Downtime is the right time for digitalization

Nov. 10, 2021

One consolation of the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 was the economic slowdown, allowing manufacturers time to begin upgrading existing production systems and embark on their digital-transformation journeys. But coming out of the shutdown, a shortage of skilled workers and a crippled supply chain have hampered the ability to capitalize on those upgrades in many industries.

That conundrum is emphatically evident in the chemical industry, where decades-old systems are being replaced with intelligent systems and devices that now require cybersecurity attention in an area formerly rife with closed OT systems.

The future looks bright, but getting there is the challenge.

“The business outlook in the next five years is excellent,” proclaimed Jennifer Abril, president and CEO of the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates (SOCMA), who spoke on the Chemical Industry Forum panel at Automation Fair 2021 in Houston. “We’re very optimistic. Our customers are bullish, and there’s no shortage of orders. We have supply-chain concerns, so the problem is raw materials and being able to move our products. Many companies are waiting on their ‘raws’ to come in.”

While most SOCMA manufacturer members saw three neutral or increased-growth quarters in 2020, economic concerns regarding taxes, interest rates and federal policies weigh heavy on their minds. “Is there going to be enough recovery momentum to cover inflation?” asked Abril. “We’re in the same boat as everyone else with supply chains, but the biggest concern is with labor.”

On the labor side, George Young, global managing director at Kalypso, a Rockwell Automation company, is seeing investment in knowledge capture from subject-matter experts and system modeling. “We can build advanced models and use it to demonstrate how the plant will run before it breaks ground,” he said. “For labor, there’s a need for a different kind of operator and fewer lower-skilled laborers for autonomous operation. But you need more highly skilled labor. Sometimes you can turn those old operators into the new ones you need.”

Corteva, an agricultural chemical company, is planning for supply-chain interruptions and labor shortages. “We’ve implemented the remote connected worker,” explained Gabriel Rivera, process automation consultant at Corteva. “That is making the lives of operators safer and faster to ensure they’re doing the right thing.”

Customers want to do more with less, said Ramon Farach, global chemical industry technical consultant for Rockwell Automation, who sees automation as an opportunity to be more efficient. “It’s a workforce-shortage problem because there aren’t people out there to fill the jobs,” he explained. “Next-generation operators have a new skill set and new tasks.”

That changing manufacturing environment is evident in new facilities, as well as old ones. But where does that capital infusion for upgrades come from? “Greenfield plants for 2023 are already in the planning stage,” said Farach. “For brownfield operations, it’s never too early to start planning. OpEx money can be spent on an engineering study. All of that engineering at some point has to be done.”

Trey Hamblet, vice president, research, chemical processing and alternative fuels, Industrial Info Resources, agreed that capital investment is slow because of that shortage in people and supply. “We expect an uptick in spending over the next few years,” he predicted.

Kalypso, on the other hand, is seeing, even upstream of chemicals, the basic building blocks. “Industries that have been out of favor for 50 years are where, all of a sudden, they have money and are investing,” Young explained. “If you go upstream, they have real infrastructure problems because they haven’t had capital to spend.”

Those capital expenditures often are spent attempting to automate facilities and free previously siloed data to jumpstart a digital transformation. Yet many organizations aren’t sure what that even means.

“Our customers don’t believe that we’re already doing these things now,” said Young. “Supply-chain disruption and labor shortages will have to rely on automation and digital transformation. One of the powers of advanced analytics is to improve the production output. We identify the data sources; data scientists develop algorithms and models. We test the predictions. We optimize. The amount of money you have to spend on that isn’t much because you’re using people and mathematics.”

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Global greenfield construction will have these digital components as a requirement of their expenditures, asserted Hamblet. “The solutions will be built into the core,” he predicted. “In the United States and Canada, as capital spending came down sharply in 2020, the number of chemical projects went up. It was focused on in-plant capital spending—those projects that didn’t have an ROI a few years ago.”

No one in the C-suite understood how accessing data would affect the bottom line, and managers did not want to stop production running at full capacity just to make an upgrade that would allow access to data. But, as chief officers begin to see and understand the benefits, digital transformations are gaining momentum.

“A lot of companies have created positions or teams to do something digital,” said Farach. “Customers know they want to do it, but they don’t know how to get started. It’s about finding the specific use case, identifying the justification and implementing. Once the value has been demonstrated, then you can move onto another fit-for-purpose solution across your enterprise.”

Because many control systems in the chemical industry are disparate, they can’t extract the data, explained Farach. “You have to start by modernizing these old systems that are 20, 30 or even 50 years old,” he said. “The benefits of digitalization are worth it, and we’re mitigating the risks.” OT systems were air-gapped in the past. But, once plants started connecting them, it exposed the systems to cybersecurity risks. “The worry is over cyber intruders taking over plants and doing damage to equipment or other people,” said Farach.

The push toward autonomous operation has at least reduced the number of people at risk in those plants, whether they’re on-premise or remote, but those people still need to be inspired, recruited and trained.

“The training program is something we’ve had on the books for 25 years,” explained Abril. “We’ve modernized and put it online and made it interactive. We have animations of 45 pieces of equipment, so you can see fluid transfer. It quickens the pace on training and creates efficiencies. You don't’ have to do the job shadowing as long. As an industry, we’ve tried to make chemical engineering more attractive to young people.”

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