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Driving sustainable operations with advanced analytics

Oct. 19, 2021
Control Amplified podcast with Lindsey Wilcox, Customer Success Manager, Seeq

Many industrial organizations today list increased sustainability as one of their main corporate objectives. But it's not just altruism, they understand that advancing sustainability also offers significant competitive advantage, from both an image perspective and a business bottom line. In this podcast, Control's editor in chief Keith Larson discusses how advanced analytics are being used by process industries to advance the sustainability of their operations with Lindsey Wilcox, customer success manager with Seeq.


Keith Larson: Achieving sustainable operations is one of the most important challenges industry has ever faced. The global manufacturing and process industries' share of greenhouse gas emissions, for example, leads all other sectors at 32%. So industry is well-positioned to be the greatest contributors to GHG reductions as well. Many industrial organizations today list increased sustainability as one of their main corporate objectives. But it's not just altruism, they understand that advancing sustainability also offers significant competitive advantage, from both an image perspective and a business bottom line.

Hello, this is Keith Larson, editor of Control magazine and ControlGlobal.com, and welcome to this Solution Spotlight episode of our Control Amplified podcast, sponsored today by Seeq. With me today to discuss how advanced analytics are being used by process industries to advance the sustainability of their operations is Lindsey Wilcox, customer success manager with Seeq. Welcome, Lindsey, and a real pleasure to chat with you today.

Lindsey Wilcox: Yeah, it's great to be here, Keith.

Keith: Yeah. Well, welcome. Many process industry organizations are using the U.N. Sustainability Development Goals as a framework for their sustainability initiatives. I mentioned climate change briefly in my introduction, but sustainability is broader than that. Can you review for our listeners some of the other relevant U.N. SDGs that industry might be cueing off of?

Lindsey: Yeah. So you're absolutely right, Keith, pretty much most if not all process manufacturing companies have sustainability initiatives and goals. And you can usually find those directly on the company website, so they're easily accessible and transparent to the consumer and employees. And often if you read through those goals, you'll see that they align those goals and initiatives with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. And while all of the 17 goals are important and we can support and contribute to them as process manufacturers, there is a smaller subset that really the process manufacturing industry needs to be global leaders in achieving.

And so within that smaller subset, we have Goal 6, which is focused on clean water. So it's no secret that the process manufacturing industry is large consumers of water. So, when I think about this goal I think about ensuring that water is being used efficiently, it isn't being wasted, and that water that is used, you know, treating that wastewater appropriately to make sure we're not polluting our water systems. Goal 7 is focused around affordable and clean energy. So that's contributing and helping advance the technology within our alternative energy space, so solar and wind, and others. Goal 12 is focused around responsible consumption and production, and that's really kind of a common theme across all industry verticals. How do we use our raw materials the most efficiently, minimizing waste and ensuring sustainable consumption?

Keith: So that really fits in with the concepts of circular economy and those sorts of things as well?

Lindsey: Exactly, right. And then finally, as you already mentioned, Goal 13 focused around climate action and emissions, and really having a good understanding and take control of what we're emitting, and looking to minimize that impact on the atmosphere.

Keith: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. A lot of organizations have started publishing annual updates as part of their annual reports around their sustainability progress. Some have reported dramatic progress on the front, which is to be congratulated, but it seems like many others have contributed a little bit of executive lip service to the cause with scant investment or implementation taking place. Why do you think that we have that kind of disparity?

Lindsey: Yeah. So you're exactly right. We've seen that with, as you mentioned, kind of those annual reports that companies put out, it's not uncommon to see sustainability mentioned, you know, dozens of times within the first few pages and then not again because there's not much to back it up. So, those sustainability goals and initiatives that we just talked about are typically developed on a corporate or an executive level. Organizations are investing in roles in their organization with titles such as sustainability officers. So it's clear that they think it's important, but with those goals being developed at really that executive level, the ability to affect change often fails to trickle down to those frontline employees who are actually on the plant floor, they're experts in the equipment and the processes, and they are the ones that really have the ability to have the most significant impact on operation.

Keith: That makes a lot of sense, and I don't know that they have the same kind of bonus plans that the executives do either around these kind of goals either. Yeah, that's for sure. And obviously, those people that can affect change are obviously your customers as well as many of our readers also. But it also, I think it's been well documented, that when engineers operations, those folks who can affect change there on the platform, when they know the score, that is when they have really visibility into the KPIs, the key performance indicators that are central to the organization, they can make significant improvement to the measures that matter, long as they know the score. Does that work for sustainability metrics as well?

Lindsey: Yes, I absolutely think so, and I think maybe even more so with sustainability, just because people care about it and are passionate about it so much more than maybe other metrics that we measure. And I think that really where organizations tend to fall short is that these process engineers, really subject matter experts, they just aren't armed with the right tools to have that insight into their process data to, like you said, know the score of what exactly their environmental impact is and how different process changes or metrics that they're tracking can actually have a positive impact on what that score is.

So when we think about these process engineers or subject matter experts working at the plant, we typically think about how they do their analytics today, and a lot of times they rely heavily on spreadsheet applications, which just simply put don't have the right tools to wrangle and analyze time-series data. So when we think about time-series data coming from plant sensors, it's oftentimes noisy, so it doesn't have the correct cleansing algorithms, the right tools to contextualize the data, there aren't easy ways to build regression models. So all of that analytics that really these experts are looking to do is really time-consuming. And so a lot of their time, and effort, and energy just ends up being wasted on really menial data management activities.

Keith: Yeah. I'm a recovering chemical engineer myself, so I've struggled, and actually, I must confess, my time goes back to before Excel spreadsheets, so that shows you how long I've been at it, which was not any fun.

Lindsey: Right, so you know the pain.

Keith: It was not any fun, that's for sure.

Lindsey: Yeah. And we really found that organizations that rely so heavily on those spreadsheet applications are really, at best, reactive to sites' environmental performance or impact. So, you think about a lot of these organizations because they don't have the right tools, they're kind of just focused on how do I comply with whatever the government regulations are? And when we think about compliance, that's done on at most a monthly, maybe quarterly, annual basis. So they're spending all this time let's say on a quarterly basis, just wrangling their data in a spreadsheet application, and maybe they notice significant violation or deviation, they're now noticing that maybe in some cases three months or more after the fact. So they're not able to really mitigate or respond to any deviations that occur in real-time or even better be able to kind of predict those and avoid them altogether.

Keith: And when you're talking about greenhouse gas emissions, I mean, most of them are not—there's no legal requirement around most of those yet anyway. So, its kind of compliance doesn't even pertain to some of the most important challenges we have on sustainability.

Lindsey: Right. Absolutely. But we have seen that kind of arming these engineers, subject matter experts, with the right data analytics tools enabling them to not only automate and simplify and reduce the time spent on what they're already doing but also just gain more insight into that environmental process data and get that visibility to, like you said, know the score, so that they can really drive those sustainability initiatives at all levels of the organization.

Keith: Yeah. I mean, obviously, the essential element of Seeq's mission statement really, to place advanced analytical tools in the hands of the frontline employees who can affect change and not require a data science degree.

Lindsey: Absolutely.

Keith: Can you tell us some more about some of the companies that you've worked with and how the results they've achieved relate back to business benefits as well as sustainability progress?

Lindsey: Yeah, so there's a few examples that I can share that our customers have really kind of applied Seeq to push the sustainability initiatives at their company. Chevron, for example, is using Seeq for their quarterly regulatory reporting. So previously, this was a process, I kind of already alluded to this a little bit, where they were really wrangling all of that data in spreadsheets and it took days to compile. They've essentially automated the process of performing the analytics and KPIs around their greenhouse gas emissions within Seeq and were able to significantly cut down on the amount of time to put those reports together. And when you think about that example, you can think about going from that reactive approach that we just talked about to now maybe a more real-time type report or monitoring dashboard that allows you to have, like I said, a more real-time insight into how your emissions are performing.

Keith: Absolutely, it doesn't make sense to try to drive by looking in the rearview mirror, as they say.

Lindsey: Right. Another example, Allnex, which is a specialty chemicals company, used Seeq's tools with low to no capital to develop an energy model of their processes. And what they do with that energy model is they basically monitor that model against their actual energy consumption to identify significant deviations from the model. And when a deviation occurs, that tells them that something odd is happening. And they've actually used that model in monitoring the deviations to identify a poorly tuned controller that was wasting significant energy. In another case, they identified a steam jet valve that was not closing properly leading to significant waste. And other deviations, for example, could identify failed steam traps or other equipment failures.

Keith: Those all have direct economic consequences as well as environmental.

Lindsey: Absolutely. And I think that's something important to point out, Keith, is that often achieving these sustainability goals is good for business too. The more efficiently you operate with minimal waste, less energy, it's going to be less expensive to run and operate as well.

Keith: That makes sense. You were mentioning, I think Duke, is that next?

Lindsey: Yeah, that one's kind of unique actually. They used Seeq to monitor their wind turbines to identify when production should be curtailed to minimize impact on the local bat population. So that's kind of a unique one. And then one final one, Shell uses Seeq to minimize the impact of their chlorination system on sea life. So kind of a wide range of examples. Obviously, there's many more, but what I do want to point out kind of a common thread across all of these examples is that regardless of the customer, the industry, the use case, these aren't significant capital investment projects where they're going out and retrofitting assets, or replacing assets, or investing in cutting edge technologies such as carbon capture, or kind of all those other buzzwords that we hear about that are obviously great and have a positive impact as well. But they're able to realize all of these positive changes really just with their existing assets, analyzing the data they already have, they're already collecting, just having the right tools to analyze it.

Keith: Yeah, that's a compelling point. I was reading the other day in another report talking about how industry has all the tools they need to contribute half of the Paris Climate Treaty goals without any new technology at all. I mean it's not that sexy, but it's really just paying attention to details, becoming more efficient and optimizing what you're already doing with the tools you already have, and that can be very powerful. Hopefully, that's the path forward increasingly, and I guess it's our job to spread the word, huh?

Lindsey: Absolutely. Yeah, and I guess one other example I'll mention and this is, again, I think just kind of an interesting one is earlier this year we participated in a hackathon with Microsoft Energy Core. So that brought together teams really across the world to supply them with different Microsoft tools and also Seeq to kind of see what they could come up with in the space of methane emissions over the course of a week. And what came out of that hackathon was a pretty interesting use case that one team developed where they were able to integrate methane emissions data from a satellite source, along with process data from a plant, and then the third data source they were able to incorporate was weather data from NOAA. So they were able to bring together the satellite data, the weather data and the process data to really kind of get a full picture of, okay, when are the methane emissions events happening? What was the weather pattern during that time to characterize the plume model? And then what was happening at the plant as all of it was happening as well? So that was kind of neat.

Keith: Yeah, I guess smart cows would be next, so we can keep track of where they wander around as well. In all seriousness, if some of our listeners are kind of feeling inspired by some of the stuff that Seeq is doing with its customers, how can they go about affecting increased sustainability in the operations for which they're responsible? Do you have some suggestions along those lines?

Lindsey: Yeah, absolutely. So first, I would recommend starting off with a meaningful use case with clear measurable goals. I've noticed, oftentimes when users kind of get their hands on Seeq, they're so excited that the first thing they want to do is go after this huge problem that they've maybe been chasing for 10 years. And while that's great, often starting smaller where kind of there's a clearly defined goal, problem statement, is often kind of the best place to start. You also want to make sure that you have the required data available to you so that you have something to analyze. And again, another pitfall that we kind of see is customers starting with too big of a picture. So, I recommend starting on a single process, a single asset, really diving deeply into the data, applying the analytics, kind of seeing what you come up with to gain insights into the process. And once you've been able to identify any potential opportunities for improvement, make those process modifications and track the performance to really kind of capture or quantify any improvements that you've made. You want to make sure that you're capturing and documenting and communicating those wins.

Keith: Follow through like that is most important so you can actually say what the results were. Absolutely.

Lindsey: Absolutely. And then once you've kind of nailed it on that one asset or process, then you can take a step back and scale it out across your entire fleet. At Seeq, we like the term nail it and then scale it. It's kind of a buzz term we've been using around Seeq, but basically just speaks to the approach that we found to be most successful of starting small to prove value and then scaling the analysis to other parts of the process.

Keith: Do you have any recommendations on how to go about that spreading the word internally and helping to scale those results? Obviously, these are, a lot of times, frontline folks that may not have influence on the plant in the next state over, any thoughts of how to organize and do more of a grassroots effort around sustainability sometimes within organizations?

Lindsey: Right. So, I've spent a lot of time talking about the analytics capabilities that are available through Seeq, for example, but also within Seeq is a whole suite of collaboration tools as well, to not only work together with your colleagues to develop those analytics and KPIs and metrics and perform your analysis, but then once you gain those key insights, you've maybe had a win and you've documented or quantified the success, you can then take that information, bring it into a custom report or auto-updating dashboard to really share that knowledge, your results, with the broader organization. So that, like you said, that you can kind of share it across the entire enterprise.

Keith: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. You're tight with Microsoft, and it seems everybody's going Teams nowadays. So, I imagine that would be a pretty effective partnership.

Lindsey: Right.

Keith: Well, thanks so much, Lindsey, for sharing your insights with us today. You've given me certainly a lot to think about. And thanks also to Seeq for sponsoring this episode. My name again is Keith Larson, and you've been listening to a Control Amplified podcast. Our guest today has been Lindsey Wilcox, customer success manager for Seeq. Thank you so much again, Lindsey, and to those of you listening, thanks also for tuning in. And if you've enjoyed this episode, you can subscribe at the iTunes Store and at Google Podcasts. Plus you can find the full archive of past episodes at controlglobal.com. Until next time, stay well and stay safe.

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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