March 2019

Executive viewpoint

A digital transformation success: Uthmaniyah G.P. shines a light on 4IR
Ahmad A. Saadi / Saudi Aramco

In January 2019, the World Economic Forum (WEF) recognized Saudi Aramco’s Uthmaniyah Gas Plant (UGP) as one of seven “Lighthouse Sites” across a range of global industries in its WEF Beacons of Technology Innovation in Manufacturing report, ahead of WEF’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. The award alluded to the spotlight that these facilities shine on Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) megatrends.

In keeping with the lighthouse metaphor, the winners also were selected for serving as examples in helping others navigate hazards on the journey. The peril? As the WEF puts it, “pilot purgatory”—the risk of lagging behind the adoption, at scale, of 4IR digital technologies that can introduce faster, smarter, greener and safer ways of working.

Saudi Aramco can attest to such results. We have started capitalizing on 4IR, seeing how technology that increasingly intersects the physical and digital realms adds intelligence, and improves efficiencies and human productivity. Our goal, to become the world’s leading digitalized energy company by 2022, is driven by maximizing shareholder value, spearheading digital innovation, and building strong use cases—like UGP—that realize digital transformation’s promise in line with Vision 2030. The latter is Saudi Arabia’s plan to create a thriving private sector, anchored by manufacturing and energy. Accordingly, we have identified more than 100 high-value digitalization opportunities across different business segments.

An early adopter, UGP has become a leader in the use of advanced analytics and artificial intelligence solutions, as confirmed in an audit by WEF and its study partner McKinsey. And, it is one of many Saudi Aramco plants seeing the benefits of a digitalized future. This successful adoption is powered by our 4IR Center, which allows for rapid evaluation and deployment while ensuring life-cycle support. It has a company-wide view of the assets’ operations, thanks to monitoring and diagnostic capabilities. Through centrally located domain experts, it provides timely guidance on optimizing asset performance to individual facilities.

Robot use is one of the key enablers underpinning 4IR. Wireless ground-crawler robots can easily maneuver curved-surface test tanks, vessels and pipes for corrosion. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) scan facilities completing inspections and aerial mapping in less time, and at less cost, while helping ensure environmental and operational safety.

Mobile and wearable technologies afford UGP operators and engineers instant connectivity for real-time inspections; smart-helmet cameras can grab video images and scan equipment smart tags at a glance, while a screen and headphones facilitate communication with tech support. Augmented reality displays maintenance records and other documentation directly onto the wearer’s smart glasses.

Along with other advanced analytics and machine learning solutions, Asset Predictive Analytics (APA) are deployed in the 4IR Center to raise operational efficiency, enhance reliability, and improve HSSE. These solutions start with Internet of Things (IoT) devices that collect operational Big Data in real time. These data are then streamed securely to the corporate network, where they are integrated with other data sources and utilized by the advanced solutions to optimize operational decisions. In addition, IoT devices are used increasingly to bring intelligence next to the operating assets.

Predictive models developed using Machine Learning tools are the basis of APA, which is able to detect and diagnose an asset performance issue before it leads to an unplanned shutdown. We see the use of predictive analytics increasing across our business.

Saudi Aramco’s experience attests that digitalization can deliver major improvements in cost and operational efficiency. With UAVs, alone, inspection time is lowered 90%, costs are trimmed 10%, and safety and emergency responses improve 5%. APA use, overall, has achieved cost avoidance of more than $1 million, plus similar energy-use savings. And in AI, considering robotics and analytics alone, Saudi Aramco has realized more than $1 billion in benefits, to date.

The whole industry is, in fact, prioritizing digital investment to unlock more effective business and operational models. However, slowness in taking digital beyond the pilot phase can lead to just the situation that the WEF Lighthouse project cautions against—a lag that won’t just deprive sectors of savings and improvements, but which can mean the difference between thriving and merely surviving.

Time and again, this sector has leveraged innovation to meet the “new normal,” and that resilience is vital when energy demand is increasing, and resources are increasingly challenging to discover and recover. Advanced analytics and AI are essential to a business like ours that yields an overwhelming variety and volume of data to be filtered, interpreted and integrated. Digitalization can preserve capital, reduce costs and enhance safety.

Digital innovation is essential. For industries everywhere, digital innovation is the key to reversing stagnation and generating wealth for the well-being of societies. It will be increasingly central to securing cyberspace, building local content and accelerating workforce training via virtual reality, immersive visualization and interactive simulation-based applications.

Even given its current brisk pace, technology’s velocity—and its critical importance to future business—will only rise, as autonomy and intelligence increase. So, it’s essential to advance beyond the investment and test stages.

It’s my hope that UGP’s shining example will help more businesses, in the energy industry and beyond, to “see the light.”

About the Authors
Ahmad A. Saadi
Saudi Aramco
Ahmad A. Saadi is Senior Vice President of Technical Services at Saudi Aramco. He oversees engineering services; project management; IT; materials supply; and community, infrastructure and public projects.
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