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Virtual Reality and Digital Transformation

Date of publication: 12 March 2021

How Transneft technologies will change the industry.

Andrey Burlutsky, Director of IT Department of Transneft. Photo: Transneft Press Service

The pandemic has altered our idea of work. Many have found it possible to do their office duties at home. But how can one switch thousands of employees in charge of national strategic infrastructure – oil and petroleum products transportation – to remote operations? And once it happens, how to benefit from this critical situation in general? Director of Transneft IT Department Andrey Burlutsky highlighted in his interview for KP how the world’s largest oil pipeline company ensures uninterrupted operations and finds new, sometimes unexpected and unique to the industry, solutions and applications of digital technologies.

– When COVID restrictive measures were imposed, how did you manage to switch to remote operations, given the Company’s continuous, non-stop cycle?

– Switching to remote operations was a daunting challenge, because at that moment there were no relevant regulations, nor processes or technologies in place. We had some pilot projects, but they had not been tuned up systemically before that situation. So, we knocked together a team from several departments, which rapidly came up with technological solutions, figured out how to purchase requisite equipment in no time, and which processes could be streamlined. With that said, security requirements were to be strictly observed that the Company’s data would be accessible by employees and protected from spying by third parties. This action plan was developed literally within hours.

We had a good deal of groundwork for switching to remote operations. Back in 2018, we had implemented a project of transferring corporate information systems to the Data Processing Centre (DPC). And the technologies used at DPC already provided for remote interaction with centralised corporate systems, including electronic paper flow, mail service etc., as well as the use of virtual workstations. Initially this alternative was mainly used by specialists and executives who often went on business trips and for whom it was crucially important to have remote access to their workplaces. Bearing this in mind, the Company refined this system on the premise that the number of distant users was destined to increase tenfold.

The network’s throughput capacity was enlarged from 1 GB/sec to 10 GB/sec. The fact that we possess our own up-to-date high-speed fiber-optic communications link laid along our pipeline infrastructure from western to eastern borders of Russia facilitated this remarkable buildup. The Company additionally procured several hundred laptops for mobile work. We began to switch first workers to remote access in mid-March and completed this process by early April; overall ca. 4,000 employees switched to distant operations work mode. In other words, 130 employees a day on average. As a result, only a few people of the technical staff were still staying at the Company’s head office located in Moscow City’s Evolution Tower to perform the tasks that required their personal presence, such as the conferencing support, addressing equipment issues and suchlike.

The employees of the central control room were switched to distant operations after being provided with corporate communications and computers connected to the company’s automated control system. If needed, they could assume management and substitute any employee. As the last resort, the so-called Plan “B” was developed, whereby console operators would be moved to a standby control centre where they would live and work several weeks in complete isolation.

– Transneft is located in Moscow City’s Evolution Tower. Did the Company benefit from having the office accommodated in one building in terms of IT and generally speaking?

– In the context of remote operations, I’d note that we were greatly assisted by the experience of the Company’s Moscow-based business units and subsidiaries in moving to Evolution Tower, since this process was accompanied by radical upgrading of the Company’s IT infrastructure.

And on the whole, in terms of communications, workplace management, and more rational use of worktime by our employees, the relocation to Evolution Tower greatly benefitted our Company, having enhanced our office efficiency, especially in Moscow with its traffic jams. I came across this nuisance at my former workplaces. It could take an employee half of a business day to get to a company’s other office. Another positive factor is the synergy due to amalgamation of technical support services, providing unified corporate services, raising the service quality by cutting the time of response to requests and more up-to-date IT infrastructure. If not for our office in Evolution Tower, transition to remote operations would have been a lot costlier and not nearly as efficient.

– How has the Company’s technological profile changed during the past year? What did you have to abandon, and what did you manage to achieve? How did communication technologies influence professional capabilities?

– The challenges faced by our Company forced us to make decisions which otherwise might have taken years. Transneft is turning into one of the digital transformation leaders among the national industrial giants. In recent years we’ve made a huge quality stride. The unified supervisory control system is being rapidly introduced, the key functions of the Company’s corporate centre have been automated, last year we launched the capital construction digitalisation programme, to be followed by commodity transportation processes going digital as well. There are case studies of projects and initiatives related to the centralisation of IT systems and services.

Communication technologies are not only about videoconferencing or a remote access to workplaces. Thanks to their development, Transneft is actually turning into a gigantic neuro network “feeding” on the knowledge and expertise of employees from all of its enterprises and branches, making the most of their potential to address the issue of raising the efficiency of the entire Company. There are no oil pipelines in Moscow. The sourcing of regional specialists without their physical relocation not only cuts the costs, but also involves regional experts who otherwise would have never been able to share their accumulated knowledge and experience by virtue of their professional engagement and lack of time.

Examples include the introduction and use of technologies, such as mobile detours, digital admittances, personnel training in facility operation and repair using the augmented reality. People from the Company’s industrial enterprises who know how to organise on-site production processes will take lead in such projects.

Due to innovative technologies, Transneft is turning into one of the digital transformation leaders among the national industrial giants. Photo: Transneft Press Service

Our pragmatic interest in new technologies is on a very high level. We actively participate in conferences, get acquainted with new companies and startups to see how real and effective new digital technologies such as “digital twins” or augmented reality could be in production processes of the oil and gas industry. Emerging among our employees are those who are keen on new technologies, studying them independently on the job. Thus, one of our employees at a facility under construction in the Far East expressed her desire to grasp virtual reality for repair and routine maintenance. Eventually she still had to move to Tomsk where she’s currently developing training videos for personnel using VR technologies. Several years later, however, even this relocation will no longer be needed. One of the case studies is a lab automation project. It was helmed by a fledgling specialist who was taken note at a concept exchange event. For the IT part, we helped him build a professional IT team and provided him with requisite resources for the project implementation; no relocation was needed while the solution developed is being introduced at workplaces across the country.

In the future, this process will take much less time. Local experts know better how to address any particular challenge. For instance, you can become a project director or spearhead an entire programme of your business line’s introduction and digitalisation while working as chief laboratory assistant. Eventually it can be stated that with communication technologies, not only is the gulf bridged and geographic borders between employees are eroded; new opportunities crop up for a professional career and social lifts for Transneft employees across the country. And such a breakthrough would be now impossible without the past year of remote operations.

– Transneft is known to stake on homemade products in its operations, with import substitution being near to 97%. How about the IT realm?

– In a number of key areas, such as the organisation of financial and operational activities, production and facility management, the Company is geared towards the use of domestic software. Thus, Galaxy and 1C software kits ensure the automation of financial and operational activities. We use Kaspersky Laboratory’s products.

In recent years, the Company has been carrying out scheduled activities aimed at the import substitution of homemade base platforms and applied software or new developments for foreign-made analogues. Centres of proprietary competences are established for the autonomous development of software, with test benches of domestic developments deployed.

We minimise the risks of sanctions’ pressure and deliberate damage done to the Company’s management systems; in the upshot this is a matter of national economic security.

Yet we have to create many products inside Transneft and this is not our Company’s specialisation. The problem is that domestic developers have not yet grown out of the “backyard workshop” business philosophy. Product developers often clash with each other, unable to share money and glory. As a result, a team falls apart, the copyright to its developments is disputed at courts, and the question of who will support the software implemented at our enterprises becomes rhetoric.

– What’s your vision of Transneft in 5 or 10 years from now from technological perspectives, in the IT area?

– We are currently facing the challenge of development and launch of the Digital Transneft concept. One of its important constituents is the capital construction digitisation programme called INFOMAX. The programme’s main objective is to step back from the traditional “paper/documentary” model of capital construction management and switch to the digital format, based on the introduction and application of information modelling technologies.

The Company’s main business processes related to the design, construction, commissioning and renovation of facilities will be digitalised and automated on the basis of INFOMAX programme implementation results.

Many discuss the addressing of similar problems across the globe. At the present moment there are certain options to automate individual operations and elements of the capital construction flow-through process, but no integrated solutions capable of providing for the entire lifecycle of major holding companies similar to ours exist right now. This is a new challenge not only for us, but for the entire community. The INFOMAX programme’s task force includes more than 200 experts in design, preparation and organisation of production, logistics, construction and IT technologies.

We plan to complete the programme’s main phases by 2024, when key information systems will have been implemented with the purpose of creating an integrated information space for work with digital models of our capital construction projects, ensuring access for all of our interested business units, its subsidiaries, suppliers and contractors.

The INFOMAX programme is the first step towards subsequent creation of digital twins of our facilities.

The digital twin is a virtual prototype of a real facility or process. The system is not limited to creating an information model or collecting the data obtained at the stage of design, construction or facility installation, but keeps on collecting and accumulating statistical data throughout the entire lifecycle, including by obtaining information from related production and control systems and versatile sensors. The digital twin, by using numerical modelling, stat data analysis and computer-assisted instruction methods, will enable to model diverse “what if” situations, choosing most adequate scenarios to avoid failures, downtime and emergencies.

– How do “digital twins” benefit the Company and society more practically and specifically?

– First of all, the implementation of such systems cuts the total design and construction time by 10% and in some instances by up to 30%, including due to the use of standard solutions.

Secondly, this cuts the time of raising consents and approvals, as well as the time of access to essential information at each stage of the project’s lifecycle due to integrated information space arranged, and all interested business units, counterparties and inspecting bodies tapping into it. Now clerks sometimes have to print out a document, affix a stamp and then hand-deliver it to the relevant agency in order to get a required consent. As a matter of fact, we do double or triple work to accomplish one simple thing and there are thousands of these to perform. Courtesy of the unified (integrated) information model, the exchange between our Company’s business units will be twice faster.

Thirdly, those in charge of operation won’t have to create their own database on a given facility. The entire track record and background will have already been stored. On top of that, personnel training will be easier, since all instructions and scenarios will be stored in one place, so that training could be done using the virtual reality.

What’s more, the risk of design errors will be drastically reduced. We’ll be able to see all systems of a given facility in the format of a 3D digital model, in and out, as well as their mutual alignment; this will help the designer uncover all collisions and inconsistencies. Furthermore, the system itself, once it is outfitted with respective algorithms, will automatically spot collisions, thus saving the designer’s time.

As soon as we test-drive innovative technologies at our facilities, we’ll think of exporting these technologies which can undoubtedly be in demand at all enterprises of the industry.

– How about your daily routine operations?

–  A system of operational planning and monitoring of all works using mobile solutions must soon be implemented for our line personnel. The decision-making time is cut by 1.5 times due to expeditious access to all required information, data collection and processing are simplified, and the risk of errors is reduced. We figured out that every employee might save up to an hour per shift, thanks to the said technologies.

In addition, we get the opportunity to visualise the performance results and efficiency of each particular employee, section, department, etc. This cuts the time of feedback sessions and simplifies decision-making related to workload distribution or bonus awarding.

What’s more, we are rapidly digitalising the office routine using software robots. These are applications capable of interacting with other business applications in imitation of human activities. Scenarios range from the simplest ones, such as automatic replies to emails, to the most sophisticated models implying the deployment of thousands of bots, each being programmed to the automation of a certain task.

The practice reveals that the use of such “digital employees” may radically (from 15% to 50%) cut the staff time and labour inputs in various areas, such as accounting and taxation, personnel management, technical maintenance, etc.

– Does Transneft employ only experienced IT specialists, do graduates also have a chance?

– Recruits are to match our values, as regards their goals, personal qualities and background. There are 15 people on our core team and we try to shape unified culture or DNA, as I put it. We build the same culture among their subordinates and so candidates to executive IT positions must, first of all, “share our DNA” and, secondly, have real completed projects in large manufacturing concerns or financial sector under their belts.

As for other positions, we plan engagement with universities on a regular basis, launching special sites also referred to as hackathons, where we can recruit promising graduates and rookies, or even entire teams sharing their exciting projects and ideas with us. In my opinion, the experience could be scaled up. The bottom line is that you should have personal characteristics matching the Company’s culture and values, being ready to offer and implement changes and transformations, assuming responsibility. And the most crucial thing is being ready to work towards the common goal and result.

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