How Chemicals Companies Can Drive Operational Resilience with the Digital Twin

Article by Paige Marie Morse

THESE are truly exceptional times as we all adapt to the unprecedented health, social and economic disruptions we are experiencing across the globe. Scroll back even a few months and it would have all but impossible to anticipate the scale of this pandemic and its ongoing impact on all aspects of our lives.

In this unanticipated environment, many companies are finding that their agility is being tested to its limits — how effectively can they respond to huge shifts in demand, supply, working environment and economics? For most companies, these shocks have stretched beyond planning boundaries, and as they do, many are asking what more can be done to prepare?

Chemicals companies are finding themselves right at the heart of this unforeseen storm. The need for plants to respond to vast changes in demand, supply and workforce caused by Covid-19 has left many operators re-evaluating how effectively they prepare for and manage severe levels of disruption. Business resilience is being critically tested, and with uncertainty in the recovery and the possibility of further waves of the virus increasing, pressures remain high. The likelihood is that extreme volatility will continue into 2021 and beyond. And with chemicals plants being designated as essential industries during the crisis, solutions that address these challenges need to be found quickly.

From digital migration to digital twin

Digital technologies have proven to be a critical tool for many businesses during this time. Several chemical companies have expanded their agility by applying their digital scheduling capabilities in unique ways. Alternate scenario analysis is a clear application, integrating variable regional supplies and disparate demand segments, but some companies have creatively applied supply chain solutions to implement social distancing on the production floor.

With the ability to uncover new insights, enhance visibility and provide extensive scenario analysis, digital technologies are critical for many companies during this time. But one tool that could be particularly valuable in optimising operations in the current environment is the digital twin, to develop operational excellence. Digital technologies provide added insight on operations and capabilities of production systems, enabling greater visibility on status and integration, as well as deep exploration of alternatives to aid operational decision-making.

This type of simulation is particularly valuable in the current economy, when boundaries are well beyond what common spreadsheets can handle. Simulations with broad flexibility on constraints and parameters that also include economic considerations are precisely what is needed to optimise operations in this fast-changing and challenging market.

Digital twins are most commonly thought of in terms of engineering simulations of process operations. Many chemical companies built them at the time of construction. This plant digital twin can be focussed on a single asset, across a plant or system-wide to optimise operations and production more generally. These models can be deployed offline and online and calibrated to plant operating conditions through autonomous model-tuning. Plant digital twins are especially helpful in optimising alternative production scenarios, such as the reduced production rates and alternate raw material environment that many companies are experiencing now. That makes them especially powerful in the current crisis as they enable the operator to run those different process scenarios.

Alternative uses

Digital twins can help train operators for these atypical operations and especially for startups, shutdowns, slowdowns and other unexpected events. Such training simulations are especially important to avoid potentially dangerous situations that can lead to safety and environmental incidents. Chemicals operators after all need to be sure that all of their staff know their roles during these difficult times and a digital twin can again be very helpful in that context.

Digital twins could be useful too in the event that the original plant needed to close down for a period due to the pandemic. In this scenario, the digital twin could potentially make use of mathematical optimisation methods to work out what the best combination of supply chain decisions would be over a planning time horizon in order to maximise enterprise profitability overall.

Moreover, a digital twin can enable a chemicals operator to create a single environment to look at all of its complex interactions. It might, for example, be running batch processes. It might also be operating continuous processes. In the best digital twin environments, it can look at all of this activity together in order to make the best decisions about how to run operations in this atypical environment that we are in. 

These models can also be employed to develop alternate asset uses, such as the repurposing of existing operations to make products for surging medical and hygiene applications, like personal protective equipment and disinfectant products during the current crisis. Operational resilience will be a key capability in determining how companies will emerge from this pandemic. Building digital capabilities now will help improve such resilience during this time and prepare for the ongoing volatility to come.

Article by Paige Marie Morse

Industry Director, Chemicals, Aspen Technology

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