The chemical sector and its digital journey

Article by Staff Writer

THERE has been a lot of media attention regarding the term Industry 4.0, what it means, and how it will revolutionise manufacturing in terms of flexibility, productivity, efficiency and customer interaction.

Central to its successful adoption across the UK is the uptake of digital technologies, and work is underway to ensure this happens. The launch in January 2017 of the Industrial Digitalisation Review led by Siemens CEO Juergen Maier, on the back of the UK government’s Industrial Strategy, aims to forge a roadmap on how best UK companies can adopt digital technologies and make the most of the opportunities the digitisation of industry offers the economy, in terms of supporting growth, high value job creation, skills and improving national productivity.

The review panel will spend time reviewing and talking to stakeholders, influencers and large and small businesses to see how the design, development and deployment of digital technologies will support and drive the UK’s digital industrial revolution – more commonly referred to as “‘the fourth industrial revolution”’.

Industry 4.0 is a confluence of several major innovative technologies which are in a state of stability and maturity. These technologies have the ability to transform manufacturing through tools such as robotics, advanced sensors, 3D printing, the Internet of Things, cloud computing and digital fabrication and simulation.   Supporting this, new business and marketing models will underpin the new technology and manage a more organic relationship with customers and their requirements; linking all these requirements to the real world via smart phones/tablets and laptops.

Looking at digitisation from a customer point of view, we can predict scenarios where they could order goods and services from their device and the request is sent directly to the factory, customised to their individual requirements.

This type of interaction between business and customer requires more flexible and adaptable machines and processes with a requirement for interaction between human, robotics and machine solutions.

All of these resources will require enhancement, training and more design onand how they interact with the outside world. For example, robots and machines could be capable of learning and optimising their performance to suit demand, intelligently monitor their own health, and request maintenance. Human skill would encompass a better understanding of analytics, electronics, coding and mechatronic skills. Soft skills such as people management, emotional intelligence and complex problem solving are also seen as key.

Cloud data can allow users to analyse their process and products and the condition of their machinery but, it can also build trends and analyse current performance and how to improve execution in the future.


The digital journey for chemicals

But, what does this mean for the UK chemicals sector as it embarks upon its own digital journey; what are the primary areas where its adoption can deliver real benefit and what are factors that will influence its success?

With operational efficiency a major factor for any chemical processing plant, the ability to support operational flexibility, drive plant availability and capture and intelligently utilise plant data, are pivotal when it comes to assessing the impact that digitisation can have on the sector.  

It touches many areas of operation, including, tackling the high energy use prevalent in the sector so energy consumption in the face of ever-rising energy costs can be measured, monitored and, ultimately, controlled.   Likewise, connecting and optimising control and automation at all levels of the plant, from raw material intake to process stages, as well as process visualisation and scheduling, can be positively influenced by the adoption of digital tools that will enhance efficiencies, provide business insight and enable operational assets to be maintained safely and securely.

The digital journey for the chemical sector will also have to be mindful of changing workforce dynamics and the new skills it will require.   As an older demographic of workers begins to retire, so the sector is looking to educational establishments to furnish it with new talent with the requisite processing and digital skills needed as the adoption of digitisation gathers pace.

The sSkills gGap is not the only potential barrier.   The sector is both conservative in nature and well known for the prevalence of older legacy plants, which as each year passes, become harder to maintain and optimise. But, it is against this background that the adoption of digital technologies must prevail if the chemicals sector is to make up lost ground on others that are forging ahead, such as aerospace and automotive.

On a positive note I believe the digital message is starting to gain traction.   Siemens is undertaking increasing levels of dialogue with a number of larger and medium-sized chemical businesses who want to partner with us, both to better understand the digital journey they need to take and begin to set a roadmap about how it can be achieved.   Discussions are even underway to explore how Siemens can also assist with investment finance alongside the technology deployment.   Interested visitors to our showpiece Congleton facility are seeing with their own eyes how digital technology has transformed the operating prowess of the site.

Visitors are becoming digital advocates. They are taking the knowledge they have gleaned through our discussions and observations and are now embarking on an education process with their respective boards so the implications, investment and future direction required for a digital journey is understood from the very top of chemical processing companies. Indeed, the recent creation of senior roles, such as hHead of dDigital, within organisations points to the first steps being taken, and the increasing speed with which the digitisation message is seeping through the industry.

Future technology provider partnerships will be paramount for digitisation to thrive and the wide- scale adoption of digital technologies to be successful. It will require a number of fields of expertise and we will see a number of key players working in partnership to drive maximum benefit.

The coming digital revolution is an exciting time for the chemicals industry. It is the foundation that will revolutionise how the chemical sector can plan asset and plant management more intelligently, link together disparate elements of plant processing operation to maximum effect, and support ambitions to gain a technology edge over the competition.

Article by Staff Writer

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