The chemical processing industry is facing pressure from several challenges that impact the bottom line. There is a demand for increased asset utilization and operational efficiency, quickly changing customer requirements and the need to implement a digital transformation strategy. All this is playing out at a time when the industry also struggles to find qualified workers.
One consequence of these challenges is that digital transformation is slow to gain a foothold in the chemical processing industry. The transition from paper to glass is running into challenges within the facilities where there is little time to slow down to implement new technologies. The chemical processing market is highly competitive and ever-changing to meet the needs of the consumer.
However, meeting market demand requires batch consistency and on-time production within budget, which adds extra pressure on a facility and its processes. Achieving consistent, or golden batch, results requires a system for identifying an ideal output and optimizing the manufacturing process to replicate the conditions that produced it. This is ideal, but working in a legacy control environment without accurate, real-time data means achieving the golden batch is not always a given.
Optimizing a batch
Setting up a batch in many facilities is often still a manual process, from measuring and adding the raw materials, to taking samples to ensuring a batch meets the desired results. At each step along the way, there is an opportunity for errors to occur because the system is not automated.
There are several metrics that can be applied to measure the effectiveness of batch production, including capacity utilization, meeting the production schedule, attaining product quality standards, etc. But ultimately what matters is, are the results the same every time? Aggregating data from a process control system into a batch performance analytics solution can track the manufacturing process and unlock insights to determine when golden batch standards are achieved and why problems occurred in a batch.
With no single view of performance across batches and data stuck in silos across the facility, it becomes difficult to make corrections to the process until it is too late.
Moving from paper to glass
The quality of the data suffers even more in situations where longtime workers retire and take their years of accumulated institutional knowledge with them. Often too much information on batching and process is held by one or a few individuals. When they leave, the information disappears too. Paper notes can get lost or damaged and a single spreadsheet can get corrupted in the system or accidentally deleted. If a spreadsheet does not get updated regularly with new raw ingredient information or formulation and operating parameter tweaks, it impacts the batch.
Implementing a digital infrastructure removes this problem because information will be available in near real time across the facility. It does require careful planning and design to select a technology partner that offers digital technologies and can help design an architecture that will remain relevant, secure and offers backwards compatibility when upgrades are available or needed.
With a secure digital infrastructure, data is collected at a central location and accessed remotely on easy-to-read dashboards on tablets and laptops. Important information is no longer siloed and inaccessible, which means production can be optimized and golden batch becomes the standard.
Data-driven insights are the key
Analyzing batch performance in near real time is a game changer. Getting insights into performance minimizes the need to wait for samples to be collected. Performance can be tweaked in real time as information on raw materials and equipment performance is available at the touch of a button, reducing the amount of off-spec product and the need for costly scrap and rework.
Benchmarking key performance indicators (KPI) against the golden batch provides valuable insight into the process. Analyzing the data from this comparison will show where process improvements can be made. (Figure 1)
Data is also key to understanding manufacturing costs and finding ways to reduce those. It is estimated that the cost of scrapping or reworking bad batches can run a company between $1 and $2 million annually. Reducing that will free up space in the budget to make further improvements that help a facility meet growing demand.
Closely tied to data insights is asset utilization.
A reliable and consistent view of asset performance during production, which includes raw materials as well as labor time and cost, and equipment, allows for better allocation of assets. Equipment can be optimized to meet golden batch standards. Similarly, technicians can have better insight into equipment performance and can potentially anticipate maintenance requirements thereby avoiding process upsets. Some tasks that were manual in the past can be automated when a facility moves to digital. In a time when up-and-coming workers are already comfortable operating in a digital world, it makes sense that they would take to automation and digital data collection.
Identifying and sharing best practices is possible when analyzing performance data across sites. This becomes another tool in optimizing performance across an enterprise.
Sharpening the competitive edge
Meeting the challenges head on and embracing the digital transformation can help give a company that needed edge over its competition. Training new workers who are already comfortable operating in a digitally connected environment allows them to come up to speed faster with less process slowdowns or unplanned downtime events.
Software that connects to the digital assets across the facility — or facilities — returns data that is useful in optimizing and streamlining operations and maintenance. In many ways, the software is the key component in the digitalization of a facility, working seamlessly and securely across the infrastructure.
For chemical processing companies to stay competitive and meet the demands of the market, embracing the new developments in digital technology make it possible to consistently achieve the golden batch, which means lower operating costs, increased throughput from shorter cycle times and a faster time to market as new formulations are developed.
Ramon Farach is the chemical industry technical consultant for Rockwell Automation. He is responsible for providing industry and technical insights to help understand and solve customer challenges, develop product and service messaging. Ramon has 20 years of chemical industry experience in process engineering, operations support, process design, installation and commissioning, R&D, process control and EH&S. He holds a degree in Chemical Engineering from Georgia Tech, and he is a certified ISA/IEC 61511 SIS Expert.
Robert Swim is an industry leader at Rockwell Automation assisting customers in the chemical industry. Over the past 18 years, he has been assisting our global customers expanding the awareness of the Rockwell Automation Process business using his more than 30 years of experience to help customers meet their operational goals across specifically in segment areas across the Chemical market.