Chemical Makers Taking Steps to Corral Big Data

Specialty Chemicals Experts Use Best Practices to Secure Opportunities

By Jim Montague

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Newly abundant shale gas and the continued economic recovery are just two of the many positive developments affecting the specialty chemical industry. However, engineers and their companies still need some serious know-how to fully take advantage of these opportunities with the right data, analysis and tools, and by employing them in the right settings and at just the right times.

Gordon Bordelon, principal consultant for chemical industry solutions at Rockwell Automation, outlined several chemical market trends and challenges for attendees of the Specialty Chemicals Industry Forum this week at Automation Fair, presented by Rockwell Automation in Houston. Among the forces defining the automation landscape for specialty chemicals manufacturers are dwindling veteran workforces, lack of standard data infrastructures or toolsets, aging production assets and limited resources to deal with increasing performance demands.

"Some of the other changes we're seeing have been the emergence of the ISA S88 batch standards and other common programming constructs; increased computing power and drops in collection costs per point; and new or rediscovered data-driven methodologies," said Bordelon.

Concept Design Is Critical First Step

"Fluor is one of the world's largest publicly traded engineering, procurement, maintenance and project management companies in the energy, chemical, global services, government and other fields, and we usually have about 1,000 projects going on at any one time with about 600 clients in 79 countries," said John McQuary, Fluor's vice president of workflow optimization, as he took the Specialty Chemicals Industry Forum podium.

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"I'm mainly responsible for work process optimization and redefining our operating model," McQuary continued, "which we've distilled into 24 primary requirements that all projects must meet. What we're seeing is larger and more complex projects at the billion-dollar level, which also have more aggressive schedules and involve more complex supply chains. As a result, there's not enough engineering expertise to complete them in any one place, so many of our offices are partnering with each other more often, and we're also working more closely with our competitors to get these projects done."

McQuary reported that Fluor's engineers usually begin with a concept design and then develop a detailed design before construction. "However, it's the concept design that can have the most affect on total project costs—usually up to 80% of our committed costs," explained McQuary. "This is why involving process automation at the concept design stage is such a great, low-hanging-fruit opportunity for aiding both total installed costs and lifecycle costs. Likewise, using created data assets early on in projects can help when specifying deliverables and formats. The essentials of process automation are critical to understanding all aspects of specialty chemical and other process applications, but automation planning needs analysis, goals and smart tools, too. "For example, we're also using 3D models after construction to color-code equipment and help create reports on operating assets."

"There's a lot of hype around big data, but there's also no denying that it can provide better views into operations by identifying patterns and helping to predict future performance," McQuary said. "We're also working on using embedded knowledge and synching it with augmented reality tools to give us a better perspective on what's going on in the real world to improve long-term plant performance."

Intelligence in Operation

Using the perspective of many companies and applications, Janice Abel, principal consultant in ARC Advisory Group's regulated industry division, reported that enterprise manufacturing intelligence (EMI) is high on companies' list of priorities as investment returns to specialty chemical and other process sectors.

A manufacturing execution system (MES) typically takes operating data and uses it to aid workflow and plan and further optimize performance, Abel explained. "One of the newest functions of EMI is to aggregate KPIs [key performance indicators] and other data, visualize them, conduct data analysis, create dashboards and distribute them to users for better decision-making," said Abel.

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