By Matthew Hoare

The proliferation of smart technology within the pipeline management industry is providing companies with a previously-unthinkable level of control when it comes to monitoring, inspecting and maintaining pipelines. This new array of devices– loosely termed the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) – has brought operational technology (OT) within the digital domain. Companies now have real-time access to critical pieces of infrastructure and can harvest vast amounts of data that can be used to improve efficiency and minimize safety hazards. This not only helps assuage health, safety and environmental (HSE) concerns and protects against reputational damage, but can also improve a company’s bottom line when implemented intelligently.

Making Pipelines Smarter

In their report into the uses of smart technology in pipelines, Schneider describes IIoT as being the “DNA of modern industrial operations”. This technology has become an integral part of certain industrial products – pipeline infrastructure being one of them. Nowadays, all pieces of infrastructure crucial to maintaining a functioning and efficient pipeline – from pumping stations and tank farms to terminals and compressor stations – are connected via the IIoT.

Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems are at the heart of this technological revolution. SCADA is the point of the contact between a company’s IT systems and their OT, linking a network of microcomputers to the array of sensors, end devices and factory machines attached to pipeline infrastructure. Pipeline engineers and data analysts can now monitor a raft of different variables; temperature, air and water quality,

pressure, flow and pipeline conditions to name just a few. The ability to collect and analyze such large pools of data provides companies with a powerful predictive tool. Rather than react passively in problematic scenarios, engineers can now put preemptive measures into practice before damage occurs.

SCADA is used, not just to monitor systems, but to control connected devices integrated into pipeline infrastructure. A host of actions – such as turning a valve or changing the behavior of a mass flow controller – can now be done remotely. This provides companies with a greater degree of control and significantly improves their responsiveness in problematic scenarios.

In-line inspection pigs are equipped with smart technology in order to provide greater insight into the integrity of the pipeline. A range of devices that analyze the diameter, roundness and thickness of the pipe, and produce data on a range of variables such as temperature and pressure. These tasks are achieved through different types of pig: magnetic flux leakage (MFL) pigs are deployed to scan for welding deficiencies after the pipelines has been constructed, while caliper pigs analyze the circumference of the pipeline and check its roundness. Some pigs are equipped with ultrasonic technology which measures thickness, while others utilize electromagnetic acoustics to identify weaknesses in the pipe. Tilt sensors and odometers, meanwhile, record the pig’s movements and show engineers where the damage is located. The sophistication of this smart technology now allows companies to detect pinhole leaks, and faults that are almost impossible to find through visual inspection.

Greater Transparency

The most obvious benefit that IIoT has brought to the pipeline management industry is the improvement of safety standards. As discussed already, smart technology has made incidents preventable by making the entire infrastructural network visible to engineers and analysts. It is this new level of transparency that Thony Brito Cardier, regional sales manager at Rockwell Automation’s digital oilfields division, says is one of IIoT technology’s most powerful aspects. “What IIoT helps with is to integrate these systems in the OT domain and give visibility of the status of an asset at any given moment while providing the ability to remotely access, diagnose, and troubleshoot the controllers,” he says. It is this transparency that allows companies to identify issues with pipelines, compressors and valves before they become problematic.

Saving Money

The benefits of IIoT technology go beyond safety – investing in smarter infrastructure can also have a positive impact on a company’s balance sheet. While the initial outlay may be expensive – depending on the integration strategy of the company – these costs, according to Cardier, can be made back quickly, “sometimes in weeks, depending on the complexity of the project”.

The ability to automate many processes reduces operational expenditure. Companies are no longer required to employ large in-house teams charged with operating and maintaining manual functions. Instead, automated technology means that small teams of specialists can now perform a large range of tasks, eliminating a substantial amount of maintenance and support costs.

IIoT technology can also significantly increase a company’s productivity. Connected wireless communication systems now allow engineers working in remote locations to contact other areas of the company, enabling them to solve problems faster with only the click of a button.

Companies building new pipelines for greenfield sites will see reduced capital investment costs. Unlike older pipelines, new pipelines will be fitted with smart technology from the outset, eliminating the necessity to upgrade and replace legacy devices.

IIoT does not just save cash on a day-to-day basis. By improving pipeline safety, it can potentially save companies from having to pay out huge sums in financial damages and repair costs in the event of a mechanical failure or faulty pipeline. There are many case studies that could be used to illustrate the potentially-disastrous financial effects of an environmental incident, incurred both from the cost of repair and the subsequent fines imposed by governments.

Overcoming the Hurdles

There are, of course, challenges that come with integrating IIoT into existing pipeline management systems. First and foremost, all companies must be mindful of the vulnerability of smart technology to outside exploitation. The growth of automated processes and remote access technology, and the connection of OT to centralized IT systems mean that cyber criminals now have more points of attack than ever. Data theft, virus intrusion and loss of control over remote processes are clear and present threats that have the capacity to cripple a company’s day-to-day operations. It is critical therefore that a watertight cyber security policy is adopted, and that adequate training is provided to all employees regarding how to maintain the integrity of the company’s digital systems.

Another challenge associated with IIoT technology involves how to integrate it with older, non-smart devices. Moreover, some pieces of technology cannot be made smart and will always need to exist alongside IIoT infrastructure. There are specific measures that companies can take to overcome this. Fog computing for instance is an IIoT technology that allows for older devices to become somewhat integrated into modern systems. More broadly, however, companies should plan carefully how they introduce new technology, how legacy technology will interact with it, and how they begin to transition away from older systems.

“The key to handling these issues is through adequate planning, phased implementation, and to segment the application of the new technology to certain domains within the company,” Cardier says. By doing this, companies will be better able to understand and mitigate the potential risks that come with introducing this type of technology.

Smarter, Safer

IIoT technology has undoubtedly brought tangible benefits to the pipeline industry over the past few years. Not only is it providing companies with additional tools by which to mitigate HSE hazards, it is opening doors for companies to trim their operating costs and make efficiency savings. The initial costs of transitioning to smarter systems can certainly be expensive, and the amount of money saved can be limited if it is not integrated in an intelligent way. Nevertheless, IIoT represents the future for both pipeline management, and the oil and gas sector as a whole. Over the coming years, industry infrastructure will become ever more connected, more processes will become automated, and big data analytics will continue to grow both in size and in importance.