February 2023

Special Focus: Digital Technologies

A scalable mechanical integrity program to accelerate the energy transition—Mobile, visual and dynamic

As asset integrity and reliability managers, risk-based inspection (RBI) and corrosion analysts, and inspectors and contract inspection firms across asset-intensive industries look to optimize their mechanical integrity programs, there is a paradigm shift to implement a comprehensive, scalable and sustainable fixed-equipment reliability program to meet increasing reliability demands.

As asset integrity and reliability managers, risk-based inspection (RBI) and corrosion analysts, and inspectors and contract inspection firms across asset-intensive industries look to optimize their mechanical integrity programs, there is a paradigm shift to implement a comprehensive, scalable and sustainable fixed-equipment reliability program to meet increasing reliability demands.

The onset of new inspection technologies has resulted in a pressing need for solutions to offer a more holistic and smarter means to collect, store, visualize and evaluate various forms of data. As themes such as the “energy transition,” “aging infrastructure” and “workforce churn” continue to gain traction in the marketplace, it is imperative for these solutions to be designed with enhanced mobility, contextual visualization and dynamic risk evaluation as key pillars of a next-generation offering that is both scalable and sustainable.

The foundation

As per Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Standard 1910.110, mechanical integrity (MI) can be defined as the management of critical process equipment to ensure it is designed and installed correctly and operated and maintained properly.

FIG. 1 shows a brief timeline of the evolution of MI programs for fixed assets. Over the past 60 yr, the industry has established sound recommended practices for inspections and developed a mature MI program.

FIG. 1. Timeline of important MI events since 1958. Source: American Petroleum Institute (API).1

While the basic objectives and metrics of an MI program have not changed, the industry will face various challenges; however, significant technological advancements are also happening now that could help industry better prepare for the future. Key metrics for any successful MI program would be avoiding loss of pressurized containment events, managing risks, enforcing safety and compliance, and ensuring that inspection strategies are optimized to an ALARP (as low as reasonably possible) risk level.

Failure to comply will result in large fines and a subsequent increase in insurance premiums. For example, insurers in the refinery and petrochemical sectors have increased the cost of coverage from 25% to 100% due to a surge in fire-related accidents.


Accelerated energy transition

Many large oil and gas companies are transitioning to energy companies that supply a diverse range of fuels, electricity and other energy services to consumers. Renewable energy resources like wind and solar provide long-term opportunities for growth and are expected to overtake oil as the main source of energy in the next few decades. This transition should lead to larger and broader reductions in company emissions, relieving social pressures along the way, although investors will be vigilantly watching the industry’s ability to balance diversification with expected returns and dividends. Companies will need to invest more in renewable resource assets in the long term and maintain the assets designed to run on fossil fuels as part of their energy transition journey.

What does this mean for an organization’s existing MI program? To start with, the addition of new assets will create more process complexity with respect to inspections and safety. Software tools will have to be designed to:

  • Track and report data in a centralized fashion
  • Speed up the efficiency and productivity of inspectors, technicians and analysts
  • Continuously learn and adapt to the new challenges associated with risk.

Couple these points with the existing infrastructure (assets and people) and a compelling need for change is evident. 

Aging assets and workforce

In the U.S., most large-capacity refineries have been in operation for decades. As of June 2022, refineries in the U.S. were at 93% utilization due to the growing demand for gasoline, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). The importance of maintaining the reliability and integrity of aging assets that continue to operate under such high demand is more significant now than at any other time in history. Some of the challenges with aging assets include the higher risk of failures (FIG. 2) and the inability to analyze data to make replace vs. repair decisions.

FIG. 2. Plants older than 30 yr experience the most losses, with maintenance and inspection failures as primary causes. Source: Marsh JLT Specialty.2<\sup>

In addition to assets, another challenge that the authors foresee in the next decade is the aging workforce. In the oil and gas industry, it is estimated that 27% of the workforce is now older than 55 yr of age. Therefore, the industry must prepare for both Gen Z and Gen Y employees taking over the workforce. Some of the challenges with this newer workforce joining asset-intensive industries are knowledge transfer, the younger team’s ability to adapt to older technologies, and their expectations for risk-free and environmentally friendly workplaces that have a significant work-life balance.

In the authors’ opinion, software in the cloud will play a key part in circumventing some of the challenges related to older assets and the changing workforce. The benefits of having improved agility and faster data aggregation, as well as the ability to deploy analytics more quickly, will ensure that risk-related parameters are captured in a timely fashion to prevent costly interventions.

In line with these challenges, three directional hypotheses with potential long-term impacts on how users will look to enhance and sustain their MI programs are discussed below.

Elimination of paper-based data collection: The emergence of next-generation mobility software

While the advent of augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR) wearables and drones has provided new ways for organizations to collect asset and equipment data, a pressing need remains to determine the best way to capture, store, visualize and analyze critical information. From a digital inspection standpoint, inspectors and maintenance technicians are on the lookout for a next-generation mobile offering that can not only provide reporting, tracking and compliance functions, but that can also capture images of damage modes and allow annotation. The ability to interact with images and provide users with a schematic visualization of the scope of work will improve process efficiency for field personnel (FIG. 3).

FIG. 3. Next-generation inspection technologies enable personnel to annotate and interact with images to visualize the scope of work that must be completed. 

As inspectors carry out intrusive inspections inside complex equipment, it is important to consider that mobile inspection can be supported on smaller devices like mobile phones and tablets (FIG. 4).

FIG. 4. Mobil inspections can be supported on smaller devices such as tablets. 

Paper-based field inspections tend to be more error prone than digital checklist inspections. If inspectors use a pen-and-paper method, then inspection results can vary between different inspectors for the same field inspection, and the effectiveness of the inspection could be questionable. The problem is aggravated when inspections include third-party contractors that can keep altering reports with every turnaround. Standardization of inspection checklists and syncing of data back to an inspection database management system with visual cues will lead to high-confidence inspections, efficient reviews of remote inspections and quicker decisions for mitigating actions.

As Gen Z employees join the industry workforce, industry veterans must show them what to do rather than just telling them what must be done. State-of-the-art mobile inspection technologies will be a key element to making Gen Z workers successful.

Visual way of working: The need for greater contextual/situational awareness

In addition to having on-the-go control, organizations are also looking to implement true digital twins in their operational workflows as a key element of their overall digital transformation journey. Data representation and visualization are pivotal steps in this process.

Based on specific integrity applications, users can choose to utilize 2D or 3D visualizations to enhance their overall situational awareness, productivity and safety. For example, for a thickness monitoring application, users could opt for a 2D sketch rendered from any image file with key information, such as minimum thickness and the last inspection date mapped at the thickness monitoring location. 

More mature organizations could look at having their risk, corrosion and thickness data presented in a 3D model (FIG. 5) to improve decision-making and resolution time for key users such as RBI and corrosion analysts. The ability to provide greater contextual and situational awareness through 2D and 3D visualizations will likely gain more traction in the marketplace as organizations continue to receive an influx of data flow and data types (e.g., plant blueprints, piping and instrumentation diagrams, isometrics).

FIG. 5. Operators can contextualize risk, corrosion and thickness data both digitally and graphically on 3D models to improve safety and optimize maintenance activities. Source: GE Digital and Visionaize.

Traditional RBI vs. risk analysis: Continuing to reanalyze integrity risk and optimize in a continuous loop

Most MI programs lack a mature program to keep the analysis updated based on the information coming back from the field. Defining integrity operating windows (IOWs) to manage and control degradation mechanisms is critical for re-evaluating risks and conducting mitigating actions, if any. IOWs are limits for critical process variables that, when exceeded for a defined period, can adversely affect equipment integrity. This will be even more critical with the growth in autonomous inspections and sensor installations.

The changes in the process condition, if not captured accordingly, can invalidate RBI strategies at a minimum, or, in a worst-case scenario, accelerate a degradation mechanism without the awareness of the asset owners.

The following are critical factors that must be considered for enabling a dynamic risk analysis with increasing machine data, hosted solution requirements and challenging business needs (such as ensuring reliability and the integrity of aging assets) as industry progresses through the energy transition journey over the next few decades:

  • Integration with both work management and operational technology (OT) systems to establish, communicate and react to alarms and notifications
  • Analytics engines to process time series data, carry out advanced mathematical and statistical calculations, and generate recommendations based on a standard procedure for owners to act.
  • Work processes to manage the alerts generated from IOWs, with a governance model to sustain the program
  • Content based on industry standards (e.g., API, NACE).

The authors strongly believe that every hydrocarbon processor will look to implement software solutions to support aging equipment and a less-experienced workforce as the industry embarks upon its energy transition journey. This will pave the way for new methods and philosophies to be applied across reliability and maintenance departments to further streamline and standardize their MI programs.

With the advent of new digital inspection technologies, enhanced mobility, contextual visualization and dynamic risk evaluation will be key pillars that will help users further reduce risk for their assets and equipment, optimize periodic field inspections and enforce enterprise compliance.

Across these technological advancements, one of the most prevalent overarching themes is moving toward a visual way of working and keeping it simple for critical tasks, such as collecting and analyzing data, reviewing results and carrying out follow-up actions. Over the next 5 yr, the hydrocarbon industry will see more next-generation companies moving in this direction. HP


  1. API, “Mechanical integrity: Fixed equipment standards and recommended practices,” API, January 2019, online: http://mechanicalintegrity101.com/-/media/Files/Oil-and-Natural-Gas/Refining/Process%20Safety/Mechanical_Integrity_Standards_2019.pdf?la=en&hash=05C536795ADE501746CFAE9D7BFE79A59AF1C32F
  2. Marsh JLT Specialty, “The 100 largest losses in the hydrocarbon industry,” covering 1974–2019, March 2020, online: https://www.marsh.com/us/industries/energy-and-power/insights/100-largest-losses-in-the-hydrocarbon-industry.html

The Authors

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