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A shift in focus: Create a virtuous cycle to advance sustainability

June 24, 2022
A Control Amplified podcast with Chris Hamlin, Capability Development Lead, Seeq

Despite a deluge of pledges from companies to reduce their environmental impact, the evolving sustainability space and growing regulatory investor and social pressures have left many organizations questioning where to begin. In this episode, Chris Hamlin, Seeq Corp.'s capability development lead, shares his seasoned perspective on the issue.

Transcript

Keith Larson: Despite a deluge of pledges from companies to reduce their environmental impact, the evolving sustainability space and growing regulatory investor and social pressures have left many organizations questioning where to begin. Fortunately, my guest today has some seasoned perspective to offer on this very important issue.

Hello, my name is Keith Larson, editor of Control magazine and ControlGlobal.com. And welcome to the Solution Spotlight episode of our Control Amplified podcast sponsored today by Seeq. Joining me today is Chris Hamlin, Seeq's capability development lead. He has decades of experience in helping process manufacturers optimize their operations and believes that to truly achieve progress towards sustainability goals, they must really shift their focus from simple efficiency measures to metrics that better reflect environmental benefit.

Welcome, Chris, a real pleasure to talk to you today.

Chris Hamlin: Hey Keith, it's really good to be with you as well. The pleasure I think is all mine, especially giving me the opportunity to talk about a subject that's so important and so dear to my heart.

Larson: Absolutely. Well, I certainly agree with you on both those counts, I was studying solar energy back in the 80s, when oil was eight bucks a barrel and nobody really cared about I was doing, but hopefully we can we can advance the cause further here today. It's great.

Maybe to start things off, I would say that we in the process industries have long focused on making operations safe and efficient, typically, with an eye to profitability, obviously, for organizations. In most cases, there seems to be already a strong correlation between sustainability and efficiency overall. Why is there a shift in perspective needed?

Hamlin: That's a really pertinent question, Keith. And I think it kind of comes down to I think, all of us that have worked as operating engineers on production plants, throughout our careers have been doing things that have been focused around efficiency and cost reduction. And we've always known that, actually, an efficient plant is also a plant that's running in as environmentally responsible a way as possible.

So, the question about, well, why do we need to change is really put is, is a really good one. And I think, to get underneath that, or to understand that we need to start looking at first of all, look at the language we use. At a business level, we talk about sustainability and profit and profitability as being something that we have to find the right balance. The very language reuse about balance says that we think of it as a trade off. But my experience as a production engineer is that isn't a trade off. It's actually the same thing. The question is, so why is that come about? And I think it's fundamentally come about because sustainability in general, and environmental performance, specifically in the sustainability space, is reported retrospectively, because it's driven by regulation around carbon taxation, or emissions trading schemes are whatever. So, we only really collect the data after the event. And when we go into that after-the-event world, it becomes punitive. Right? We're collecting data to avoid a levy or to reduce tax or to demonstrate compliance. If we can shift that measurement into runtime, the world that we've all kind of grown up in, all of a sudden sustainability and environmental responsibility and efficiency and cost reduction, become most of the time the same thing. So, why haven't we been successful there?

And I think, actually, it was a challenge that somebody issued to me a few years ago was saying, Well, Chris, you say, you've done all this stuff, you've worked around this space? How much co2 have you actually saved? And the truth is, I don't know. I've spent decades tuning and improving combustion controls and big fired heaters, and those sorts of that sort of equipment. I know I've made a difference, but I've never taken the time to quantify the impact that I've had. And I think that there lies the kernel of why we see this challenge that we need to address.

Larson: So, it's often not that not often doing different things. It's just looking at it through a different lens. Is that accurate?

Hamlin: I think that's yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And being explicit, you know, as anybody who's grown up in control engineering, you have the old adage, if you can't measure it, you can't control it. Well, are we actually measuring the impact? We have to be able to realistically claim it? And that would be the first question I would ask.

Larson: So, how can companies start bringing these different metrics in line with one another, you've got the runtime temperatures and pressures and things like that, but then the emissions that you report on a quarterly basis or maybe monthly, how do you how do you start bridging that gap between the two?

Hamlin: Well, I think for me, the one biggest mistake I see people doing when In trying to move in this direction is to try and do everything all at once to try and design some grandiose reporting and measurement system, that you can then go away and build and engineer as though you're trying to build a new ethylene plant. Right? Don't think of it that way. Right? I think what I advocate and see being successful is start with what's already being reported. You know, as a company, your company, your organization, is reporting, making these retrospective reports, many times to many agencies today.

So, start with what's being reported today, retrospectively, and look to see what you can do to automate that reporting. So, rather than trying to calculate co2 emissions based on fuel purchases, can you go back to the plant and look at fuel rate into a heater? Can you actually automate that calculation, such that you get an efficiency saving in terms of the reporting you're currently doing, but you've got a accuracy and timeliness benefit that you can get as well?

Larson: That makes sense. So really, it's gaining a better understanding in runtime, I guess, of sustainability performance. Once you've got that, how do you start making progress towards those net zero pledges and really moving the needle in that direction?

Hamlin: Yeah, I mean, I think that's right, yeah, as you say, it's about taking that stuff that you doing retrospectively and bringing it into runtime where you can, right, getting the timeliness, accuracy and efficiency savings. Actually, the other thing that I should have mentioned is also when you make a change at a facility, build the calculation around the environmental impact. Let's build it. I certainly never did that as a practicing engineer on operating plants. But I wish I had, because I would then have been able to answer the question about how much co2 did we save this week? Right.

But then your question about Yeah, okay. Once you've got that, once you've got that runtime visibility, what do you do with it in terms of starting to make a real difference? And I think there are three things you can do. The first one is, once you've got that sort of capability deployed reasonably widely, you can look at best practice and benchmarking. So can you identify best practices? And you may be surprised where some of those occur. And can you make sure that you're benchmarking performance, generally, across all of your facilities, so that you can make sure that everything's running as well as it can do.

The other thing that we also need to be getting into is deviation detection. But more importantly, it's not really understanding that you're having an excursion is then building in the work processes to mitigate it. So, if you see an unusual stack oxygen level, you've got something somewhere that helps the operators at that facility to respond to it in real time and to mitigate the impact. And then the third thing is, as we become more comfortable and fluent with these environmental performance indicators, is start building them into our everyday activity and other business systems. So, it's about integration with the way we run our business exactly the same way as we've integrated safety and maintenance and operations and all those things. Let's bring sustainability and environmental performance into that mix.

Larson: So, it becomes almost a, an optimization parameter that sits above the general, you know, temperatures and pressures and things like that, that we're normally monitoring in runtime. So, it becomes more of an optimization question, or that defines part of the operating windows or wherever you want to be in the plant.

Hamlin: Yeah, absolutely. That and it's yeah, you're right. It sits above the temperatures and pressures, but it doesn't sit above all of the other optimization criteria that you'll that you'll need. It's one of the optimization criteria that's factored into the way you run the facility as a whole. Yeah.

Larson: Makes sense.

So, what sorts of benefits will you anticipate will eventually accrue to organizations that can really report on sustainability, their operations in more of a more of a runtime fashion, but what difference can that make in terms of enterprise performance and other other benefits?

Hamlin: Well, it means the very first one is the confidence that comes from having real knowledge and understanding. I do a lot of work with a lot of very big companies. And you know, quite often I'm looking at sustainability reports or the sustainability metrics in their annual reports. It's amazing how many of them you can almost feel the nervousness in the numbers that they report because they've got five or six, like super script, you know, note one, note two, note three, and they all come back to subject validation, subject to verification, subject to, right. So, the first benefit is just having the confidence in the numbers that you're reporting. Now, as an operations engineer, engineer on a site, that might not make a big difference, but to your vice president of operations, or your CEO, that's going to make an enormous difference to the confidence that they have to talk about all the great work that's already being done. But I think the real benefit comes from, and actually, it's really critically important, is that we get an economic return for doing the right thing from a sustainability and environmental point of view. So ultimately, where I see this whole thing ending up is that we start seeing premium pricing for environmentally responsibly produced materials. And that can be anything it can be a hydrocarbon based, it can be whatever it might be. To a certain extent, it's, you know, this premium pricing based on environmental performance is, if you like the new quality, right, it's the thing that enables us to get an advantage in the market. And that's where things get really exciting because it starts generating a profit or a genuine return for us for doing what we know is right.

Larson: And it really has bigger supply chain implications as well. And when you start going into the, the scope three types of missions, it can have real, real differentiations beyond maybe just to premium pricing, but just having your products accepted. And you have to have those numbers in order to even sell the products. Does that make sense? Is that where we're headed?

Hamlin: Absolutely. I think you're ultimately this is a prosper or die type proposition, right?

Larson: Yeah.

Hamlin: The companies and organizations that embrace this are going to do really well from it, because you will get really significant price and margin increases it'll be great for business. But for those organizations that don't, almost the more organizations that do, the harder it is going to be to operate in the market that expects that sort of reporting capability. So yeah, I don't think we're there now, and I don't think we'll be there for probably several years, but that ultimately is where this thing ends up. And I think you see how it's always it's always surprised me. But it's a pattern I've seen many times over the decades I've been working in this industry that we're doing the hard bit first. And in this context, what I mean is, when we think about consumer goods, consumer goods, there's a huge amount of effort already going into environmental performance reporting and measuring, very significant margins already been made for environmentally responsible production. And they all use this lifecycle analysis methodology and becoming more and more sophisticated. But when you talk to people in those downstream consumer markets or manufacturing consumer manufacturing industries, they get hugely frustrated by the process industries, because they goes so far up their supply chain, and then suddenly, there's no information. Right? They're doing all sorts of intricate modeling about what happens to the packaging, or the material, and what's its end-of-life use and what's you know, huge amounts of work being done there. But up the supply chain, try and find out anything about the actual plastic or metal or glass that was used to create whatever the product is. They don't have any information and we don't supply it to them. And it's not because we can't, we're great at measurement, we're great at data, we could if we set our minds to it. And what happens as a result of that is that they just use industry standards. So, every kilo of polyethylene everywhere in the world is treated the same for all these lifecycle analysis that have been done by all of these consumer facing businesses. Now, that sounds like it doesn't matter, but it actually does matter because if these are our customers are using industry standards, it means that we can't be rewarded for the great endeavors that we're already putting in place because we're all tarred by the same brush by that same average mediocre performance. So, getting away from that is really kind of fundamentally important. But as soon as we can, as soon as somebody is offering a certificate that says our polyethylene has this amount of entrained carbon and generated this amount of co2 and consumed this much water and that goes with that certificate that's manufacturing downstream manufacturing is desperate for that sort of information, and we'll pay a significant premium for it.

Larson: So, it's really an enormous opportunity for process manufacturers to have that certification, especially if it's, assuming it's better than the standard would dictate?

Hamlin: Well, but yeah, absolutely. And that's, you know, that that there is, therein lies the implicit threat, but it's a real, you know, it's a real, it's the real world, right, is that you need to be better than the standard, that for those that are, those are the industries, those are the manufacturers that deserve some sort of recognition and ought to be rewarded for producing what the world needs with the minimum possible environmental impact.

Larson: Makes a ton of sense. Any other words of advice for people just starting to get their arms around this, around this journey, what they what they should be thinking about?

Hamlin: I think, you know, the couple of things that I would sort of highlight. One is that we need to start, start small, take small steps, but with big ambition, right, you know. Ultimately, the whole world is trying to think and understand this idea of the circular economy. But the circular economy to be realized needs to be measured. And all the things we've talked about, actually get us towards scope three measurement, and ultimately, our ability to say, how circular are we? And how far have we come? And how far have we got to go? The other thing that I think's also really important in this is this isn't like a classical engineering problem, where we have a known outcome, and a known end point. And we just need to optimize the design that gets us there. And then go build and implement or execute that design. The sustainability space isn't like that, it's changing really, really quickly and really, really rapidly. And something that we design, that sort of fit for purpose, today won't be tomorrow, because the markets will have changed, the regulations will have changed. Everything's changing all around us all the time. So, in trying to address the challenge, I think it's really important that manufacturers do it in a way that you might call agile, or self learning, right? The learning piece is really, really important. The ad hoc investigation, the ability to leverage the creativity of your whole organization, and finding platforms, and ways of work that enable that to be done, that are flexible, and open to all is, is key to being successful in this space. And it's not, that's not something we're really comfortable with doing in an operations sort of environment. So, looking for how can we create provides that opportunity for ad hoc investigation for collaboration, for creativity, but at the same time, then understand how do we institutionalize the learning? How do we drive consistency in an comprehensive, consistent deployment? In a world that's constantly changing around us? So, it's almost about how do we become adaptive? We need to have an adaptive system that enables us to do this.

Larson: That makes perfect sense. It makes perfect sense. And I think increased uptake of these types of methodologies is certainly demanded and is going to be part of our future, no doubt about it, has to be.

Hamlin: Yeah. But yeah, as we say, at the end of the day, it all comes back to visibility and runtime, if you can actually see what's happening right now, in runtime, that unlocks all of this kind of rich, potential. And addresses helps us start to address that original barrier that I think has been in place for many decades around, you know, getting us away from thinking even subconsciously, that sustainability is somehow opposed to profit, and start recognizing that for most of us, in most of our daily lives, the two go hand in hand, and a responsibly operated facility is also a profitable one.

Larson: And you mentioned visibility into the sustainability. I mean, there are many studies that show just by knowing what the score is how effective we are, are at driving those in the positive direction. So, that visibility is an enormous change.

Hamlin: Yeah, yeah. And it's visibility. Now, I mean, again, we when we drive our car and that kind of miles per gallon needle moves. Sometimes we might think about kind of backing off on the accelerator a little bit. We're still in the world where the or the equivalent is the car tells us this week about how we drove last week. And by that point, the opportunity is gone, right? So, we need to get into like, you know, the miles per gallon gauge on the car that you have in your car that for some people will influence the way they behave and what they do.

Larson: Absolutely. Well, thanks so much, Chris, really, for sharing your insights with us today. Really appreciate your perspective and insightful as always, and for those of you listening thanks also for tuning in. Thanks too, our episode sponsor Seeq.

I'm Keith Larson, and you've been listening to a Control Amplified podcast, my guest today has been Chris Hamlin of Seeq, a capability lead for that organization. And if you've enjoyed this episode, you can subscribe in iTunes Store and Google podcast. Plus, you can find the full archive of past episodes at ControlGlobal.com signing off until next time.

Thanks again, Chris. I really appreciate you taking the time.

Hamlin: It's a pleasure. Thanks, Keith.

For more, tune into Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast.

About the Author

Control Amplified: | Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast

The Control Amplified Podcast offers in-depth interviews and discussions with industry experts about important topics in the process control and automation field, and goes beyond Control's print and online coverage to explore underlying issues affecting users, system integrators, suppliers and others in these industries.

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