Digital Terminals

Advanced automation systems to reduce operational complexities

A terminal is a facility where oil and gas (O&G) products are transferred from one mode of transport to another. Here, various activities like measuring bulk inventory, managing mass transport, ensuring terminal security, managing loading and unloading of the O&G cargo take place simultaneously. This necessitates the need for a terminal automation system (TAS) that can successfully manage operations across the entire terminal.

The terminals for handling bulk O&G cargo can be broadly classified into large storage bulk terminal, storage and distribution terminal, marketing terminal, truck terminal and marine terminal. All these terminals need to handle varying amounts of cargo, and thus have different cargo management capabilities and architecture. To ensure that O&G cargo is managed efficiently, there are a number of functions that a TAS must fulfil. These include ensuring smooth operations, safety of the terminals, and undertaking terminal inventory management.

Sub-systems of a TAS

A TAS generally consists of a number of subsystems, which include a gantry automation sub-system, additive injection and blending sub-system, tank farm management sub-system, control room sub-system and access control sub-system. The gantry automation sub-system forms the major part of a TAS. It is the primary equipment which manages the transfer and control of the flow of products at the terminal. It generally uses a number of instruments such as batch controllers, proximity card readers, an overspill prevention device, a static charge grounding device, digital control valves, etc. The additive injection and blending sub-system helps in managing the products which require blending. This system enhances operational flexibility through accurate blending and loading multiple products from the same loading arm, thus reducing dependency on multiple storage tanks.

The tank farm management sub-system manages the product stored in large tanks. It constantly monitors the product level in each tank and provides important information such as density and temperature. The control room sub-system controls and monitors the operation of the entire TAS in remote mode. It generally uses remote management software to track the system operations. The access control sub-system is responsible for controlling vehicle entry and exit at the facility. The various components of the access control sub-system are barrier gates, card readers, traffic lights, vehicle sensors, a security station and related accessories. This system ensures that unwanted trespassing is avoided at the terminal.

Benefits of a TAS

Employing a suitable TAS can ensure a number of advantages. A TAS ensures accurate inventory management of the products, besides providing real-time visibility and accountability of all products stored at the terminal. It also enhances the efficiency of terminal operation while increasing the throughput of the final product. It further ensures safety of the operation while securing the information that is generated at the terminal. A fully integrated TAS system ensures smooth operations and significant cost savings for the terminal operator.

Challenges of terminal automation management

In an ideal world, TAS should help reduce losses and increase productivity significantly. However, this is not without its share of challenges. One of the major challenges witnessed by the TAS is to ensure that accurate measurement and recording of all transactions is done while the terminal is operating. While a TAS ensures that the whole process is automated and the terminal runs smoothly, errors in recording and faults could creep in. Another major challenge is ensuring safety and security of the terminals. This includes protecting the terminal against any natural hazards such as earthquakes and tornadoes; and manmade hazards such as fire, unauthorised trespassing and cyberattacks. For example, a fire suspected to be caused by lighting broke out at Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited’s (BPCL’s) oil tank farm located on the Butcher Island off the east coast of Mumbai. The TAS has to ensure that safety of the employees and assets is given highest priority in case of such incidents.

Ensuring the highest level of operational excellence is vital for O&G companies, considering the current volatility of oil prices. With crude prices continuously increasing since 2017, it becomes important that an additional cost burden due to mismanagement of the O&G terminal is reduced. Lastly, the O&G terminal is a highly sensitive area as both oil and gas are highly flammable commodities. Thus, the O&G terminals come under routine regulatory scrutiny. For a terminal to sustain all regulatory clearances, TAS must look to the routine inspection and quality of all the equipment.

Retail outlet automation

A retail outlet is an oil marketing company’s (OMC) interface with the O&G consumer. A consumer visiting the retail outlet generally pays using cash or through a cashless mode for the oil or gas that he purchases. To ensure that the retail outlet runs smoothly, a retail outlet automation (ROA) system is generally used that integrates all the nozzle sales of petrol with tank stock and inventory.

The system further undertakes automated billing, and uses data analysis and management information system (MIS) to generate reports from the transaction data it captures. Globally, the ROA systems evolved around the late 1980s to 1990s, with the advent of the personal computer. In India, the system gained pace after 2005. The thrust area for all ROA systems in developed nations is self service. However, that is not the case in India.

A typical ROA system consists of a sales room from where the entire system is controlled. The sales room has an automatic tank gauge (ATG) console, which checks the inventory of O&G available at the retail outlet. The individual island from where the retail sale of O&G happens is connected to a forecourt controller (FCC), which tracks sales from each of the retail sale islands. The FCC is connected to the ATG console and ensures that supply from the inventory to the retail islands is maintained. The FCC shares this data with the local system, which is then further shared with the central server.

The proper implementation of the ROA system ensures a number of benefits for all the stakeholders. A customer is assured of getting the right amount of fuel and a correct bill for his purchase. A dealer can monitor his stocks in a timely fashion. The software will also enable easy accounting and reconciliation of the fuel sold. As all the data is shared with the central server by a local computer, the OMC can monitor their sales effectively and improve their operational performance and asset utilisation as required.

Conclusion

TAS and ROA form an important component for managing the proper transportation of O&G. There are a number of benefits, which are obtained due to the use of these systems. This includes increased accountability and security while improving t  he operational efficiency of the terminals. However, this is not without its share of challenges. Going ahead, the O&G terminal business in India is expected to see significant growth. This will create significant demand for TAS and ROA systems.

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