Magazine Article | September 1, 1998

Refinery Keeps Oil Flowing Using Bar Codes, Radio Frequency And Handheld Computers

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

A large Canadian refinery, Syncrude, implements data collection equipment to track $70 million in warehouse inventory and saves $200,000 in one year.

Integrated Solutions, September-October 1998
More than 1.5 trillion barrels of oil lie beneath the soil at Athabasca Oil Sands Deposit in the western Canadian province of Alberta. There is more oil in this location than in all the oil fields of Saudi Arabia combined.

The oil is mined from oil sand in surface mines and extracted with steam and hot water. It is processed into crude oil by fluid coking, hydroprocessing, hydrotreating and re-blending. The finished product is transported to the refinery by pipelines and conveyor belts. Technologies such as handheld computers, bar-code printers and radio frequency (RF) communications are used to keep track of all of the equipment needed to keep operations running. This is necessary to keep oil flowing at the Athabasca Oil Sands Deposit, the largest surface mine on the planet. And it all belongs to Syncrude Canada Ltd. (Ft. McMurray, Canada).

Tracking $70 Million In Parts Over 99,800 Acres
Every day, Syncrude sends 220,000 barrels of its final product, Syncrude Sweet Blend, through a pipeline to three refineries in Edmonton, Canada It's also sent through pipeline terminals, where it is shipped to other refineries in North America. The company employs over 3,600 full-time workers and anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 contract employees at certain times of the year. Syncrude tracks some $70 million in parts, consumables and maintenance items positioned around its sprawling 99,800-acre operation. To make the daunting task of finding and delivering materials a bit easier, the 20-year-old oil company began using bar code-based technology from Intermec Technologies Corp.

Tracking With Bar Codes On The Tundra
Syncrude uses bar codes label printers, handheld computers and wireless data communications equipment from Intermec to keep track of all Syncrude equipment and parts in its warehouses. This helps to ensure equipment and parts are available when an employee places an order.

"In our storage facilities," says inventory specialist Dwight Cain, " we've got parts for draglines, bucket wheels, conveyor systems, bulldozers, shovels, you name it." Sizes range from something as small and inexpensive as a washer, to electrical motors, pumps or gearboxes, which could cost $20,000 or more.

"All the materials that sit in our warehouse are bar coded," said Sandra Clarke, materials and services department manager. "We know how much inventory we have. We perform our annual (warehouse) inventory count and issue materials using the bar-code labels. We have also developed our own in-house materials services system, called MSS," explains Cain. Computronics, based in Edmonton, developed the MSS software.

Employees use radio frequency (RF) handheld computers with scanners to read bar codes. The information collected is automatically transferred via a 902 MHz spread-spectrum RF data-transfer system directly to the central Oracle database, the central server, that resides on a Hewlett Packard UX-9000 Unix-based server. Each warehouse has a single wireless access point somewhere near the ceiling and one wireless base controller that receives and transmits data to the central server.

Tracking Items For Thousands Of Workers
"We track some 50,000 different items or stock-keeping units (SKUs) at our facilities," observes Cain. "We use Intermec RT1700 RF units for most of our work done by warehouse employees," where items are put away or retrieved from storage locations accessed by foot. "Intermec model 5940s, the large display screen data collection units, are mounted to our Raymond and Crown forklifts," he says.

"Anytime employees want to order a screwdriver, lets say, or some safety glasses for use in the mine, it's a fairly simple process to go into our system. They make an inquiry on a computer, find the item they need, get a part number and place the order." A worker in the warehouse receives the order, and identifies the actual part or equipment in the warehouse using the handheld or picker-mounted computers. Then it's subtracted from inventory and shipped to the person who places the order.

"Warehouse employees use handheld computers and wear them in a holster on their hip, sort of like a handgun,'' says John Ryrie, senior information specialist. "Each of the scanning devices has a radio. Information is collected and automatically transferred to the appropriate place." Warehouse employees can stand in the middle of one warehouse, away from any computer but their handheld, and send information to a different warehouse without needing to find a PC.

Syncrude Saves $200,000 In First Year
Cain's boss, Warehouse Team Leader Jim Strong, believes the data collection system makes the company more efficient. "The major difference," says Ryrie, "is that employees don't have to go back to a PC to connect to the MSS system. They can stand in the middle of a warehouse or in one of our yards and make inquiries from wherever they are. We are saving a lot of shoe leather."

It has been about a year since the automated data collection system was installed at Syncrude. "The system has already saved us approximately $200,000 (Can.)," says Materials Manager Clarke.

$6 Billion Planned In Expansions
"The system became fully functional last August," says Ryrie," but before the end of this year, we'll add bar codes to our field-delivery systems, then likely our receiving processes, as part of a $6 billion expansion. We will be able to track our materials when they arrive at Syncrude from our suppliers, to the time of receipt and delivery in the fields."

A simple scan on a bar-coded employee badge will record who received a delivery and what time it was made. Data will be uploaded from a handheld computer to a docking station and into the MSS application. Employees will be able to check online to see when an item was delivered and who received it.