Chemical sector manufacturers and suppliers itching for an end to lockdown restrictions will be encouraged by recent projections from global analysts Deloitte. Predictions in the firm’s 2022 Chemical Industry Outlook report foresee a growth in volumes in the largest – US – market of 3% this year, with annual shipments increasing for the second year by 8% to offset 2020’s 13.5% decline.
If the UK industry has no hope of matching volumes, it can perhaps expect to ride the slipstream of growing worldwide demand. The gains, however, are unlikely to be distributed evenly, suggests the Deloitte report: “Due to the convergence of accelerating improvements, such as advances in sensors, cognitive computing, and analytics, significant progress can be expected in three areas in 2022: data availability, data processing, and engineering and materials research.”
Another area that might be expected to present greater challenges is the push towards decarbonisation. As the report notes, carbon emissions are difficult to tackle in a sector that is so dependent upon the use of process heat.
Yet, says Deloitte, decarbonisation of chemical production would be far reaching and travel beyond the industry itself “since chemistry provides the building blocks for many value chains”.
It’s an attitude that resonates with one new business and higher education collaboration. Liverpool University, Unilever and Oxford’s £8.8 million EPSRC Prosperity Partnership is aiming to reduce the carbon footprint of products such as shampoo and laundry detergent through improved chemical production.
Data is recorded but scattered in silos, which means it’s difficult to access and pass freely between systems, preventing the possibility of better, collaborative working
Keith Tilley, CEO, Intoware Source
The goal is nothing if not ambitious: transforming the global chemical supply chain to help the UK realise its net zero target. It also taps into those other elements for growth cited by Deloitte.
Liverpool’s £81 million Materials Innovation Factory (established with Unilever aid) is exploring automated, data-driven routes for materials to deliver the next-generation catalysts and polymers.
As Unilever chief R&D officer Richard Slater states: “To achieve the UK’s net zero goal by 2050 we need a transformation of the global chemical supply chain. This partnership is an important milestone towards this, driving forward important research on new renewable and biodegradable materials for everyday products, such as laundry detergents.”
Interest in harnessing biotechnology to increase the use of renewable materials in manufacturing has seen growing interest in the market for producing so-called ‘platform’ chemicals such as ethylene.
Vital for numerous polymers as well as fine and specialty chemicals, the vast majority of platform chemicals derive currently from feedstocks that come from fossil fuels.
However, Sulzer Chemtech head of marketing and communications Dorota Zoldosova has suggested that the global market for bio-based platform chemicals is tipped to grow substantially over the next few years at an estimated compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of around 11%.
To create value from bio-based platform chemicals, materials need to have high purity to be properly transformed into end products. This, she points out, will depend upon ensuring manufacturers have access to sufficient volumes of economically-produced materials.
“The main enabler to address these challenges is the separation process knowhow and product purification equipment used,” explains Zoldosova.
“The variability of bio-based feeds demands bespoke, flexible systems. These should also be able to effectively operate at low temperatures in order to avoid the thermal degradation of key products, as well as minimising energy usage and operational expenses.”
For companies such as Sulzer, this necessary expertise has provided a rewarding seam of commercial activity, including in China where it helped enable the country to develop one of the first fully integrated sugar-to-PLA (polylactic acid) plants producing sustainable bioplastics.
Sugar-rich crops produce lactic acid and raw lactide, which are purified and polymerised. Compostability and biodegradability prevent the accumulation of waste in the environment, thus addressing plastic pollution issues.
Completing the project in less than two years, Sulzer has enabled the manufacturer to produce 30,000 tonnes of bioplastic annually.
Adds Zoldosova: “Demand for innovative sustainable bioplastics, such as PLA, has skyrocketed in recent years with the global market size expected to register a double-digit CAGR of 16% from 2020 to 2027.
“The expansion of this sector is also shaping manufacturing activities in China, responsible for 31% of the global production of plastic materials.”
Chemical manufacturing innovation therefore has the potential to realise commercial and environmental gains simultaneously.
Much, though, will depend on tapping into the potential for advanced data analytics and digital technologies to transform the industry, advises Deloitte.
While this has been embraced in many instances, too many chemical businesses adopted such initiatives in silos, it says; a point endorsed by Keith Tilley, CEO of automation workflow specialist Intoware [pictured].
“Typically, data is recorded but scattered in silos, which means it’s difficult to access and pass freely between systems, preventing the possibility of better, collaborative working,” he comments. “This means that if a change in material specification is needed, then it is difficult to implement, preventing the plant from being fully optimised.”
Manufacturers understand the gains to be made in terms of production targets, cost reduction and quality improvement, not to mention complying with rigorous safety regulations, says Tilley.
So they want to take advantage of the digital data that is needed to enable them to quickly and easily take corrective action, avoid any downtime and streamline operations.
Their problem is they cannot easily turn their operations off. Also, says Tilley: “Process manufacturing still lags behind, as many rely instead on out of date production processes based on old, or no longer fully understood knowledge.”
Intoware’s platform WorkfloPlus to help digitise production processes offers a way round one manufacturing bane: over-reliance on spreadsheets or even paper which fails to offer the granularity provided by digitalised operations.
Bayer has been among the system’s adopters, via HMT-1 headsets provided by Intoware partner Realwear. This has helped streamline production, asserts Tilley: Bayer’s manufacturing processes require regular cleaning and change overs between each batch. Adoption has minimised downtime but also provides added value with an audit check that a manual ticklist cannot equal for speed and accuracy.
Intuitive technology is also helping chemical manufacturers overcome another obstacle to market adoption: the fear that more complex tech will require greater skillsets than a company can safely accommodate.
Knowing that they’ve chosen the best possible measurement solution, and that they’ll reach their goal faster with it, makes a big difference in their everyday operations
Florian Burgert, project manager, VEGA
VEGA’s VEGAPULS 6X radar level sensor addresses one such bugbear, namely the often fraught process of finding the right product version for specific applications.
Designed to be widely adaptable for bulk solids and liquids, the sensor is intended to enable configuration and pre-calibration of the sensor for liquids or bulk solids, by entering one’s process and mechanical information. Thereby fitting the needs of the customer rather than vice versa, claims product manager Florian Burgert.
“Ultimately, it’s not the sensor that counts, but what the users can achieve with it in their individual processes,” he states.
“Knowing that they’ve chosen the best possible measurement solution, and that they’ll reach their goal faster with it, makes a big difference in their everyday operations.”
Yet breaking the chemical sector’s silo approach relies as much upon the human element, caution the Deloitte report authors, with companies “increasingly realising that digital transformation is about implementing more and better technologies and involves aligning culture, people, structure, and tasks”.
The need for more human engagement is no longer only driven by directly commercial concerns for efficiency and combating downtime. Industrial processes are among the many elements of everyday life that are increasingly being weaponised by hostile state actors.
And there is much ground to cover: Chemtrec, the global dangerous goods response service provider, surveyed chemical industry respondents in a variety of countries including the UK, and found nearly 30% consider their organisations insufficiently prepared for emergencies and crises.
Chemtrec chief executive Bruce Samuelsen commented: “The survey has shown us that businesses across the world are putting crisis management and emergency preparedness plans in place, but many are not doing enough to ensure they’re enforced, stress tested or kept up to date.
“This is not necessarily down to negligence, however, as all companies who responded to the survey indicated a desire to improve their capabilities. What is clear from the survey is that there is a lack of specialist knowledge in the field.”
Whether the concern is safety, compliance or adoption of 4.0 technology and processes, the overriding factor for enabling the chemical process sector’s success in all fields is not one of endorsing change but being sufficiently committed and organised to ensure a holistic rather than a silo approach.