Why chemical operators must drive forward with digitalisation

Processing industries are finally catching up to service industries in their digitalisation efforts. However, the chemical sector continues to trail when compared with others in its own class, writes Paige Marie Morse, Industry Director, AspenTech

Compared with many other heavy industries, chemicals operators are lagging behind when it comes to embracing digital solutions. A growing number are exploring the benefits and running trials, but far fewer have launched live commercial implementations.

They are, therefore, potentially missing out on the benefits of deploying advanced process control (APC) solutions that enable units to run at faster rates and deliver consistent on-spec products. Many are yet to trial analytics tools that could help them to apply lessons from previous operations to improve future outcomes.

Operators will need to act soon to address this and kick-start their digital efforts if they don’t want to miss out on the chance to boost productivity and profit through enhanced yield and throughput. Prescriptive maintenance solutions can also help to ensure reliable operations and enhanced safety.

It is all about the pursuit of operational excellence. APC remains instrumental in helping companies to maintain optimal operating conditions; using prescriptive analytics to pinpoint when a piece of equipment will fail allows operators to plan ahead, develop contingency plans and avoid unnecessary costs.

Given these potential benefits, why aren’t more chemical operators capitalising on the benefits of digitalisation? Complexity is the most common refrain I hear from chemicals operators. Many operations, particularly in specialties, have become increasingly complex as customer performance demands increase and product lines must diversify to meet them.

Putting a procedure in place

Chemical production involves hundreds of different processes that are used to make tens of thousands of products, often across multiple geographic regions. This demanding environment requires detailed solutions that enable success in the market.

Digitalisation efforts can take considerable amounts of time but the experiences that AspenTech customers report overwhelmingly prove the value of the effort. Increasingly, digitalisation is not just an option for chemical operators, it is a strategic imperative.

So what works in practice? How can chemical operators move beyond a theoretical appreciation of the benefits of digitalisation and begin implementing business solutions to drive enhanced profitability and competitive edge? Here, we outline some key steps to take: from enterprise-wide planning to the development of internal specialists to ensure digital transformation efforts are a complete success.

Prepare your organisation: Many companies struggle to find the resources to execute digital projects … and efforts often get held up by competing priorities. BASF sees the importance of fast action for Industry 4.0 projects and has created a separate organisation, isolated from IT, to push the implementation.

At INVISTA, the concept of “citizen data scientists” is used to encourage employees to get involved in analytics projects that identify preventive and prescriptive actions to resolve production issues.

Develop internal specialists: ExxonMobil uses a team of internal experts to implement APC technologies at its olefins/polymer complexes across the globe. The experts travel to each site to implement and troubleshoot and, using the latest adaptive process control capabilities, have been able to reduce implementation periods to six weeks from six months or more.

Braskem has identified internal change agents that use entrepreneurial thinking to encourage the adoption of new digital tools throughout their businesses.

Incorporate digitalisation in your sustainability plan: Digital solutions have always targeted improved efficiency and the reduced use of resources, which are common goals in sustainability programmes.

Several companies are integrating digitalisation into their corporate sustainability efforts, from Canada to Saudi Arabia and Germany, and their focus is often on changing the metrics used to track production processes. Businesses are moving from purely financial metrics to alternatives such as carbon dioxide emissions and total resource efficiency to target employee actions and engagement at the broader impacts of operations.

At a recent industry event in Mexico, an audience member asked me: “Is digital a fad — something that will go away and no longer have meaning for my business?” I responded with a resounding “definitely not.” I do not see a future in which companies no longer depend on the control and optimisation capabilities that have been delivered by digital solutions on assets around the world.

The current market landscape will remain complex and difficult to navigate — but that must not stand in the way of chemicals operators. If they want to reap the many rewards on offer, they cannot afford to delay. If they want to avoid being left behind by their rivals and missing out on the chance to drive profits, they must cut through this complexity and set forth on their journey today. The efforts demand focus, but the payoffs make it well worth the endeavour.

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