Harnessing digitization and automation to reimagine energy

Feb 04, 2021

The energy industry has long been at the forefront of adopting advanced technologies for a range of applications, and digitization continues at a rapid pace across the energy value chain today. Recent advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality, big data and cloud computing, together with advanced sensing techniques, will facilitate better monitoring, security and management of the oil and gas industry; this in turn will lead to higher productivity, reduced costs and enhanced safety.

But as technologies continue to advance and as the industry’s focus shifts to sustainability, implementing digital tools and automation in new ways does not come without hurdles. As the sector transitions to a more energy efficient future, one ironic challenge is that the more digitization advances, the greater the demand is for electricity to power data centres and infrastructures, which consume significant amounts of energy. (For reference, data centre energy consumption around the world in 2015 amounted to 40 per cent more than all the energy consumed by the United Kingdom, an industrialized country with more than 65 million people, according to The Independent.)

Even given these hurdles, though, companies should make strategic moves now to prepare for the future amid energy transition efforts. Those that successfully employ automation and other advanced technologies can significantly improve their bottom lines, become more competitive, and capture vast amounts of data that can be used to analyze and streamline operations.

Energy industry adoption

Oil and gas companies should proactively seek out new ways to use data-driven, advanced technologies to automate parts of their processes. These implementations are especially important in Canada’s oil sands, where technology can help increase production at a faster pace, at lower costs.

Rig automation is arguably the most important and effective industry response to date to replace humans—especially those working in the oil industry’s most treacherous areas—with machines. Beyond rigs, automation of various energy processes also helps to streamline operations, supply and demand planning, sales orders, and inventory in tank management.

Technologies like ServiceNow, Microsoft Dynamics and UI Path are strong options to support various aspects of process and workflow automation and robotics process automation. Some organizations have seen large benefits with automation of oil movement and storage as well as control systems. This has proven to help reduce operating costs, optimize blending, reduce inventory and routing error, as well as provide incident and slope analysis.

Looking ahead

Robotics have long been used to reduce human intervention in potentially dangerous or hard-to-access work environments, like pipelines. Looking to the future, companies might use fiber optic technology to detect or even mitigate future pipeline leaks, and use robotics to repair such leaks. All of this can help to protect the environment and prevent loss of life in dangerous situations. We expect the use of fiber optics will continue to play a key role in pipeline safety for years to come.

While digitalization “is helping improve the safety, productivity, accessibility, and sustainability of energy systems around the world,” as a 2017 International Energy Agency report says, “it is also raising new security and privacy risks.” Data is increasingly crucial for upstream oil and gas companies’ operations. But, “as their dependence on IT technology has grown, so too has their vulnerability to cyberattacks,” according to a white paper from Owl Cyber Defense, “and hackers can penetrate control networks and disrupt operations, steal data, or attempt to cause physical damage to plant infrastructure and the surrounding environment.”

Companies that want to set themselves up for future success should keep these key considerations in mind:

  • There is never a wrong time to begin planning for the future
  • Any strategy around innovative technology investments needs to have future flexibility as business needs and technologies advance—companies should set strategies three to five years out and plan to revisit annually
  • Devise a business-aligned technology road map that fosters visibility and encourages technical and business collaboration
  • For organizations that have or support critical infrastructure assets, pay close attention to both cybersecurity and physical security technology trends; in many cases, these two should go hand in hand
  • Technology advancements in artificial intelligence, robotics and workflow automation move exponentially year over year—seek out products that clearly address scalability and enhancement to enable longevity with investments in these types of technologies
  • Don’t be shy about calling on technology and industry experts—with the speed of change that is occurring in these areas, seeking the advice of specialists will always prove advantageous


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