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For chemical makers, each digital journey is its own

Feb. 26, 2019
All digital transformations are different as such there is no turnkey solution but there is a sweet spot between the business needs and how tech can enable it.

“There is no turnkey solution. But there is a sweet spot between the business needs and how tech can enable it.” ABB’s Zied Oertani (left), Microsoft’s Dawn James, and Dow Chemical’s Luiz Melo discussed the challenges of digital transformation in the chemical industry at this week’s ABB Customer World event in Houston.

There’s a funny facet to digital transformations—they’re all different. Sure, the motivations to adopt elements of Industry 4.0 might be similar and the desired outcomes are often the same, but the path to get there is unique for each enterprise that recognizes the value in digitalization and decides to jump in.

That unique approach to each project—though often critical to success—is what makes digital-transformation journeys daunting. And it makes those who serve as guides on those journeys crucial to the process.

Three such guides gathered for a panel discussion at ABB Customer World 2019: Luiz Melo, senior process automation specialist, Dow Chemical; Dawn James, industry solutions manager-Americas, Microsoft; and, Dr. Zied Ouertani, global digital lead, chemicals. The trio shared their collective insights under the theme of “Enabling more informed business decisions through digitally integrated operations in chemicals.”

“We’ve come a long way with control systems and plant historians all the way to connected devices,” began panel moderator John Oyen, business development manager with ABB, who focused the discussion on interpreting data patterns for predicting rare events in chemical operations and learning how to support maintenance operations by detecting anomalies. In short: gaining an understanding of what the future digital plant could look like. “How are we dealing with all of this data,” he asked the experts beside him. “And how do you see this tech evolving?”

This panel has experience—40 years at Dow, 20 years at Microsoft, combined decades at ABB—long enough that all recalled (with zero wistfulness) the old days of paper data charts and manual analysis.

From data to decisions

“Today we collect data from every device at high speed,” beamed Melo, citing that 90% of all data in history has been collected in just the past two years. “This is an explosion and we are all looking for technology to help us turn this data into information, then get our operators and engineers to properly use it to make decisions.”

Decisions. Smart decisions, particularly, were at the heart of this discussion. From the business leaders making strategic decisions related to digitalization down to the guys on the plant floor working alongside the technology.

James stressed the importance of reverse-engineering digital strategies after first—very clearly—determining what problem the customer wants to solve. “Unless you know what you want out of an initiative, you’re going to waste a lot of time,” she explained, having herself slogged through many of these wastes of time. “There is no turnkey solution. But there is a sweet spot between the business needs and how tech can enable it.”

Likewise, workforces must make the decision to fully adopt these digital efforts for a transformation to succeed. The panelists agreed on the criticality of engaged workers to implement smart components. People driving—and activating—technology, rather than the other way around.

A question from the audience about worker acceptance of digital monitoring prompted a lively discussion about that hot topic. James explained that, particularly among younger workers, there is an acknowledgement of the benefits of being a “sensored worker” and a willingness to participate.

Don’t go it alone

That is just one shift among many in this digital era. Is it difficult to keep up with this rapid change? For sure, all agreed. And as ABB’s Ouertani noted, digitalization is a continuous, ongoing process in which value can be achieved at every step.

These representatives of ABB business partners—Microsoft, Dow—agreed with their ABB counterparts that professional partnerships and integrations with others’ applications are necessary to tackle the complexity inherent in digital initiatives. Third-party tools are often required; outsider perspective frequently provides fresh insights needed to solve problems.

Partnerships. Processes. Patience. These themes ran throughout the discussion.

Trying to digitalize an entire enterprise at once, all agreed, is usually too high a hurdle. Melo stressed the need to communicate to clients that their digital transformation will take time. These efforts are complex. They involve many players and moving parts. It is as much an adaptation, he explained, as a transformation or revolution.

And Ouertani reminded the Customer World audience of the unique nature of each digitalization project. He detailed a recent project in which his team aggregated more than 1,000 recent digital-transformation case studies to determine which were candidates for, potentially, scaling out for wider application in new verticals with different businesses. In short—which of these thousand bespoke projects could be repurposed.

At the end of the exploratory project, just 20 were deemed suited for such re-use.