Accelerating the digital transformation

BH ShellIn a conversation with Tom Siebel, CEO C3AI at the Baker Hughes Annual Meeting 2021, Yuri Sebregts, EVP Technology and chief technology officer at Shell, revealed the positive impact of digital transformation on Shell’s operations


Tom Siebel highlighted the “massive” interest in digitalisation for oil and gas and paid tribute to Shell’s leadership in the digital transformation. 

 “The largest AI applications we’re aware of are in the utility industry and oil and gas industry,” he said, adding that there is “no question” that Shell is the leader in digital transformation among oil and gas companies as it seeks to reinvent itself to become a net zero company.

Yuri Sebregts commented that Shell has already seen a significant positive impact of the digital transformation on its operations, and is now in the ramp-up phase, giving as an example two major use cases, in safety and environment. 

The number of AI-equipped robots in the field has increased significantly, he said. 

“We’re now up to a few hundred cleaning and inspection robots actively in the field, going to places where we’d rather not send humans, and keeping them out of harm’s way. “

The company has operated more than 1,200 drone flights to monitor emissions, using drones equipped with sensors, coupled with AI and machine learning. “This is bringing our environmental footprint way down, as we can continuously monitor so much more equipment than we could do using humans driving around in trucks,” he said.

Asset reliability has been a focus area jointly developed with C3, using machine learning to monitor equipment in the field, such as valves and pumps. “About a year ago we had just a couple of machine learning models up and running, and the scale of acceleration now we have the foundations in place is tremendous.  As of last week we had 5,200 pieces of equipment in the field being continuously monitored with machine learning, and we’re adding three hundred every week. 

“A third area where it’s starting to make a big difference is in advanced optimisation and process control, historically a field where you had engineering-based models which your controllers would act upon,” Sebregts continued. “We can now blend these with machine learning-based models, which allows us to squeeze several more percent value out of the asset, so when you talk about big assets that makes a very material difference. “

What are the ingredients for success? Siebel noted that nine out of 10 companies who attempt digital transformation and AI projects on a large corporate scale, fail. The companies that succeed, he said, are those such as Shell, that are led from the top, where the entire executive leadership team is behind digital transformation and the entire company buys into it.

“Support and leadership from the top is a prerequisite,” agreed Sebregts. ”You also have to make sure you focus on value, not just the technology itself –think about how you drive value for your operations and your customers. That’s what we’re doing here with AI. And it’s important to focus on getting the basics right – with strong foundational platforms across the company and data standards, to ensure we can leverage what we build through common ways of working.”  He added that having strong alliances with companies such as C3 and cloud computer providers is a core part of that. 

Sebregts stressed that having the right talent is another critical factor, in order to get the digital transformation right in the field, through alliances with other relevant companies and having the people in the company that really understand it at the core. 

“We have built team of around 350 cutting edge specialists in AI and machine learning and other types of digital technology such as blockchain, that work with yourselves and support our teams in the field. We have a significant multiple of that number of people that we upskill throughout the company using common learning platforms, who might be first and foremost, say, process engineers, but also know a good deal about AI and can bring that into their work. 

“Finally, it is really important to embrace the thinking that you have to adopt your work processes to what AI makes possible. You don’t want to use AI just to do the things you always did, but faster. You want to step back and be willing to change the core ways your work is done, change your business processes, to unlock the power that AI and machine learning bring. We’re really seeing the fruits of that happening.”

Sebregts concluded by expressing high hopes for the Open AI Energy Initiative (OAI) which Shell has launched together with C3 AI, Baker Hughes and Microsoft. This is an open ecosystem of artificial intelligence (AI)-based solutions for the energy and process industries. It provides a framework for energy operators, service providers, equipment providers, and independent software to offer interoperable solutions, including AI and physics-based models, monitoring, diagnostics, prescriptive actions and services, powered by the BHC3 AI Suite and Microsoft Azure.

“We see this as a core next step,” said Sebregts. “If we can unlock solutions and innovations across the industry and make them available on a much broader scale, we will see a huge acceleration. Through this initiative, I can see us putting in place common standards for connecting innovations that different companies come up with, and making them interoperable. That will stimulate innovation and stimulate the takeup.  We’re excited to make what we’ve developed with C3 commercially available to the market through an open ecosystem with interoperability, that will attract other solutions that we then can benefit from as well.” 


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