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Texaco revealed last week that it is saving up to £2m per year through the application of IT to the operation of its oil refinery at Milford Haven in Wales.
The oil giant is using a simulator which employs powerful Unix processors to model the operations of the plant and improve understanding of how the refinery works.
The ability to model the plant has had a great impact on safety, business development and staff effectiveness, Texaco said.
The reason for using a simulator lies in the economic realities of the industry. A refinery cannot be halted for testing to determine the impact of enventualities on safety and product development. Once it is running it cannot be stopped without a complete shut down of the system.
The Milford Haven refinery processes 28.6 million litres of crude oil a day to produce petrol, flammable gases, diesel and fuel oil.
The refinery is like a big chemistry set where a labyrinthine network of pipes and valves controls the flow of material through processes where it is heated and treated. These are organised by computerised motion-controllers which monitor and regulate flows, temperatures and pressures, making tiny adjustments to maintain steady processes, while control-room operators scan screens for alerts.
If something goes wrong the cost is enormous. In 1994 a huge explosion occurred which led to a five-month shut down and repair costs of more than £49m. The Health & Safety Executive identified poor training, inappropriate emergency procedures and poor assessment of the implications of plant modifications as contributory to the accident.
Even in less catastrophic circumstances refinery downtime costs more than £6,000 per hour.
Because of the unique nature of the refinery and because staff cannot train with a real system for eventualities everyone hopes will never occur, a simulator is the ideal solution.
Process simulation has the potential to save the industry hundreds of millions of pounds a year, according to Simon Bragg, manufacturing IT analyst at ARC Consulting. "I estimate that human error leading to abnormal situations costs the UK process industry £750m a year. Training simulators have a great value in helping operators to understand processes.
"Dealing with abnormal situations can crucify annual profits so the simulation of those situations enables you to prepare your contingency plans to move into operation when the need arises."
Since 1996 Texaco has spent about $5m (£3.2m) on simulation equipment. A mix of Sun Microsystems Ultra and Sparc servers running Solaris process Aspentech software, which models the operations of three of the refinery's processing units according to petrochemistry first principles.
The simulators allow staff to be trained for safety-critical scenarios or events affecting the economical operation of the refinery. Accurate modelling of the plant also enables modifications and design issues to be tested in a virtual environment before they are carried out in the real world.
Staff are put through a programme of simulations which, in addition to teaching the standard response, allow teams to practise how they work together in an emergency, enabling them to develop communication skills which would otherwise remain unused.
Marc Spindlove, operations engineer at the refinery, said, "We can standardise reactions of operators and teams of operators to situations - we can practise real-world situations before they happen. With the simulator we can get refreshers for skills that are not used day-to-day because the computers are in control of things. By modelling diverse situations we can fill the gap between computer control and operator skills.
"It is a proving-ground for new procedures and when teams are trained it enables the development of soft skills and team skills such as trust, communication and leadership in simulated scenarios," he said.
The simulator has also been used to develop new products. Because the market is such a difficult one in which to create a competitive difference, companies are always looking for ways to get to niche markets ahead of competitors.
Texaco is trying to beat the opposition in the production of environmentally friendly, ultra-low-sulphur fuel and it needed to set up a special plant at Milford Haven. The simulation software was crucial to designing what was only the third such unit in the world.
But it is in preparing for abnormal situations that the use of simulators has the widest possible use for manufacturing industry. Process industries can benefit, as can discrete manufacturers where the layout of production lines and robotic machinery can be modelled.