Ours is an increasingly connected world, so we are told. And that at least is the direction in which technology and the laws of supply and demand have continued to push the process industries this century.
Human beings, however, often have other ideas about the direction they wish to travel. Politically, the momentum in Britain, Europe, the USA and much of the world has been the opposite way, with increased resistance to globalisation and connectivity.
For the UK chemicals sector this has been less welcome than most, faced as it is with the diminution of its largest market via the onset of Brexit.
Chemical Watch’s briefing paper this year, Post-Brexit options for UK chemicals law, included a comprehensive survey of respondents from the UK, other EU member states (EU 27) and the rest of the world (RoW). Among the British contingent the most feared impacts were depressingly familiar: inability to plan, concern for feedstock supplies and upstream supply chain disruption.
Turn to Europe and the challenge for our domestic importers and exporters is apparent. Nearly half of European respondents expect imports from the UK to become less important, while the RoW has little expectation of a consequent increase in UK exports and imports.
When you build a plant, you build it within the constraints of that time and the key thing about chemical processes is that they evolve over time and a lot of the measurements involved are based on physical limitations
Patrick Deruytter, VP Northern Region Europe, Emerson
Unsurprisingly, European firms have less fear about disruptions to their planning process arising from Brexit. Rather, the overwhelming concern (for 82%) is the potential for increased administrative and customs complexity when trading with the UK. Add to this European worries that labour rules will make it more difficult to hire suitable talent for those sites they operate in this country.
For the one in three UK firms currently seeking new markets in Asia, North American and the Antipodes, it has to matter that RoW respondents have similar concerns around the possible need to re-register chemicals in the UK.
The fear of goods trapped in a mire of bureaucracy and expiring on French, British and other quaysides was enhanced by the recent Commons public accounts committee report.
Its members openly questioned the ability of the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) to update its IT systems for regulating and registering chemical substances, post-withdrawal. Predictably, Whitehall talk of a ‘manual workaround’ option has been less than reassuring.
But as Patrick Deruytter [pictured], VP Northern Region Europe for Emerson Automation Solutions, reminds us, Brexit is part of a wider global political change that is itself just one of the factors impacting on the chemical and other process industries.
Speaking to Process Engineering shortly before his keynote address to the ACHEMA 2018 conference, Deruytter encapsulated those challenges in terms of three ‘dimensions’: international political instability, feedstock concerns allied with oil prices, and IIoT/Industry 4.0.
These factors shape the wider environment in which the chemical industry operates and at best it can only respond to rather than determine their course.
Closer to home, though, the opportunity to shape events and influence efficiency is tangible, he says.
“These three main dimensions are important but what if you peel the onion and ask what’s the status of our plants?” he queries.
“If you look at Europe, it’s full of brownfield plants and they’re not really operating at an optimum level.
“The fact that an installation is 10 years old does have an impact… Maintenance today is pretty much a matter of performing routine tasks and chasing breakdowns.”
For all connected services, we are going to see that trend accelerating. That means a need for diagnostic devices, extended access to huge databases… which will require deeper knowledge, more investment
The decades-long lifecycle of industrial plants coupled with the pace of technological change and economic demand means of course that obsolescence is an ever-present threat.
“When you build a plant, you build it within the constraints of that time and the key thing about chemical processes is that they evolve over time and a lot of the measurements involved are based on physical limitations.”
Emerson’s own much-quoted estimate is that, currently, $1 trillion is lost to industry every year through suboptimal performance. Stemming this flow, argues Deruytter, requires attention to the four safeguards for operational certainty: improved reliability, minimised emissions, optimised production and ensured safety.
The key to achieving this, though it hardly needs repeating, is digitalisation: smart products, sensing technologies, connected systems allied to data storage and top quality analytics.
And while the hallmark of advances in consumer technology has been disposability, the aim in process industries including the chemicals sector remains extending the full life cycle management of assets and plant.
“Digital is rethinking that. It’s a different thing from a lot of the other stuff; today if a television doesn’t work, you replace it. It isn’t like that in the process industries where it has to work for 40 to 60 years.”
Global management consultants McKinsey & Company calculates the potential economic value to be gained by the data derived from IoT connected devices will top $11 trillion by 2025.
Addressing the achievable goal of digitalisation will balance the negative effect of those global factors over which industry can only exert peripheral influence.
Thinking big picture
Three aspects will be key where the chemicals sector is concerned, says Deruytter: the growth of focused workplace apps; connected services permitting remote collaboration and diagnostics services; and digital twinning to reduce infrastructure and cost as well as providing expert training from offsite.
And thus the gradual ascendancy of predictive, system-wide maintenance that limits the duration and scope of downtime, over retrospective responses.
‘Big picture’ change tends in most people’s minds to be tied to a similarly substantial price tag. Though the majority of chemical process business accept the benefits and the necessity for embracing an IIoT/Industry 4.0 approach, the presence of so many small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the supply chain suggests implementation will be irregular.
“Good process optimisation starts with a good vision. The beauty of the solutions we have is they are really scaleable,” advises Deruytter.
“So don’t think to try to blanket the whole plant – look to your most critical bottlenecks first and start with your most critical equipment.”
For all the recent focus on millennial recruitment, the increased presence of older workers in the sector might influence those priorities. For example, ‘seniors’ take on average longer to recover from workplace injury, so creating greater safety and downtime issues. Wearable sensor technology allows for faster response rates and provides data collection for predictive actions.
For the SME client, the trend among the big digital pioneers such as Emerson, ABB and Honeywell towards one-stop shop provision and tailored services could prove a godsend.
Maybe less so for a competing independent supplier. For Deruytter, the evolution of the car industry offers an indication of how the process sector will develop.
“Twenty years ago there were many more independent dealers and garages, the job today has changed significantly – you bring in your car, they bring out a large diagnostic device and they plug it in.
“I think that, for all connected services, we are going to see that trend accelerating. That means a need for diagnostic devices, extended access to huge databases… which will require deeper knowledge, more investment. So therefore the independent player in that area will have very specific challenges or has to look for different leverages. I don’t have a crystal ball but if you look for the similarities with the car industry, I think they are there.”
Bringing it on
A look at some of the disruptors and innovators making an impact in the chemical process world…
ABB Ability System 800xA: Billed as “the world’s first commercial modularenabled process automation solution” for its launch at ACHEMA. Combines an orchestration and a module layer integrated with module type package (MTP) technology. The 800xA’s mooted flexibility is a response to the demand for shorter product campaigns and smaller volume product, targeted to fine chemical factories as well as pharma, food and drink, plus biotech. “With System 800xA we already have solutions for world-scale production and now we have enabled our technology to interface with smaller, independent modules. This provides the building block approach which defines modular automation,” says ABB’s Gero Lustig, global business manager life sciences. “Our solution offers the industry a new, one-stop shop approach which will encourage customers to think differently about how they build their process lines.”
US specialist Arkieva’s supply chain software suite: Recently installed by AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals, this harmonised the company’s sales and operations planning processes, merging demand, inventory, supply, financial planning and S&OP reporting across five business units and alerts for potential supply chain disruptions.
Cascade laser analysers: A case of ‘so good, they bought the company’ for Emerson. The Stirling-based firm’s detection technology revolutionised leak detection from a manual to a 4.0 operation. Originally used for aerosol leak detection, now repurposed for food and drink.
VIPSealChem: These chemical resistant couplings [pictured] simplify pipe joining with FKM rubber resistant to a wider chemical range. They also boast higher temperature resistance than traditional EPDM rubber, says commercial director Jon Crean: “Other chemical resistant couplings require the installer to stick expanded PTFE seals around each pipe before fitting the coupling, then heat-shrink an FEP liner around the pipe. VIPSealChem does away with processes, which are time-consuming and can be difficult.”
ChargePoint Technology’s VERIFI: Measures health of transfer devices that ensure the integrity of chemical and pharmaceutical product handling. Connected to a valve unit, it records data in real time, providing alerts and visual feedback to operators.
Process Plant Computing: Uses multi-dimensional geometry to integrate 100 variables across thousands of time points, to evaluate alarm limits and performance before installation by identifying underlying process issues.