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Meeting a brave new world with industrial software

Published by , Senior Editor
Hydrocarbon Engineering,

There can be little doubt that the hydrocarbon industry is in a state of rapid transition. Operations are shifting to support initiatives such as manufacturing new products, changing direction to adapt to supply chain issues caused by global unrest, and retooling and building facilities to meet the sustainability needs demanded by the boardroom and the public. The common theme across nearly all of these changes is a need for flexibility, while maintaining return on investment (ROI).

At the heart of flexibility is the capability to see and prepare for change. Executives in the boardroom need ways to quickly and easily see how worldwide trends impact every plant across national or even global fleets. They also need the tools to help them translate those trends into initiatives. Conversely, at the plant level, teams require tools to help them to quickly, safely and effectively implement business solutions, all while juggling shrinking budgets and staffing shortages.

Industrial software, particularly in the areas of intelligence and automation, can be used to create the foresight necessary to accomplish these and other goals, empowering organisations to continually meet the changing needs of a shifting global marketplace.

Years of change

Recent years have been marked by change that has challenged businesses and even society. Consider the case of a refinery that was caught between tradition and transition in the middle of the global pandemic. The jet fuel made as part of the refining process, valued for its high profit margin, was temporarily increasing in value at a rate far lower than that of road fuels, as air travel had ground to a halt. As such, the company needed to reduce production of air fuel products and maintain production of road fuels, which had significantly increased in value. But even if this change were made, it could not be permanent. The value of jet fuel would return, and the team needed to be ready to produce it again when it did.1

Similarly, imagine a series of plants needing to implement carbon capture technologies as part of a request handed down from the corporate level to meet a new ‘net zero by 2045’ initiative. The team would need to bring in new, likely unfamiliar equipment, and may have to run it with a smaller crew. Start-ups would be more complex, and changes may have cascading efficiency and safety effects down the production line. And yet, the team needs to accomplish all of these goals as cost-effectively as possible.

Either scenario requires significant retooling of facilities that were designed decades ago to operate in one manner indefinitely. But it is not just the retooling of existing facilities that is putting pressure on today’s engineers. Greenfield projects have also changed. Gone are the days of long investment horizons in the hydrocarbon industry. In 10 or 20 years, the world could look completely different, and the plant may need to operate in an entirely new way. Plants must be designed to enable such a pivot. To accomplish that, today’s engineering teams are expected to design plants and projects that are born digital, ready for flexibility, and with the ability to deliver ROI in shorter timeframes.2

Simulation helps teams see success

Process simulation in hydrocarbon processing can be a useful tool for helping organisations adapt to change. By creating a virtual model of their processes (also known as a process digital twin), manufacturers and producers can test out new ideas, explore the potential impacts of changes to their operations, and identify bottlenecks or inefficiencies. This can be especially helpful when an organisation is introducing new technologies, adding or modifying products, or adjusting production schedules.

With process simulation, manufacturers can make informed decisions about how to best implement changes, test strategies, and train personnel – all while minimising disruption to their operations and maximising the benefits of new strategies. By using this tool as part of a continuous improvement process, organisations can stay agile and adapt to changing market conditions, helping ensure long-term competitiveness and success.

Process simulation

At the corporate level, forward-thinking business teams are feeding historical plant data and new strategies into process engineering models to develop innovative solutions, helping them to stay more nimble across entire fleets. These teams use high-fidelity models to enable tighter collaboration across functions, optimise and coordinate the operation of complex assets, and learn how new, innovative equipment can improve business performance. Often, these systems provide integrated tools to improve workflows, increase safety, lower costs, and drive improved energy management and more sustainable operations (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. High-fidelity simulation software, such as Aspen HYSYS®, helps teams to improve collaboration and optimise assets to drive better business performance.

For existing facilities, optimisation teams can test real-world scenarios on existing process models and see exactly how they impact the business. The company can not only try out many ‘what if’ scenarios, but can also compare them against each other to see which options deliver the best results. Additionally, this testing can be performed in hours, posing no risk to existing operations and providing teams with myriad possibilities for innovation.

In greenfield projects, process simulation software is helping project engineers to develop boundless automation solutions to deliver more integrated operations. These teams are building born-digital plants using next-generation automation systems, and they are integrating multiple operational domains to move data from the field to the edge and into the cloud for peak optimisation across the enterprise. High-fidelity artificial intelligence (AI)-powered models enable the collaboration necessary to integrate tools and equipment for the most efficient performance and visibility – from the plant floor to the boardroom.

Operations testing and training

Digital twin software can be used to model the physical environments of existing or future plants, enabling teams to perform advanced testing of ideas, whether they were designed by project engineering or developed by innovative operators and engineers at the facility. Because the digital twin is a replica of the plant and all of its equipment, users can model changes and run them as though they were working with actual plant processes and equipment. This provides a safe, efficient path for testing, both to ensure projects will operate as expected from day one, and to empower project teams to perform steps in parallel, for faster start-ups (see Figure 2).

Teams can tweak process settings, change old equipment for newer or different models, or even alter procedures. They can then view the resulting cascade of changes to other processes and equipment. Under these conditions, operations teams can be sure that any change they make will not upset processes, and will deliver the expected benefits.

Figure 2. Digital twins, such as Emerson’s Mimic™ simulation software, can be used to create entire plant replicas, where teams can safely test process changes and new equipment.

After testing is complete, the digital twin continues to deliver value, acting as a comprehensive training tool to upskill operators before equipment is even onsite. In today’s environment of staffing shortages, plants are lucky to have one or two experts, but typically still need dozens of people who can operate equipment.

Instead of waiting for construction to be complete in order to train these newer personnel, teams can train them in parallel, safely, in an environment that mimics the operating conditions under which they will work. Plant personnel are better trained and ready to operate with top efficiency from day one – whether that is the first day of a new procedure, or the first day of operation of an entirely new plant.

Risk and scenario simulation

To ensure continued success, many nimble-minded organisations are relying on risk and scenario simulation software to deal with anticipated changes. Whether it is supply chain interruptions, the need for new equipment, or even the many variables of global operations, risk and scenario simulation software can help teams assess the full impact of their decisions. Using Monte Carlo simulation to evaluate thousands of variables, high-fidelity simulations provide detailed analysis to help guide strategic decisions for project prioritisation, supply-chain management, debottlenecking, and more (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Risk and scenario simulation software, such as Aspen Fidelis®, can use thousands of variables in simulations, providing better visibility into the overall impact of decisions.

A refiner with plants in two locations – one using high-carbon energy sources, the other with access to green energy sources during certain times – might use scenario simulation to determine the best strategy to minimise direct and indirect emissions for more sustainable operations, while still accounting for energy costs. This type of software can correlate data from a wide range of sources and create the best schedule to minimise cost and maximise sustainability. Or, a manufacturer might use risk and scenario simulation software after discovering some of its assets will soon need repairs. The reliability team can use the software to determine the best order in which to shut down equipment for repairs to maintain the highest profitability throughout the repair period.

Operations management supports change

While simulation software helps teams to plan for shifts in the global marketplace, operations staff also need to implement changes, and technology can be a big help here too. Modern operations management software is focused on digitally transforming the operations of hydrocarbon facilities. Many process plants do not have as many experienced operations staff as they once did. Using technology to bring greater visibility to operations, as well as automating many tasks, alleviates the workload so that operational changes can be successfully implemented.

Operations management software can be used by operations staff to monitor and maintain safety, alarm and control systems, helping ensure process and operational integrity. This assistance has become critical to operations with the need for more flexible operating regimes, coupled with the requirement to maintain process safety and product quality. Some operations management software includes the capability to adjust alarm configuration based on the operating state of the facility – essential to safely running operations in ways they have never been run in the past. Operations management software can also monitor the integrity of safety systems and provide bypass monitoring or operating limits, to help ensure that the plant is running safely, regardless of process state or how long a process has been in operation.

Flexibility secures the future

Today’s hydrocarbon environment is dynamic – a dramatic change from just a decade ago. Success in this new environment will not only mean accepting that shift, but also embracing it to find new opportunities not previously imagined. To take advantage of these opportunities, organisations and the plants they operate need to be nimble enough to adapt to changing circumstances, whether that means implementing new equipment and strategies, or further optimising existing operations. The challenges can often seem impossible to overcome, but new technologies can provide the required assistance. Over the coming years, industrial software will provide the flexibility necessary to meet these opportunities quickly and safely as they arise. The organisations building these technologies into their processes today will be well-positioned to meet any challenges and changes the future may bring.

Written by Dustin Beebe and Monil Malhotra, Emerson.


  1. ‘Less U.S. jet fuel consumption on average in 2022 than in 2019’, US Energy Information Administration (EIA), (5 December 2022),
  2. ‘High crack spreads to drive elevated U.S. refinery utilization through the summer’, EIA, (18 May 2022),


All figures are courtesy of Emerson.

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