With the expansion of city gas distribution (CGD) network in the country the automation of forecourt operations is becoming the need of the hour. Forecourt operations include purchase, storage, sale, distribution, conversion and regasification of natural gas. All these operations require automation as CGD companies are now expanding their area coverage and need to ensure efficiency in their retail operations. The various forecourt activities that can be automated for the CGD sector include, gas purchase management, inventory management, sales collection and monitoring, distribution management monitoring, asset management and financial book keeping.

The forecourt application landscape in the CGD sector consists of inventory management system, asset management system, point of sale (POS) system, distribution management system, finance management system, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), vehicle tracking system and CCTV system. All such systems must be integrated with a central system of the CGD company so as to derive the maximum benefits of automation.

At the recently concluded IT OT in Oil and Gas conference hosted by India Infrastructure, Ujjal Ghatak, Global chief information officer (CIO), AG&P shared his views about the emerging need for automation of forecourt operations in the CGD segment, the forecourt application landscape and the future of forecourt operations. Excerpts…

Recent trends and developments

Increasing number of CGD entities are now introducing automation in forecourt operations as it offers better efficiency, increased safety and significant reduction in opex. Inventory control, which is a critical part of inventory management and encompasses tasks such as stock sourcing and forecasting is being automated widely throughout the CGD segment. This procedure is no longer being limited to gas inventory management and is also being extended to the management of other necessary supplies in forecourt operation. Further, in order to provide a productive and integrated solutions for forecourt operations CGD entities are ensuring that inventory management interacts with other relevant applications such as finance management, sales and distribution, POS, SCADA and so on.

Deployment of an asset management or equipment management system is another operation wherein automation is being introduced by the CGD entities. Asset management in the CGD business is used to ensure that the gas supply network is fit for purpose throughout its operating life and that correct asset accountability is maintained in the financial management system. The asset management system also handles maintenance of the assets and equipment on the forecourt and just like all other systems it must be integrated to derive maximum benefits.

The POS billing system is an emerging trend in managing the compressed natural gas (CNG) sales activity in the forecourt by CGD companies. The system provides real-time insight of stock levels and collection through integration with dispensers and payment gateways. Since this system is linked to the dispensers, it also includes safety features such as pump start and stop. Sales and inventory related information is reconciled daily by the POS system and sent to the company’s financial and inventory control systems. Hence, integration of the POS system with other forecourt operation systems is necessary for CGD companies. The POS system also offers CGD players with the opportunity of carrying out promotional activities as it collates all the consumer data, making it easier to send promotional notifications. The deployment of this system is currently only possible in CNG stations established under the company owned-company operated model. 

SCADA is also actively being introduced by CGD entities as it is a powerful hardware and software technology that assists companies in their day-to-day operations. It allows operators additional control input/output devices, communication equipment and the company systems as a whole. Remote terminal units and programmable logic controllers are the most critical subsystems in the SCADA system as both of them have various control functionalities which are established either directly or indirectly using end device sensors. Further, SCADA systems can increase the operational efficiency of an entity only if they are fully integrated with the enterprise resource planning system.

Some of the other forecourt applications that are gaining traction in the CGD segment include vehicle tracking system, CCTV system, sales and distribution system and finance management system. All these systems have already been implemented across the world and are now making headway in the Indian CGD segment.

The road ahead

Going forward, robotics process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI) are expected to take centre stage in forecourt operations. Arranging transportation of gas distribution is a challenging task in logistics and requires a lot of coordination with fleet management. The transport related information is generated under different systems and there is a need to analyse all such information in order to prepare a proper plan or schedule. In such a scenario, RPA applications can be designed to automate this process based on predefined set of business rules and predictive analysis.

Further, regular maintenance leads to cost overruns and malfunctions cause downtime on forecourt operations. The algorithms developed through AI will provide early warning signs by understanding the particular situations that lead to mechanical malfunctions, allowing engineers to take corrective action before a complete shutdown.

Mr. Ujjal Ghatak is global CIO, at Atlantic, Gulf & Pacific Company. He is a dynamic professional with three decades of cross functional experience in the areas of IT strategy, planning, alignment of IT strategy with organisation’s business strategy, project management, large enterprise-wide infrastructure management, integration with the manufacturing systems, automation, solution architecting and ERP implementation in Oil & Gas industry.