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Corona, the refinery and the computer opening up new adventures

Digitalization is helping us keep things running during the coronavirus pandemic. This holds true not only for the (home) office, but equally for a system as complex as a refinery: Here’s how a computer is helping Burghausen Refinery adjust to new market requirements.

It is one of the first and currently the largest of its type: Since starting up in 2008, the DMC (Dynamic Matrix Control) system has been operating in the Burghausen Refinery. The computerized controller takes over when the tasks become too complex for humans to handle. For example, when countless parameters such as volumes, temperatures, valves and pressure levels have to be monitored and optimized. With information from around 17,000 sensors, it now manages this for pretty much all of the units in the refinery. And it does so in a way that’s safe, reliable and (energy-) efficient. The DMC translates its complex computing performance into graphics and analyses that give those working at the Burghausen Refinery a detailed overview of the complex interplay between the individual units in the refinery.

Team man and machine

Together with two colleagues, Markus Thoma from the refinery’s Optimization & Scheduling department is responsible for ensuring that the DMC system in Burghausen is always set at the correct parameters. He has an apt comparison for the way the DMC works: “It’s like one of the latest, highly advanced self-driving cars. At some point it should be possible for the refinery to run fully automatically, but naturally always in control and under the watchful eye of a driver, the operator. Our DMC does a great job on the highway or freeway on its own already”, he explains. Things are a bit different in “downtown traffic” though, for example if a pump fails unexpectedly. Then the staff take over and adjust the settings manually. Or when a pandemic turns our world on its head along with the market environment. It’s in a situation like this that you see what is possible at short notice with an optimal team comprised of both man and machine.

(No) kerosene at the touch of a button?

Of the products normally produced from crude oil in the Burghausen Refinery – from diesel to petrochemical feedstock – there’s one thing that was suddenly no longer needed during the coronavirus crisis: Demand for kerosene plummeted practically overnight. Even though the Burghausen Refinery has a direct pipeline linked to Munich Airport.

In a system as complex as a refinery you can’t just press a button to stop making a certain product. And so, the DMC system and a team of around ten employees had a few quite intense days. In effect, the DMC had to abandon its usual route and venture into new territory from one day to the next. And it was stretched to its limits.

Without the DMC system, there’s no way we would have been able to adjust to the new market requirements so quickly during the coronavirus crisis.
Markus Thoma, Optimization & Scheduling, OMV Burghausen Refinery

Face masks instead of jet fuel

“We had to program the DMC in such a way that we would get the lowest possible amount of kerosene from the crude – that hasn’t happened before. Normally it’s precisely the opposite”, says Markus Thoma. Instead the goal of recent weeks has been to produce more ethylene and propylene – after all, demand for petrochemical substances that are required for face masks or other medical products has held steady despite the coronavirus crisis.

So, the team needed quite a few tweaks to achieve the desired result – and that took a bit of patience: “When something changes in this highly complex system consisting of columns, containers and kilometers of pipes, you don’t see the change in seconds but rather a whole day later”, explains Markus Thoma. This contrasted with the speed of cooperation in the team, which was positively brisk. “I was surprised at how well communication flowed between the people working from home, the operators on site and in the control room, and our external partners using video and telephone conferencing – even though we weren’t together in person. Five or ten years ago this simply wouldn’t have been possible”, muses Markus Thoma.

Social Distancing at the distillation column

In the end, the team managed to significantly reduce kerosene production while maintaining the volumes of crude refined. “Thanks to the recalibrated DMC, we were able to keep our refinery operations and energy supply going at the usual high level”, says Markus Thoma. The coronavirus has meant that staff on site are limited to those required for deliberate and seamless operations – in light of the distancing rules, as few as possible. This adds complexity to existing work processes on top of the new health and safety measures. “Especially in times like this you can see how important the autonomous management of the units with the computerized controller is so that we can support the team on site and they can concentrate on their other tasks”, says Markus Thoma. By the way, this doesn’t only apply to the Burghausen Refinery. The OMV refineries in Schwechat and Petrobrazi have faced similar challenges in recent weeks that they were also able to overcome successfully with the help of their own DMC system.

No fear of digitalization

Refineries are becoming ever larger and more complex and so a DMC can help optimize production and make it as efficient as possible – in this way, the DMC system in Burghausen results in energy savings in the millions. Fundamentally, the DMC system can be manually switched on and off by the operators. Everyone decides for him/herself whether the unit should be operated with or without the DMC at any given moment. “In the beginning some people were still a bit skeptical – and the controller had a few teething problems. But for any system you have to understand it and invest some knowhow in order for it work”, says Markus Thoma.

The last weeks have made it clear that the investments of recent years have paid off. “What it’s shown me is that nothing is impossible”, grins Markus Thoma. “You just have to tackle the problems with the right concept and the right people”.

Factbox

DMC at a glance​
The DMC system in the Burghausen Refinery was the first and largest of its type. It records 400 process parameters and applies the data for the monitoring and control of the units. This ensures capacities are optimized, thereby increasing profitability.

  • Began operating: 2008
  • DMC system with 17 controllers in total
  • Processes data from around 17,000 sensors
  • controls up to 5 units simultaneously (approx. 400 control variables and 200 correcting variables)
  • hosted on 15 servers
  • 95 %  autonomous operation
  • energy savings amounting to millions
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