Digital transformation: Realize operational benefits while minimizing risks

Dec. 17, 2020
Considerations for creating successful, sustainable and secure digital initiatives in chemical plants.

Prior to COVID-19, many chemical processors were in the early stages of planning digital initiatives to address challenges such as aging assets, regulatory requirements and increased data and traceability requirements from customers.

These challenges have only become exacerbated with the arrival of the pandemic and the resulting economic slowdown. Now, chemical processors are feeling even greater pressure to use digital technologies to squeeze more out of their assets, improve worker productivity and maintain safety and compliance, all while protecting critical plant personnel.

But while chemical processors are eager to create digital initiatives that address their biggest business needs, many are unsure of where to start or what’s needed to make sure their investments can be replicated and scaled across their plants with minimal risk. For some valuable lessons, they should look to those that have already started their digital journeys for insights.

Glimpses of what’s possible

Several chemical processors have led the way in recent years to show how digital initiatives can improve the chemical industry’s performance in key areas like fixed-asset utilization, reduction in cost of goods sold (COGS) and environment, health and safety (EH&S) performance. 

One colorant producer used manufacturing intelligence at its decades-old plant to help meet growing product demand as well as new customer demand for quality data. The plant had been manually managing quality and process data, which made it difficult to track production performance and troubleshoot issues. Now, with real-time data and insights, production issues that once took days or weeks to detect and resolve can be addressed in hours or minutes. This functionality helped drive fixed-asset utilization in production and provided the producer the ability to give their customers quality tailored reports.

In another instance, a powder coatings maker used an advanced energy-monitoring solution to get a clearer picture of its energy usage and identify savings opportunities. Since implementing the solution, the company estimates it has cut energy costs by more than $18,000 per month.

And an ammonia producer used smart motor control centers (MCCs) to reduce safety risks. Workers can now monitor and adjust the critical electrical assets from a remote human-machine interface (HMI), rather than needing to physically be at the MCCs. This not only gives workers convenient access to device information to drive better asset utilization, but it also reduces their risk of exposure to potential electrical hazards.

As these examples show, digital initiatives can be tailored to each chemical processor’s business needs. That means each processor’s digital journey will be unique to them. However, there are some elements that should be a part of any processor’s planning or implementation activities to help make sure their digital initiative is successful, scalable and secure. These elements include:

A foundation for digital: Reduced demand resulting from COVID-19 has forced many chemical processors to re-evaluate or freeze their cap-ex investments. But that does not mean their digital initiatives need to come to a stop. If anything, a slowdown, or an earlier-than-planned turnaround, is an ideal time for processors to plan and make sure they have a robust IIoT-enabled infrastructure in place that can accommodate their digital initiatives.

For example, many chemical plants have long used a like-for-like approach when replacing aging and obsolete production assets. But now they need to make sure any future investments support the connectivity and information needs of their digital initiatives. That’s why they should be evaluating and updating their automation assets, networking and instrumentation design standards with these needs in mind.

They also should consider performing a network assessment to identify changes they will need to make to their network to integrate production assets and correlate data across them. Ultimately, processors will need a converged IT/OT network infrastructure that provides seamless, scalable and secure connectivity across their organization.

Defined business cases: A business case that defines the value of new digital technologies is crucial to helping justify investments in those technologies.

Some chemical processors that have been unsure of where their greatest opportunities exist have found assessments to be invaluable. This can start with something as simple as having an outside expert visit a plant to interview operations, quality, supply chain, maintenance, reliability and safety teams to identify their top challenges.

Once the business needs are identified, a more detailed assessment can look deeper into areas like data workflows, system interfaces, data sources, data consumer personas, homegrown solutions and IT/OT networks. The goal is to identify what changes are needed to achieve a desired improvement in business performance. As part of this process, detailed analysis is essential to understanding if the desired improvement is in fact feasible.

Good governance: Digital initiatives need leaders who can not only manage the overall implementation but also ensure its success by building influence in their organization, gaining sponsorship from executives and driving the adoption of new technologies. Oftentimes, culture and acceptance of the status quo are the biggest impediments to success.

For example, building consensus around the value of new technologies is critical. Digital initiatives can fizzle out if plant operators or other teams do not agree on their value. Additionally, the use of custom, homegrown digital solutions can often hinder the adoption of digital technology. Often, our clients struggle with developing and maintaining enterprise software solutions, which can result in hidden risks and higher costs.

Change management is also vital. Digital technology is poised to transform how chemical plants operate at a time when processors are struggling to protect, retain and attract skilled workers. Leadership is needed to redefine workflows, identify new skills needed and hire and train workers. For example, with a proper digital strategy, operations training can be enhanced with digital job aids, AR/VR experiences and videos served up on mobile devices. Here, the training program, certification and apprenticeship program durations can be reduced.

A data strategy: A recent Rockwell Automation survey found that six in 10 business leaders in the chemical industry said the ability to aggregate data across multiple systems is a challenge affecting their digital initiatives. Data access and availability was also a challenge for nearly half of respondents.

Many specialty-batch chemical processors, for example, still collect and manage batch data manually. They first need to identify what data they want to collect and how. Next, they need to contextualize the data and aggregate it into actionable insights. Here, enabling technologies like real-time analytics and dashboards can help quickly identify problems like quality, cycle-time variation and raw material usage deviations. More advanced solutions, like predictive analytics, can also help detect and alert operations before potential issues can impact production.

Meanwhile, many continuous high-volume processors have been using advanced control and optimization (AC&O) and point-solution analytics for years. As a result, their priority should be deploying scalable solutions like an IoT platform that can integrate their MES, asset performance management, ERP, finance and maintenance systems to create a holistic data model that can help improve decision-making across their business.

Lighthouse assets: Starting a digital initiative with a test or “lighthouse” asset can give chemical processors key learnings before they roll out a digital initiative across their installed base. They can learn, for example, if their digital initiative delivers the estimated value. And they can identify what elements of the initiative can be standardized and quickly replicated across other plants or regions.

Another key finding can be that a digital initiative simply does not work or does not deliver the expected value. It can be a difficult discovery but accepting failure in a single asset can help processors cut their losses and instead move on to the next improvement opportunity.

Scalable implementations: Early technology decisions can help make digital initiatives more easily scalable. For example, one chemical processor that developed its own MES in-house found that the system could not be expanded or updated after the person who developed it left the company. Commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions are developed for scalability and supported by a global service team can help processors avoid this problem.

Continuous benchmarking is also important to help chemical processors understand the value of their initiatives as they are scaled out. Processors should measure the performance of each asset before and after an initiative is implemented.

Comprehensive cybersecurity: As the demands for data-driven operations increase, there are more entry points for potential cyber-threats. The cyber-world can no longer be viewed separate from the physical world, forcing processors to include cyber-risks into their periodic risk assessments. Chemical processors need to secure their operations to protect what matters most to them and to make sure they adhere to regulations like CFATS.

Every chemical processor should be using basic cybersecurity hygiene. As defined in the NIST cybersecurity framework, this involves identifying an organization’s attack surface, using security measures to protect against risks, vigilantly monitoring for and detecting threats, and having response and recovery plans in place for potential incidents. 

Processors should also confirm that their partners and vendors support their overall cybersecurity. For example, they should make sure their automation vendors are striving for compliance with ISA/IEC 62443, the world’s only consensus-based cybersecurity standard for industrial control applications.

New possibilities

There’s nearly no limit to how digital technologies can help chemical processors get more from their aging assets and limited workforces.

Solutions like analytics can help workers better monitor operations and make more proactive decisions to get ahead of problems, such as if a mixer is headed toward failure or a batch is trending off-spec. And digital twins can help technicians more quickly repair assets through digital work instructions and guided maintenance.

For those just beginning their digital journeys, using the lessons learned from other digital transformations can help them realize this new era of possibilities with fewer missteps or missed opportunities.

Gordon Bordelon is the chemical industry manager for North America at Rockwell Automation. He is an experienced chemical business development and technical consultant in both continuous and batch chemical manufacturing. Bordelon has worked as an end user and as a solutions provider in petrochemical, life sciences and specialty chemical industries utilizing a wide array of control technologies and process improvement methodologies. He is based in South Carolina.  

David Stonehouse leads Rockwell Automation’s global consulting services team. In this role, he works with companies to understand the potential value of digitization and analytics across their manufacturing network, ensures that it is aligned with the firm’s strategy, and that a sustainable path forward is developed. Stonehouse has over 25 years of experience as an operations leader and management consultant. His operations experience includes plant manager, general manager, multisite management and global supply chain leadership.

Rockwell Automation

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