ve got some great folks now that have 30, 40 years experience in a control room. That’s not the reality going forward. How do we capture their knowledge, as well, so that we can keep operating these systems in the amazing ways that they’ve learned how to do it over the years.
There’s a generation gap. There’s a lack of interest in those types of more procedural based jobs with Millennials. I think it’s going to be required to start going this way as time moves on.
Russel: You make some great points. I’m going to sum up a couple of takeaways, but first I’ll make a comment. I don’t often bring people on to talk about their technology per se. I felt like this situation was unique enough and what you guys are doing is cutting edge enough that it’s the kind of thing that people might want to know about.
Thanks for coming on and doing this. My key takeaway here is there’s a lot of really creative people in our business that have had a problem because they had the job and are looking for ways to solve problems that are outside of what any of us are thinking or what any of us would find comfortable. At least, for me, I enjoy exploring that stuff. Good stuff.
Vicki: Companies like us are creating jobs, which is cool, especially in a downturn.
Russel: Yeah, exactly. Vicki, thanks for coming on. We might have to have you come back and we’ll talk about things like the cloud and how that might ever actually happen for SCADA. I think that would be an interesting conversation, as well.
Vicki: I have to learn a bit more on it. Right now, it’s still pie in the sky for me.
Vicki: Excellent. Thanks very much for having me.
Russel: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of The Pipeliner’s Podcast and our conversation with Vicki Knott. Just a reminder before you go, you should register to win our customized Pipeliner’s Podcast YETI tumbler. Simply visit pipelinerspodcast.com/win to enter yourself in the drawing.
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Russel: If you have ideas, questions, or topics you’d like to hear about, please, let me know on the Contact Us page at the pipelinerspodcast.com or reach out to me on LinkedIn. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you next week.
Transcription by CastingWords