Feedback: Wider capabilities via IIoT; lowering project costs

Less customization, more standards, wider capabilities, and easier implementations are needed to improve Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and automation.

By Sandy Vasser March 10, 2017

I was very interested in the Control Engineering "Think Again" article, "Finding IIoT benefits." It is true that the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) can be used to optimize processes, make processes safer, lower energy use, enable regulatory compliance, increase profits and improve operations sustainability.

However, I think the industry is missing one great opportunity and that is using new automation technologies to greatly simplify the architecture and greatly reduce the customization of the automation systems we have been installing for past three or four decades. Today, the typical solution for a major facility includes a complex and complicated mixture of hundreds of marshaling cabinets, hundreds of controller and I/O cabinets, dozens of servers, dozens of PCs and numerous other components.

Additionally, every user wants it their way (the Burger King approach) including many features that are not considered standard by their automation provider. This common approach dramatically increases the total installed cost, greatly extends the time to deliver, requires a large project team, complicates installation and commissioning, increases the cost to update and maintain. Most importantly, the complexity demands that we remain dependent on the aging workforce. We will never be able to consistently hire younger resources to maintain the current very large and complicated hardware solutions. 

Different approach

We must have a different approach—one which uses new technologies to minimize the amount of hardware, eliminates purpose built components, relies entirely on vendor standard components and places all customization within the software. We can consistently hire resources to develop and maintain valuable software.

To justify my first PC at work, I had to make a list of all the things I could do with the PC. My list never envisioned all the things that we use PCs for today. The same will be true for IIoT. However, reducing the size and complexity of our automation hardware solutions is a more critical need. In fact, if we can reduce costs, and simplify delivery and maintenance by reducing size and complexity, we will enable doing even more with IIoT. 

Too much cost

For two-thirds of my 38-year career with ExxonMobil, I was involved in major capital projects with the last 15 years spent supporting mega-projects. I realized a few years ago that the primary reason why project costs have increased exponentially over the past decade is that everyone is biased and burdened by historical practices that no longer apply or could be automated.

One example is what all applicable industries have done to program safety systems. The historical practice has been for process engineers to develop cause and effects. A safety engineer programs the logic solver loop by loop, and then checks the programming loop by loop to verify the manual entries. 


We challenged all the major safety system suppliers to develop a translator to take the cause and effects and directly program the logic solver. Because this is done automatically, no validation is required. This does not eliminate the functional testing, but it significantly reduces the manual activities. We learned that Siemens had actually developed such a tool a decade ago but few used it. This is now a tool ExxonMobil Upstream will be using for all future projects.

There is a long list of improvements we convinced ABB, Emerson, Honeywell, Schneider Electric, and a Yokogawa to commercialize under a program called "It Just Happens" and later "Think Differently." We believe these measures reduce automation costs by 30% to 50%. To reduce project costs, every discipline must challenge ALL historical project execution processes and procedures, and eliminate or simplify the processes and procedures. 

Lowering costs

Everyone has tried low cost engineering centers but all they have done is take historical practices and used engineering resources with lower billing rates. There are some savings but a much greater cost reduction comes from eliminating or automating procedures. Unfortunately, the industry has realized lower engineering rates only and assumed success.

In another example, piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs) today are effectively started from scratch, and it takes months to develop, review, and approve a set of P&IDs. Aveva and Intergraph should develop graphics for vessels, separators, pumps, and compressors that are already fully instrumented. All an engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) would need to do for P&IDs is construct them from building blocks included in the drawing software. This would save a considerable amount of time.

Sandy Vasser is the retired IC&E Manager for ExxonMobil. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,


Key Concepts

  • Automation technologies can help simplify the architecture and reduce the customization of the automation systems.
  • Reducing costs, reducing size, and complexity will enable companies to do more with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).
  • Reducing project costs requires companies to challenge what worked in the past and seeing where improvements can be made.

Consider this

What else can be done to improve the IIoT and automation?