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Why digitalization is worth the effort for chemicals operators

By Paige Marie Morse, Industry Director at AspenTech

Paige Marie Morse, Industry Director at AspenTech, explains how chemicals manufacturers could benefit from implementin

Paige Marie Morse, Industry Director at AspenTech, explains how chemicals manufacturers could benefit from implementing digital solutions with advanced process control capabilities that enable units to run at faster rates and deliver consistent on-spec products.
Processing industries are finally catching up to service industries in their digitalization efforts.  However, chemicals continue to trail when compared to others in its own class, according to a recent McKinsey report entitled Mapping heavy industry’s digital-manufacturing opportunities.1 Many chemicals operators are lagging behind in implementing digital solutions – and therefore missing such advantages gained from advanced process control (APC) capabilities that enable units to run at faster rates and deliver consistent on-spec products. Many are yet to trial analytics tools that can help them apply lessons from previous operations to improve future outcomes.
Operators will need to take action soon to address this and kick-start their digital efforts. Otherwise, they will miss out on the opportunities moving to digital could bring – from the chance to drive up productivity and profit through enhanced throughput and yield to the opportunity to achieve predictive maintenance to help ensure continuous operations and enhanced safety. 
It is all about the pursuit of operational excellence. APC still plays a key role in helping companies to continuously maintain optimal operating conditions, while using prescriptive analytics to pinpoint when a piece of equipment will fail allows operators to plan ahead, develop contingency plans and make cost savings.
Given these potential benefits, why aren’t more chemical operators taking advantage of digitalization? Complexity is the most common refrain I hear from chemicals companies. Many operations, particularly in specialties, have become increasingly complex as customer performance demands grow and product lines must diversify to meet them.
Putting a plan in place
Chemicals production involves thousands of different processes that are used to make tens of thousands of products on a wide variety of asset types, and often across several geographic regions. In this environment, it is wrong to imply that quick and simple solutions are readily available. Digitalization efforts take time but the experiences of AspenTech customers overwhelmingly prove the value of the effort. Increasingly today, digitalization is not just an option for chemical operators, it is a strategic necessity.
So what works in practice? How can chemical operators move beyond a theoretical appreciation of the benefits of digitalization and instead start implementing solutions on the ground 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 make sure digital transformation efforts are a complete success.
  • Prepare your organization: Many companies struggle to find the resources to execute digital projects, and efforts often get stalled by competing priorities. BASF sees the importance of fast action for Industrie 4.0 projects, and has created a separate organization, isolated from IT, to push the implementation. At INVISTA, an integrated fibre, resin and intermediates company headquartered in Kansas, USA, the concept of ‘citizen data scientists’ is used to encourage employees to get involved in analytics projects that identify preventative 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 capabilities of Aspen DMC3, have been able to reduce implementation periods to 6 weeks from 6 months or more previously. Braskem has identified internal change agents that use entrepreneurial thinking to encourage adoption of new digital tools throughout their businesses.
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 where companies no longer depend on the control and optimization capabilities that have been delivered by digital solutions on assets around the world.
The market landscape is likely to 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 leaving money on the table and being left behind by their rivals, they must cut through this complexity and urgently start their journey. The efforts demand focus but the payoffs make it well worth the effort.
  1. Noterdaeme O et al., September 2018.
Paige Marie Morse, Chemicals Industry Lead at Aspen Technology Inc, 20 Crosby Drive, Bedford, Massachusetts 01730, USA
T: +1 281 584 1000