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The race for a digital edge in North American pipelines

In an industry experiencing major upheavals, digital could offer the edge pipeline operators need for safer, more reliable operations in North America.

In January 2014, icy temps in New York drove natural gas prices to record highs. In adjacent Pennsylvania, costs were much lower. For New York, like much of the mid-Atlantic, the issue wasn’t availability of gas—it was a lack of pipelines.

For the North American pipeline industry, such volatile supply and demand patterns, along with aging infrastructure, a changing workforce and changing flow dynamics, are converting this once stable industry—uncovering new opportunities and risks for pipeline owners and operators.

Against this shifting landscape, it has become critical for pipelines operators to take advantage of operational and information technology convergence to build a virtual pipeline asset that enables increased monitoring and safety of the physical asset.

The advantages of a digital edge
In an environment in which pipeline safety, integrity and flow dynamics are major concerns, new digital technologies can help operators achieve safer, more reliable operations—while increasing situational awareness, and helping reduce risks to the public and to pipeline personnel.

Accenture believes every business is a digital business, and we see opportunities for businesses to use those technologies to create stronger future growth. For pipeline companies, digital transformation will include a greater focus on automation and analytics-driven insight. Cloud-based services and big data management will enable real-time visibility of assets, and rugged mobile devices and remote collaboration tools will provide for greater workforce enablement.

Envisioning tomorrow’s pipeline today
Pipeline operators are investing in in-field technologies that provide more effective asset management, and the future will continue to see the deployment of emerging technologies—including:

  • Lightweight unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can monitor remote areas for leaks, encroachments and suspicious circumstances.

  • Wearable computer devices can provide on-site visualization of maintenance information for increased safety and seamless collaboration with experts at offsite locations—driving faster response times, increased safety and helping pipeline operators do more with fewer on-site resources.

  • Innovative leak detection methods using fiber optics, acoustic sensors and satellite monitoring can create new options for combining detection with perimeter surveillance and right-of-way monitoring—increasing the chance of preventing an incident.

  • Ruggedized portable devices can allow in-field access to process data, safety procedures and form templates—creating better records and more efficient operations.

Moving toward energy independence
Overall, the success of the pipeline industry is critical to establishing North America’s energy independence in the global energy market. We need to move quickly and prudently to advance, extend and modernize not only the infrastructure itself, but how it is managed and operated.

Reliability and sophistication of a company’s visualization and data management capabilities are just as important to that company’s future as changes in transportation demand. Companies that scale both will take the lead in this time of tremendous opportunity.

Digital as the springboard for future pipeline success
North America’s pipeline industry is benefiting from stronger energy demand, technological advances and the discovery of new sources of supply. But the industry as a whole needs to move quickly to address changing workforces, asset integrity issues and changing flow dynamics.

The companies that recognize the interrelated nature of these challenges and develop digitally enabled, integrated programs will emerge as stronger competitors poised to achieve greater economic returns and leading safety records in the face of this industry transformation.

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