Chemical-makers embracing digital transformation

Mike Bacidore

Digital transformation is spreading throughout the chemical industry. At 2019 Emerson Global Users Exchange in Nashville, Tennessee, signs of that shift were evident from the comments of panelists speaking at the Industry Forum for Chemicals.

“We have wireless infrastructure on 60-70% of our sites,” said Greg Aguilar, global reliability engineer at Celanese. “We’re piloting two projects using KNet [Emerson’s recently acquired data analytics solution], and we are using AMS at some of our larger sites.”

3M is keeping pace, too. “In many areas, we are well on the way,” said Lendon Haggard, manufacturing technology manager at 3M. “Our corporate PACESetter initiative is something most companies don’t have.” 3M’s corporate initiative gives its stakeholders a set of standards, a way to think about innovation. “Our division has specific things that are different, but we have to share those responsibilities.”

San Jacinto College in Houston has built custom laboratories with industry members that went live in August. “They were looking forward to electronic logs and procedures, as well as maintenance work orders on mobile devices,” said Jim Griffin, vice president of petrochemical, energy and technology at the college. “We incorporated that into our curriculum.”

Petrochemical company Braskem Idesa has an expert team that looks for new ventures. “It’s a good way to do it,” said Stephany Villarreal, automation and digital transformation engineer. They look for suppliers whose offerings fit company needs.

This search for transformative ideas means newer technologies abound at companies on the digital-transformation journey. “We are using remote monitoring, and we use drones,” said Aguilar. “We recently piloted some analytics and machine learning.”

3M also uses drones and monitoring technologies for predictive maintenance (PdM). “We do everything, but less in augmented reality and wearables,” said Haggard. “We have tried them, and they’re very neat, but we have other things we have to work on.”

Safety, especially eliminating confined-space entry, is a number-one driver, according to Griffin. Light detection and ranging (LiDAR) remote-sensing technology is important for environmental detection and repair. “We have performance-learning platforms, and we’re looking to add some augmented reality,” said Griffin. “We teach data analytics, but I teach process technology and instrumentation, too.”

Perceived success

Perception is everything when it comes to new initiatives, especially at companies looking to justify investments in digital transformations. “Several of our initiatives have been successful,” said Aguilar. “We’re including some machine-learning models. We’ve been able to identify equipment issues that have gone under the radar for months or years. We try to define what the success criteria are up front, and we look at proof of concept and return on investment. How are we impacting our business? How can we increase productivity? Or how can we avoid lost production?”

3M has been successful in several areas, said Haggard. “Our reliability program is part of the factory of the future,” he explained. “We’re at the point now where no one is questioning whether it will work. We’re now asking how much it will cost and where the funding is coming from. We measure success in terms of productivity.”

At 3M, IT makes the rules, Haggard admitted, but the collaboration has improved, largely because of the success of new initiatives. “In the past few years, we’ve made great strides,” he said. “Now we’re at the point where, when we call corporate IT, they’re being told by executives to help us.”

Having successful cases to show goes a long way, added Aguilar. “It’s getting the sites to request the new technology.” he said. “It helps to build that trust.”

IT-OT convergence

Collaboration between IT and OT has often been accelerated by digital-transformation implementations. Some have even changed reporting structures in organizations.

“This year we have a new structure globally,” explained Villarreal. “IT and OT belong to the same vice president.”

It’s also affected protocols. “We’re seeing new ways of getting data to the cloud,” said Ted Masters, president and CEO, FieldComm Group. “We’re trying to integrate a collection of different technologies, bring them all together and integrate them in a common model. Advanced physical layer (APL) means adding Ethernet to field devices. The next-generation field device will be faster and more powerful.”

Both Aguilar and Haggard agreed that using an APL-standard field device sounds promising, but that might still be a few years away.

Accepting a non-analog field device would be fine for regulatory and supervisory control, but not safety, said Haggard. “In chemical plants, EHS is involved,” he said. “We are making decisions differently with other people involved. When we say, ‘safety,’ we’re at a different level. We’re storing and working with chemicals that are dangerous.”

And wireless technology is being used primarily for monitoring, but both 3M and Celanese are using it for some control in certain conditions.

Lessons learned

Embarking on a digital transformation comes with stumbling blocks, but organizations need to overcome them and learn from those hurdles.

Aguilar quipped, “If you’d asked me IT’s job two years ago, I would have said it was to make it harder for me to work. As part of our digital-transformation journey, bringing IT in early and treating them like a partner has really been helpful. Now people think I work for IT. Now we understand each other.”

Buy-in is also the biggest lesson learned at 3M. “Right now, we have a lot of need for buy-in at the operator level because we’re changing the way someone does a job,” said Haggard. “We’re using a highly skilled hourly individual to do higher-level tuning, just under what our controls engineers would do.”

In the end, it’s a transformation of the business process, said Masters. “You’ve got to have collaboration and executive backing. Otherwise, you may have all the transformation in the world, but you could end up doing things the same way you were before.”