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AI/Automation

ExxonMobil heads to the edge with Intel

To ExxonMobil, artificial intelligence and smart factories are not cutting-edge ideas. The energy and chemical giant first told engineers to study AI back in the 1980s, and that's also when it started networking its equipment.

Almost 40 years later, the stage is finally set for AI to become a meaningful part of ExxonMobil's operations. But to take full advantage, the company needs to shift the way it connects and sources its industrial control systems.

"These networks are vendor proprietary and non-interoperable," explained ExxonMobil Chief Engineer Don Bartusiak in a webinar recorded late in 2019. "It's a big barrier to innovation. This is really one of the fundamental business problems that we're trying to address and solve with the open process automation initiative."

The company's open process automation initiative involves companies from multiple industries, all of which are working to create a standards-based, open, secure and interoperable process control architecture for automation systems. ExxonMobil started the movement several years ago when management realized the company would soon need to invest heavily in replacing obsolete distributed control systems.

ExxonMobil began working on the concept with Intel in 2014, and shortly thereafter Intel's team showed ExxonMobil's engineers an edge control device Intel had created for ExxonMobil. It was a working prototype of a distributed control node, aligning with ExxonMobil's reference architecture.

"The characteristics of it were astonishing – we were all just blown away, quite frankly," remembers Bartusiak.

Intel and ExxonMobil have been working together since then, developing solutions that can eventually create opportunities for new vendors to participate in ExxonMobil's supply chain by opening up the process control architecture.

"It's a buildout from the IT types of technologies, both down to the edge and also up to the cloud," said Bartusiak. He said that in addition to IoT and cloud technologies, ExxonMobil is very focused on wireless. Right now, he said the company is investing heavily in "a derivative of Wi-Fi," but he and his team are very excited about 5G as well.

Staying safe

Bartusiak noted that moving to more open systems is not without risk, and said ExxonMobil is proceeding cautiously for that reason.

"In an industrial control context, cybersecurity is a very real concern for us," he said. "We are talking about risk to life, risk to our neighbors who live near our manufacturing facilities, and we take that responsibility very seriously, so as we pursue these new technologies, it's always done with the constraints and the realities that we have to do it in a secure way."

Concerns about cybersecurity are among the biggest potential barriers to delivering on the promise of the IoT, according to Intel, and for that reason the chipmaker is trying to make security foundational to its IoT solutions by building cryptography directly into its chips.

5G outlook

During the December 2019 webinar, which was produced by Intel, ExxonMobil's Bartusiak described 5G as a technology that is "on the horizon," while acknowledging that the next-gen cellular standard is a key focus for partner Intel. He did not connect 5G to any of ExxonMobil's process automation use cases, but his description of how the company wants to use AI clearly suggests 5G as a possible enabler.

"It's very analogous to the challenges in autonomous driving," he said. "You have to know how to respond to these edge cases. You don't see them so often that you can describe them in math, but you still can respond in an automated manner, and that is a general description of the types of use cases that we're going after now."

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— Martha DeGrasse, special to Light Reading. Follow her@mardegrasse

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