Before cars can be self-driving, can we automate fuel stations? What would a next-generation fuel station look like?
Picture this: As you enter, you get identified via your car’s unique number plate, and based on your vehicle specifications and previous transactional details, your services will get customized. Displays will greet you and point you to vacant lanes with prices displayed and smart kiosks to book allied services. Customer portals in the form of responsive tabs are at hand for you to feed in orders and feedback, or clock loyalty points. There are vending machines and e-toilets for your use. ‘Smart lighting’ and energy management structure the station. It is linked to a regional command center, integrating data, analytics, and reporting toward better infrastructure maintenance, wet stock management, and fleet management.
Reimagining Downstream Automation
This is an exciting picture indeed. Downstream automation in the oil and gas industry’s overall value chain—comprising processes around how refined fuel reaches the end customer—works on thin margins since there is very little value addition at this stage. Automated fuel stations present an opportunity to do more and monetize better. Operational technology and the Internet of Things(IoT) are integral to most aspects of a Smart Retail Outlet (Smart RO).
Logistics Planning: Based on the type of fuel, and demand-supply trends, a system for automatic reordering can perform dynamic planning for entire fleets. Fuel stations can reorder based on this, to avoid running out of stock. This wet stock management can be an efficient, automatic replenishment of fuel without any manual intervention.
Asset Management and Maintenance: If a fuel station is out of function for a few hours during peak time, it can lead to huge losses. With most stations being Wi-Fi-enabled, one doesn’t need to have engineers on-site for asset management. Sensors and tags constantly capture information from assets. All the planning for spare parts and servicing can be done and this data can be maintained at a cross-central command, so that the cost of preventive maintenance is low and there are no sudden breakdowns.
Journey Risk Management: A lot of the ongoing automation through digital technologies is toward establishing safety measures, in the fuel truck’s journey from the refinery to the petrol pumps. This includes safeguards against theft, adulteration, and accidents.
What these new developments translate to are reduced operational costs through better planning, automation, and plugging of gaps; and increased efficiency by saving time and streamlining processes. A better performing fuel station can guarantee a better experience to customers—quality fuel, superior service, and minimal or zero waiting time.
From Distress to Ease: Fuel and More for Customers
Although much of brick-and-mortar shopping is getting eaten away by e-commerce, a fuel station can’t be virtual so long as we use fuel. And here lies the potential. From being just a place for a need-based, ‘distress purchase’ of fuel, automated fuel stations can be the integration point for a range of services, enabling more sales and, therefore, more revenue.
For instance, shopping and online stores can get integrated. As a customer, you can decide you want some specific groceries; you land up at the fuel station for your fuel and your groceries will be billed and ready to be picked up. Paying utility bills, booking movie tickets, and other such services can get clubbed together to increase convenience and boost customer retention.
The act of filling fuel is also turning ‘smart’. You can just have an app through which you can pre-book slots, view waiting times for nearby stations and decide where to go. Pre-booking may provide advantages like separate terminals and pre-saved data customizing your service.
The app can let you book add-on services and look up offers on your credit cards. And your integrated digital wallet can complete your visit. Today we can’t make these choices or plan in advance to such a degree. Digital trends are making it possible for customers to do all this, sans manual intervention. Such a holistic experience can boost brand loyalty. Customers can also share grievances and ratings directly, thereby increasing transparency, and helping big businesses understand the functioning of all their franchise outlets.
While there are significant infrastructure costs in putting such digital technologies and analytics in place, these will get offset by a reduction in operational costs in aspects such as safety, stock management, routing, and logistics.
An interesting related trend today is the rising demand for alternative energy and electric vehicles. However, the shift to newer, cleaner fuels will take place slowly. In this time of changing energy expectations, fuel stations are accommodating services such as charging points for electric vehicles, and so on. Over time, it will be even more practical to invest in digital technologies because even if vehicle numbers stagnate, a value-added and customer-oriented fuel station can continue to sustain operations, profits, and customer loyalty, and foster customer retention.
-By Mr. Sahil Dhawan, Associate Vice President & Head - Energy & Utilities Vertical (Asia, Middle East & Africa) at KPIT Technologies
The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.
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