Ali Vezvaei

The digital transformation wave is arriving in the Middle East industrial sector, slowly but surely.


Digital potential in the Middle East

February 19, 2019

Ali Vezvaei, Bilfinger Group’s president and CEO for the MENA region, talks to TOGY about the benefits of harnessing asset data and shifting towards prescriptive maintenance, as well as where the company sees potential clients for these services. Bilfinger is a German-based holding company of international industrial services providers.

ADNOC is very much focused on oil and gas 4.0 and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. What role does Bilfinger Connected Asset Performance (BCAP®) play in that?
BCAP is the industrial digital transformation solution. Digitalisation starts with connecting data lakes and then creating value in that context. What the oil and gas industry is beginning to focus more on is the very fact that the biggest contribution to return on investment is in the asset itself. Bilfinger’s digitalisation is heavily focused on cost reduction and increase of overall efficiency.
In today’s industry, assets are well designed, sometimes overdesigned, and therefore connectivity and data points are not an issue. Megabits of data could be received from an operating asset every second. The challenge, however, is, first of all, that this data is not structured, hence the term data lakes. Secondly, the data source is usually limited to what could be received from the I&C [instrumentation and control] sensors. There are four other data sources: the IT system, the OT [operational technology] system, the engineering and data from the operations.
BCAP is exploring the possibilities when you look at a combination of the four. That gives you the ability, with the AI at the background, to begin structuring data and making sense of it. With patterns, you move from reactive to predictive and once you combine industrial and maintenance know-how with this you are looking prescriptive, which is not only to expect but also to have options to deal with it. The potential is huge.

Are you looking at deep learning and neural nets in your development?
The digital transformation in the industry has just started. We are scratching the surface by structuring data, machine learning and the use of AI. The potential, however, is huge and that is why at Bilfinger, we created a focused unit dedicated to our digital development. Bilfinger Digital Next is where we combine digital expertise with industrial know-how and with that create tangible value for our customers.
A great example is the work we have done in Münzing’s chemical plant in Germany. The results are very satisfactory and encouraging: In less than a year the overall equipment efficiency has been enhanced nearly 8-9%, while the data quality has increased by more than 25%. This improves productivity and reduces maintenance cost. But more importantly, we helped the customer address bottlenecks, which could increase the production at the same plant. This is where digital transformation enables doing more with the same.
BCAP is a powerful solution yet is not complex and does not add another burden to customers’ operations. It is focused and pragmatic in finding improvements in the opex hemisphere, starting with maintenance as a key component.

Where could this be applied in the UAE?
If you look at the mid- and downstream sectors, there are plenty of opportunities to be addressed. This is where it is all about “productivity per molecule.” Given the feedstock price is not a variable that could be optimised, the focus is on energy and maintenance as the areas with potential near-term improvement. The maintenance is where we could add significant value, utilising BCAP and BMC® to reduce the share of reactive maintenance and increase the prescriptive maintenance.
Bilfinger Maintenance Concept (BMC®) is a globally recognised solution which ties right into BCAP and enables Bilfinger to provide a holistic solution. This cost reduction and increased efficiency is what Bilfinger has been delivering to its customers around the globe for several years, a few percentage points at a time.
Looking at the opex spent in the Middle East, the world-scale hydrocarbons sector in general and the UAE’s in particular, the opportunity is clearly there. Imagine the value of a couple of percentage points of savings in the overall maintenance spent. We are committed to “make it work” and equally confident about doing so.

Bilfinger has also developed the internet-based video platform Industrial Tube. How can ADNOC and other players take advantage of it?
This is essentially the YouTube of the industrial sector. The development was initially triggered in response to changing demographics in Europe and Germany, where the latter could lose much of its “domain knowledge” – arguably the key competitive advantage responsible for generating the world’s largest trade surplus – over time.
Bilfinger Industrial Tube is an innovative software programme, enabling workers with little experience of filming and editing to make quick “how to” videos that will help teach others specific, niche skills built up over decades.
Bilfinger partnered with Microsoft to build the platform to include features like language recognition powered by artificial intelligence, so spoken words are automatically subtitled, breaching the language barrier in diverse regions such as the Middle East. Workers follow templates, creating snippets that are pieced together so the videos are smooth and do not require post-edits.
This is a new way for the process industry to capture, enhance and share knowledge. It transforms the currently inefficient way where the knowledge – not all of it – is meant to be captured in paper-based guidebooks, which only encapsulate less than 10% of specialised knowledge anyways.
We see this penetrating the chemicals, petrochemicals, refining and non-process-related work streams, as well as the energy utility sectors, simply due to the fact that knowledge sharing and workforce development is not industry specific. Any operator will benefit from a more trained and qualified workforce with the ability to access extended knowledge just with a click.


What other technologies are you developing?
There are a number of very interesting developments. One, directly relevant to the hydrocarbons industry and more so to the Middle East, is PIDGraph, an AI-based solution that converts paper-based P&IDs [piping and instrumentation diagrams] to digital twins. The system gets smarter as it progresses, using artificial neural networks. The output is compatible with most of the CAE [computer-aided engineering] systems.
Another development is the transformative Bilfinger Cognitive Sensors (BCS®). Motivated by the use of audio classification to predict machine states in a non-intrusive setup, BCS is aimed at allowing audio classification via audio fingerprinting using image classification and transfer learning. Once commercially launched in the process industry, this will be a game changer.

How else could you help in ADNOC’s digitalisation process?
Apart from sharing our portfolio of services and solutions to help ADNOC’s drive and determination in capturing the value from every barrel, the collaboration is a key element of digital transformation. Here the talent development, knowledge transfer and training are of paramount importance in order to build a sustainable local competence centre for digital services.

When it comes to other local private or state-owned companies in the region, which markets are really picking up on your technologies and services?
The digital transformation wave is arriving in the Middle East industrial sector, slowly but surely. The oil majors have a unique role given their scale and reach. Aramco, ADNOC, SABIC and PDO have already started efforts in developing and implementing certain solutions while other national and international players are evaluating the best fit for their assets. There are also smaller regional players in the industrial sector that take advantage of their agility in exploring fit-for-purpose solutions.

What are Bilfinger’s current operations in the Middle East and more specifically in the UAE?
With nearly half a century of presence in the Middle East, Bilfinger enjoys an extensive regional footprint, while providing a broad range of solutions to the energy and hydrocarbon sectors. Our engineering offering ranges from feasibility studies, FEED and basic engineering all the way to PMC services in world-class projects. Our projects business covers small and medium capital projects in both green and brownfield environments. It also includes modernisation projects that involve in-house technologies such as gas processing, FGD [flue-gas desulfurisation] and modularised solutions.
Our MMO unit provides a diverse range of services that are predominantly focused on asset lifecycle. Whether classic maintenance services, advanced shutdown/turnaround solutions or repair and upgrade of sophisticated units such as cracking furnaces, our dedicated and skilled men and women are motivated by creating value for their customers, and as we say, “Make their plants work!” On the technology side, in addition to environmental solutions and sour gas we are focused on energy efficiency and heat-steam balance in addition to technologies and capabilities in the nuclear sector.

What is your strategy and focus for 2019 for the UAE and the region?
In addition to the current business, we will strengthen our focus on sour gas solutions given how well this resonates with the UAE’s and the region’s strategic focus. Driving digital services and expanding its reach to new customers and countries is also a priority we will pursue.
Leveraging our longstanding presence in certain countries in order to expand the customer base and also diversify the plant type is also on the agenda.
Bringing our well-recognised nuclear technologies and capabilities to the region is also something that we are moving forward with in harmony with the regional growth in that sector.

Read our latest insights on: