Photo by Keith Larson
“The underlying infrastructure is essential to modernization.” Helen Dotson of Archer-Daniels-Midland during the Chemical Industry Forum at Automation Fair 2022.

The chemical industry’s path from modernization to digitalization

Nov. 17, 2022
Chemical manufacturers need to update aging technology while also meeting ESG goals

Modernization campaigns within chemical-industry companies can be met with some common criticisms. Too costly! Too time-consuming! Too complicated!

But when you reach a point where you’re shopping for replacement parts for your faltering industrial assets on eBay, as Helen Dotson explained she’s had to do, it’s pretty clear that modernizing your machines and processes is long overdue.

That anecdote elicited chuckles from the audience at this Automation Fair Chemical Industry Forum that gathered Dotson, director of global process automation and technology with Archer-Daniels-Midland, Kalypso Global Commercial Leader Lance Rodenfels, Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates President Jennifer Abril, Rockwell Automation Global Industry Technical Consultant Ramon Farach, and Gabriel Rivera, who is the migration automation leader with Corteva. Michael O’Sullivan took a break from hosting OGGN’s Oil & Gas Tech Podcast to serve as moderator for this session.

The larger focus of the forum was to discuss the urgency with which chemical manufacturers need to update aging technology while also meeting environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals and adopting new digital technologies to thwart cyber-threats. A tall order of topics; this panel was eager to engage.

“So how are we doing with modernization in these environments?” asked O’Sullivan. Farach replied that, while many in the chemical space are embracing programs to modernize and digitalize their operations, there are still those who don’t even want to consider artificial intelligence or advanced data analytics or any of this IIoT stuff. “They think it’s hocus pocus,” he said, blaming these laggards for the chemical industry trailing oil & gas and pharma in pursuing digital transformation. “And some of these systems in chemical factories are from the 1960s. There are elements of these plants that are not talking to each other. And since digitalization requires having access to data, we’ve got to start with modernizing these systems first. We’ve got to have a modern control system in place.”

A company can be very interested in evolving to Industry 4.0, Dotson added, but if they are trying to perform data analytics on systems that are 40 years old and don’t have the required horsepower, it ain’t gonna happen. “The underlying infrastructure is essential to modernization,” she concurred.

Heads on the dais nodded in agreement. Abril added that the chemical industry is booming, particularly in North America, and leaders are having a hard time accepting the idea of taking their plants (no matter how antiquated) offline for a few weeks to make modernization upgrades. “Lack of labor is also really hitting these decision-makers,” she added. “They just don’t have the bandwidth to consider these changes.”

But they should, the panelists agreed. At some point, dated control systems, dusty machines and running lean with just-in-time/just-in-case approaches will prove untenable for many in the chemical space. Dotson warned that modernization programs can take many years to develop. Digitalization campaigns don’t provide immediate returns. And current challenges will only worsen over time. “We’re now at the point with the workforce-shortage problem that we have to get more efficient,” stressed Farach. “We don’t have the people to run the plants. We need to automate.” 

With the motivations clearly established, the panelists explored solutions. Rivera advised creating teams of what he calls “bilingual” workers within chemical facilities, who can communicate with seasoned workers about existing processes but also spearhead adoption efforts with modern, digital tools and systems. Rodenfels added that highlighting the value components with these enterprise-wide updates is critical for buy-in. For example—connecting different digitalization efforts while improving, say, the cybersecurity or ESG postures. “If planned properly,” he said, “modernization can be a means to drive additional value. It can be profitable.”

The moderator inquired how to prove that profitability to doubtful purse-string holders. Panelists suggested using existing customer-success stories as proof or referencing consulting-firm studies that prove the benefits of digitalization—think increased throughput, reduced downtime, less maintenance. “Those stories are out there,” Farach insisted.

Abril dove deeper on this front, listing three hot-button areas that will prompt chemical-company CEOs to sit up, listen and truly consider modernization programs. The first is any safety concerns related to dated workplaces. The second is if quality is being compromised by current systems. And, lastly, batch integrity. “If batches are spoiled, that costs money. CEOs will be eager to find ways to get ahead of that.”

The good news? The biggest wins are among the most simple. Installing variable-speed drives on pumps, for example, or monitoring the electricity demands of each asset (rather than the entire facility) to pinpoint areas for optimization. “As you modernize, it’s like you can put some of your processes on autopilot,” explained Rodenfels. “Your operators are still there, but they can be doing other, more important things.”

Or they can be doing other, less important things, like browsing eBay for Christmas presents rather than industrial assets. 

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