The critical first steps for successful automation projects

The automation of drilling, production, and support processes is the next logical step in the evolution of technology in the increasingly digitized offshore sector. Initially, mechanization replaced human muscle power to allow more work to be done by fewer people and with larger machines. Then machine-system integration and computer-aided controls allowed the human to be physically removed from the most dangerous and difficult parts of a process, increasing safety and further reducing costs. Now automation can augment, and in some cases start to replace, human brain power to allow a more complex process to run faster and safer at an even lower cost.

Mechanization, integration, and computer-aided controls each represented a step change improvement in an existing process, and as such, introduced a risk of failure that was at least equal to (and in some cases greater than) the chance of success. Integration and computer-aided controls, in particular, have had a somewhat mixed track record of meeting end users’ budget and schedule parameters as well as their expectations for performance and safety. Now, with automation, these “opportunities to fail” are once again upon us. Luckily the offshore sector has a pretty significant body of prior experience from other industries to draw upon, which if heeded should allow us to avoid repeating many of these failures.
The question then becomes, what are the things that make an automation initiative successful and what are the things that make them fail? A query of the characteristics of a successful automation initiative will usually find the following in the top ten:

  1. The process was fully analyzed and characterized before automating
  2. The desired benefits were clearly defined and understood
  3. The requirements were driven by the desired benefits  

Likewise, a query of reasons why automation projects fail will find the following in the top ten:

  1. Choosing to automate a process that is not suited for automation
  2. Lack of clarity around how success will be measured
  3. Not taking the time to fully understand your requirements 

These reasons can be summed up in the following statement: “the root cause of process automation failure is typically automating the wrong process for the wrong reason.” To avoid this it is imperative to answer two key questions before launching an automation project:

First and foremost, determine WHY you are automating. The reasons to automate usually include one or more of the following:

  • Reducing cost
  • Improving efficiency
  • Improving safety
  • Removing people 

While each of these is a valid goal, each one requires a different approach to the design and implementation of your automation project. The failure to determine exactly which goals you wish to achieve, then design and implement an automation project that considers all of them equally, will likely result in the failure of the automation project.
For example, there is an increasing trend to reduce the number of persons on board (POB) as a way to reduce costs. Automation is correctly seen as one of the best ways to reduce or even eliminate the number of people required to complete a task by replacing a person with an intelligent automated machine. Quite often, there is an assumption that reducing the POB will provide the additional benefit of improving safety by placing fewer people in harm’s way.
However, this improvement in safety is not an automatic benefit. It is quite easy to design and implement an automated machine that reduces safety by placing the people who do remain in greater danger. This is because existing safety procedures based on human control do not work for an automated machine. Automation-specific hazard and failure modes analysis, especially ones focused on the software controls and sensor arrays that provide the automation intelligence, must be part of the overall design and implementation of the automation project. Focusing only on the goal of reducing POB, without equal consideration to maintaining or improving safety, can result in a more dangerous process in the end.

Second, if automation is the correct solution, can the target process be automated? Only well-characterized processes can be successfully automated. A well-characterized process meets three requirements:

  • It can be measured
  • It is stable
  • It is predictable

As mentioned above, automation augments and sometimes replaces the human intelligence required to execute some task or process. Despite the advances in artificial intelligence, most automated machines use logically sequenced control algorithms, and there is a limit to how much human intelligence the automation can augment. If a task or process cannot be easily measured, is unstable or unpredictable, it cannot be replaced with logically sequenced control algorithms, and hence cannot be automated. One of the primary failures in automation processes is trying to automate a process you cannot measure, stabilize and predict.
In summary, automation can in many cases provide significant benefits in cost reduction, operational efficiency, and safety. Achieving these goals, however, requires that the automation be designed using the principles of integrated systems engineering. Athens Group has extensive experience analyzing processes to determine if they would benefit from the leap to automation. Contact us today to discuss how we can help.

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