Perhaps my most interesting meeting last week in Tokyo was one in which my ARC Japan colleagues and I delivered an Open Process Automation workshop for Japanese EPC (engineer-procure-construct) firms. Representatives from 11 different firms of all types came to the event. Five major Japanese EPCs were well represented. Our discussions during the workshop session were very lively. In this very polite culture, audiences often wait politely for a speaker to finish before asking a few (if any) questions. I, of course, mentioned that questions were welcome at any time, and – in this case - the EPC executives were very willing to oblige.
They were quite well informed about this initiative of ExxonMobil and The Open Group. In general, the EPCs already seemed familiar with the broad outline of the plan, but wanted to know much more about the technical and business processes that might be involved in designing, commissioning, and supporting an Open Process Automation system. They were, of course, curious about what kind of role their firms might play and who they might be competing with for various roles in an OPA project.
Decades ago when process automation systems were analog and built using a series of small, modular analog devices, EPC firms were much more involved in the design and engineering of process automation. Some firms had even designated automation as a distinct discipline within their practice. As proprietary DCSs became pervasive and much more complex, this role (and the related engineering work) inevitably shifted to DCS suppliers. These suppliers, working with EPCs, evolved a MAC (main automation contractor) business model to harmonize the engineering efforts of DCS suppliers and EPCs and also to shorten the associated project schedules. Thus the EPC automation role became more a matter of contract management than of engineering. A move “back” to a more modular automation architecture based on smaller devices begs the question of what type of firms could or would become the preferred system integrators.
While these firms are very interested in the Open Process Automation movement, I doubt they can or will dive into a multi-year R&D effort, which would consume the hours of some of their key technical and business leaders. When the Open Process Automation Forum produces some detailed specifications that EPCs can evaluate internally, I suspect EPCs will immediately begin to develop business and technical strategies in response.
In the meantime, my thanks to my ARC Japan colleagues and to the Tokyo firms attending. You made for a very stimulating workshop!