The digital transformation requires an ecosystem. That is true in every industry, but it is particularly true for traditional industries that have so far been slower to embrace new digital technologies.
The chemical and petrochemical industry is a case in point: concerns about operational safety have led chemical companies to adopt an especially cautious attitude. AspenTech, a software company born out of MIT, is now playing an important role in helping chemical and petrochemical companies in their digitalization efforts – as well as supporting customers in other industries from energy to transportation to pharmaceuticals.
Digitalization is so critical to chemical companies’ success, it is fundamental to the future of the industry. Morse notes that while the refining sector started adopting digital technologies in their process control, chemical companies initially lagged behind. Then, however, they have increasingly realized that digitally-enhanced process control makes production safer, reducing the chance that equipment will be pushed beyond tolerance limits and lowering the risk of accidents and malfunctions. Advanced digital process control allows for continuous monitoring and much finer and more frequent adjustments. The chemical sector’s concern for safety now becomes a reason to accelerate digitalization, not to delay it.
Digitalization of process control sparks a virtuous cycle: it collects a treasure trove of data that can be analyzed to gain better insights on how the equipment behaves in different conditions. This allows operators to anticipate the adjustment needed on a particularly cold day, or when there is a change in feedstock.
The financial incentive for digitalization varies according to the nature of the business, notes Morse. Large petrochemical companies prize speed, more rapid throughput that allows them to increase production. Specialty chemicals, which operate on smaller quantities but higher margins, prize quality of output. Digitalization also allows companies to reduce energy consumption and wastage, yielding important cost reductions.
Through multivariate analysis, specialty chemical companies can better understand what causes quality to change from one batch of product to another, and reduce the variability. They can also accelerate the development of new products to better respond to customers’ needs. Digital technologies allow them to perform modeling simulations of chemical reactions and of the performance of the final product. These simulations can cut the development time for a new product from 2-3 years down to 4-6 months.
As in other industries, digitalization opens the door to preventive, condition-based maintenance which reduces unplanned downtime. “AspenTech is particularly good at this—says Morse—To be effective, you can’t just look at the equipment in isolation, you need to understand the process around it, the reactions that feed in, the other equipment upstream and downstream of it. By doing this we can give customers weeks, sometimes months, of lead times on when a piece of equipment might fail.” This allows the operator to schedule maintenance for a low-demand period, and to build up inventory in advance. It also improves safety and avoids the prolonged outage that might result from an equipment failure.
To fully leverage the power of these new digital technologies, companies need to develop new capabilities. AspenTech develops the software, but customers operate it directly once it is embedded in their systems.
“With digital tools you transform how work is done. You need organizational redesign” stresses Morse. She notes that often companies are tempted to deploy digitalization just in one particularly challenging unit. That gives you a good point solution, but the real value comes from integrating digital insights across the whole range of operations.
To turn digital insight into better decision making, says Morse, “You need a new corporate dashboard for senior leadership – what are the key data metrics? The metrics are changing now that you can ask deeper questions from your data. Metrics are key to how organizational redesign happens.”
Emissions have emerged as a new metric that most executives are asking for, and AspenTech has developed digital tools that allow companies to estimate at the planning stage the emissions that will result from a new process, so that emission targets can be incorporated right at the process design stage.
New digital tools, organizational redesign, new metrics…to make all this work, companies need to upgrade their talent pool. Leveraging its global experience across industries, AspenTech helps them devise strategies for employee development. Equally important, it has embedded in its digital solutions guidance capabilities that can help operators master the new technologies at a faster pace. This will become easier as new generations of “digital native” workers enter the workforce.
Traditional industries like chemicals and manufacturing have had a harder time attracting younger generations—they are often still perceived a “old and dirty” even though they have become much more high-tech and offer challenging and rewarding high-skills careers.
Paige Marie Morse thinks something might be changing and feels optimistic: “I am sensing a change. Some young people realize that these industries are central to the big challenges we face, from sustainability to economic growth, and they want to become part of the solution.”
A greater ability to attract younger talent could help. Through partnerships with software providers like AspenTech, chemicals and other industries can now accelerate their digital transformation, with enormous benefits in terms of productivity and sustainability.