Longing for a Digital Twin: What the Colonial Pipeline Cyberattack Can Teach Us About Planning for Uncertainty

Longing for a Digital Twin: What the Colonial Pipeline Cyberattack Can Teach Us About Planning for Uncertainty


On May 7, 2021, Colonial Pipeline was hacked. The pipeline immediately shut down and backed up crude oil and refined products before the company could finally restore the pipeline system. The cybersecurity incident highlights just how fragile the energy supply chain is when unexpected disruptions like these occur.

Two Roads Diverged

As Robert Frost famously wrote, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both…I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” In this case, a company can maintain the status quo and only sometimes plan on a quarterly basis. Or, better yet, a company can digest the fact that instability is the new norm.

Take the time to model and create a digital twin of your supply chain. Leverage any one of several solutions on the market. With the digital twin created, focus the organization and culture on constant planning. What’s the optimal path to market? What if that norm changes unexpectedly? What if demand skyrockets? What if we lose a “guaranteed” supply?

Learn From the (Recent) Past or You’re Doomed to Repeat It

Use the shock of the Colonial Pipeline as an impetus to rethink your supply chain. Turn old norms about what’s “stable” on their head. Bring in fresh ideas and rethink each piece along the way. The only constant in today’s world is that we’ll always be faced with challenges in a rapidly changing world.

Opportune is partnering with clients in the midstream and downstream sectors to build out a full supply chain digital twin. The supply chain model and optimization utilize factors that include historical sales and weather data to generate forecasts in the future across multiple markets at each location. The supply side models the realism of inventory targets/constraints, purchase and sale deal constraints, multi-modal logistics costs and transit times. The entirety of the model is connected with the ETRM and transportation dispatch systems, so that there’s a free flow of data feeding the model and then recommendations for orders are provided daily.

So, unless you can convince your 100,000+ closest friends not to assume irrational behavior at the drop of a hat or after reading the latest blog posting in your mother’s Facebook group, you better prepare your organization for the next unexpected disturbance. Whether it’s toilet paper, ketchup or gasoline, you need to be ready and plan for uncertainty in today’s new world.

The Delicate Balance of Getting Product to Market

Many people don’t think about how gasoline gets to gas stations. We take for granted that it will be available whenever we drive to the corner station and fill up. Depending on your commute and usage, that could be once, twice or maybe multiple times each week. What caused the shortage of gasoline was not lack of product; there is plenty of gasoline. The problem is rooted in how the supply chain is structured.

Suffice it to say, it’s purposefully fragmented. Each actor depends on the tight integration and handoff along the way from the refinery to pipelines to storage to trucks to your local gas station. And, in today’s world that values itself on razor-thin margins, there is almost zero room for error. Buffers in the supply chain are expensive.

Minimize Costs and Optimize

The mantra over the years has been to cut costs to reduce inventories. This means that companies need to replenish their goods sold more frequently. They must “listen” to signals from customers and order the appropriate lot sizes to maintain products. Nothing is worse than going to the store to redeem a coupon for a sale and realizing there are no more products available. It costs money to hold and carry inventory; therefore, companies only carry small buffers. There is no incentive to carry large stocks. Investors want inventory turns, not product sitting idly on “shelves.”

How We Got to 1970s-Style Gas Lines

The problem facing the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic isn’t unique for gas shortages. Essentially, gas stations have set schedules for re-orders and replenishments. Smart people in back rooms compute average demand, inventory levels, safety stock and transit time, and then determine the frequency of replenishing. That all works so long as each factor is predictable.

In the case of the hacked pipeline, people feared that gasoline would run out. So, they did what any mindless mass would do: they hoarded gasoline and bought more than was needed. Suddenly, there’s “noise” given off by quickly draining the inventory available. If companies aren’t observant, they miss the new signal and run out of product. Or, in the case of many of the gas stations, they’re observant but cannot act quickly enough to truck in deliveries.

Remember the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020?

People are rational (mostly). However, crowds and populations feed off of rumors and the speed of misinformation on the Internet. At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, we were told to hunker down in our homes and keep our distance from other people. Instantaneously, toilet paper flew off store shelves because social media and mass media hysteria drove consumer behavior.

In the case of the Colonial Pipeline shutdown, someone posts that one gas station is out. Panic ensues as people scramble to get the next gallon of gas. Never mind that they don’t have any extra need for gasoline. Did driving patterns change radically? Was there suddenly a need for more vacations and trips out of town? No, this is just hysteria, fed by the media driving false demand. It doesn’t matter if it’s toilet paper or gasoline; irrationality takes no prisoners as it sows chaos in planning models.

“I Told You So” Doesn’t Work When You Really Need Fuel

So, we’re here in the middle of a crisis. Colonial Pipeline is slowly coming back online and will move as much product out of the areas of supply and to the areas of demand. Will companies learn from this?

The smart ones should. As much as we crave normalcy and stability, companies need to recognize that the world is anything but normal or stable these days. Anyone remember the “Great Lock Down of 2020” when no one was driving, and the world came to a standstill? Guess what that did for production planning?

Author Profile
Director -

Patrick Long is a Director in Opportune’s Process & Technology practice. Patrick has over 20 years of experience in providing clients with energy trading and risk management, packaged software implementation, trading and risk processes and business process automation. Patrick leads the BI initiative within the firm. He focuses on applying BI tools (e.g., Spotfire and Tableau) to client data in order to allow proper insight for management around both upstream and downstream business issues. Prior to joining Opportune, Patrick worked in the energy consulting trading and risk systems practice at Accenture where he managed multiple project teams through the entire process of software selection to successful implementation of trading and risk management systems for energy trading entities.

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