Digitalisation in specialty chemicals and pharmaceuticals

Published: 5-Apr-2019

Paige Marie Morse, Industry Director, AspenTech talks to Dr Kevin Robinson about accelerating innovation and optimising the value chain with digital technologies

Specialty chemicals producers and pharmaceuticals manufacturers are under intense pressure. They need to be more innovative in product development.

They need to manage operational complexity while delivering a wide variety and volume of products. And, they need to maintain their assets more efficiently. It’s a tough ask! And, in seeking to address it, producers and manufacturers are increasingly looking to emerging digital technologies.

The Executive Board Chairman at Evonik, Christian Kullmann, said: “For us as a specialty chemicals company, digitalisation brings with it a world of possibilities.” In late 2018, international pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer announced the appointment of its first Chief Digital Officer (CDO).

“Given the growing strategic importance of deploying digital technologies in research, discovery and business processes, Pfizer is appointing a Chief Digital Officer [who is] responsible for creating and implementing a strategy that accelerates and improves our digital capabilities … so we can deliver more value to patients,” said the company in a statement.

The diversified chemicals major Dow also added Chief Digital Officer to its Chief Information Officer title last year to reinforce the company’s emphasis on digital tools. At Fortune’s 2018 Brainstorm Reinvent conference, Dow’s CDO and CIO, Melanie Kalmar, commented: “Many companies have failed because they looked at digital as an add-on to what they do already … as a new tool. The reality is that you have to step back, simplify and rethink how you execute your work on a day to day basis.” The value of using digital tools, she asserted, is to be more agile and to become closer to customers.”

Better alignment with customers is one of three key emerging organisational priorities — along with accelerating innovation and optimising operations across the value chain — which digital technologies can help specialty chemicals and pharmaceuticals companies to address.

Models of manufacturing assets can be used to automate the identification and evaluation of production scenarios across various timeframes and ensure organisations operating in these sectors align with customer demands. These models represent the full complexity and options possible, including production rates, constraints, set-up times, sequencing and site logistics. Specialty companies cite an 8–12% increase in on-time order fulfilment when these tools are applied.

Meeting customer needs includes ensuring that assets operate well and produce the targeted products. Leading companies use multivariate tools to analyse interrelated operational data to identify and eliminate sources of process variability. Businesses apply this analysis to batch and continuous processes to ensure more product meets specification. This kind of analytical technology is being used much more widely today in both the specialty chemicals and pharmaceutical sectors.

According to Eric Cordi, Associate Research Fellow at Pfizer: “One of the biggest advancements I have seen in the last 10 years is the use of online analytical technology in pharmaceutical process development and manufacturing. Unlike in refineries and other continuous manufacturing industries, online analytical sensors have not been commonly used in the batch processing of pharmaceuticals or specialty chemicals.”

“In continuous processing, for instance,” added Cordi, “it is advantageous for us to know how a reaction is progressing and whether any changes in process parameters affect product quality. This is especially important in the process development phase, when scientists are mapping and defining a robust operating space that meets quality requirements and provides operating efficiency.”

Process optimisation

Digitalisation in specialty chemicals and pharmaceuticals

Innovation allows businesses to meet customer demands while driving competitive edge. Specialty chemicals and pharmaceutical manufacturers, for example are continually looking to innovate and enhance product performance at lower cost. Digital technologies can boost research productivity and reduce errors by easing the transition from laboratory to plant production processes. Dow researchers use first principle modelling tools to boost their R&D efficiency, an approach they call “model-guided experimentation.”

In a recent New York Times article on drug development, drug discovery researcher Derek Lowe stresses the imperative of digital solutions in this process, noting: “It is not that machines are going to replace chemists. It’s that the chemists who use machines will replace those who don’t.”1

Manual procedures, hand-written reports and paper-based systems are still common for critical activities such as recipe execution and raw material management. These isolated tools limit visibility into data and often delay responses to potential quality issues and regulatory requirements. Through digitalisation, companies can achieve visibility of key data that, in turn, enables them to gain the necessary insight to drive improvements in quality and consistency.

When assessing the entire value chain for specialty chemicals producers, technology solutions enable the monitoring, execution and control of manufacturing processes. In addition, planning and scheduling tools can help to boost responsiveness and related profitability.

Rapidly changing market and customer demands force frequent changes in production schedules. Programme adjustments as high as 25–45% each month are not uncommon.

Improved scheduling tools add value to business decision making in both sectors as variations occur, by incorporating key constraints — such as storage limitations and variable lead times — while minimising excess inventory and off-spec production. Better scheduling capabilities can also boost asset utilisation. At the same time, schedulers can see the impact of their decisions and make adjustments to avoid problems along the supply chain before they happen.

Vertical integration

With targeted plant scheduling tools, the scheduler can rely on the model to inform decisions such as batch size determination, resource selection and batch sequencing, and discover a potential gap in raw material supply. The technology enables better asset utilisation and improved customer service by clarifying profit opportunities and extra costs in less than optimal operations.

The next step in the specialty chemicals sector, at least, is vertical integration, which links manufacturing systems to scheduling.

These systems can give visibility to storage tank levels, for example, so scheduling tools can decide when raw materials should be put in tanks and when they should be emptied. This link can also alert the scheduler if processes are taking longer than expected, allowing for adjustments across the plan.

Specialty producer Criterion Catalyst and Technologies applied Aspen Plant Scheduler to its complex and demanding sales and operations planning process. Legacy tools provided less than three months of visibility on asset availability, even as sales staff could not gain customer requirements in less than a six-month window.

The redesigned scheduling process using Aspen Plant Scheduler helped to better align customer demand timing with plant scheduling across 21 production lines at eight manufacturing sites.2

Benefitting from digital acceleration

For four decades, the process industries focused on improving operational performance through digitalisation. Digital technologies allow specialty chemicals producers and pharmaceutical manufacturers to take this beyond operations and expand to address key market drivers such as accelerating innovation, optimising the value chain and aligning with customer demands, effectively giving them a route map to future success.

The tools, services and solutions producers and manufacturers need to manage their complex operations and achieve new levels of reliability and profitability are accessible to companies now. To take advantage of the opportunity, these organisations must first consider their primary business challenge and identify the relevant digital solution to adopt.

That will set them on a path toward a more holistic approach to achieving optimum return through R&D processes and during the entire asset lifecycle.


  2. Aspen Technology, “Case Study: Transforming Sales and Operations Planning at Criterion,” (May 2016).

NB: This article will appear in the May 2019 issue of Manufacturing Chemist. A recent digital edition is available here.

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