Industrie 4.0: What does it mean for chemical companies?

How a specialty-polymers company took a “don’t panic” approach and improved safety, cost, uptime and quality.

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By Valentijn de Leeuw, Vice President, ARC Advisory Group

At the OSIsoft EMEA Users Conference held last October in Berlin, Germany, Felix Hanisch of Covestro gave a keynote on the meaning of Industrie 4.0 for the chemicals industry from Covestro’s perspective. Covestro, a specialty polymers company, was carved out from Bayer in 2015. Hanisch discussed what cloud, Big Data, and Industrie 4.0 mean for the process industry.


ARC Advisory Group's Valentijn de Leeuw

Initially an initiative by the German government intended to further increase the competitiveness of the country’s industrial base, Industrie 4.0 concepts have gained traction across much of Europe and elsewhere in the world. At first, there were many more application examples for the discrete manufacturing industries than for the process industries. As a result, the German chemical companies and other process manufacturers had to determine exactly what Industrie 4.0 means for them.

What the hype is all about

The goal of Industrie 4.0 is to produce intelligent products using intelligent methods and processes. Platform Industrie 4.0 mentions that this is enabled through increased use of near-real-time data in the digital integration of value chains, seamless asset lifecycle information from plant concept to decommissioning, and business-to-plant production control.

Industrial IoT (IIOT), Industrie 4.0, and Smart Manufacturing are all closely related and have similar objectives – improving manufacturing. However, both Smart Manufacturing and Industrie 4.0 also look at improving manufacturing in the broader context of society and the environment, whether these improvements stem from science, engineering, informational technology (IT), or operational technology (OT). Also, while Industrie 4.0 also looks at the modes of production (such as moving toward modular production units for appropriate processes), the initial focus for IIoT tends to be more on connectivity, Big Data, and analytics to improve production asset availability and performance. Clearly, this will evolve over time.

The chemicals industry is torn between acting quickly to reap the benefits of Industrie 4.0 on the one hand, and remaining prudent by making small moves, and thus risk missing opportunities on the other.

A closer look reveals that the industry already has many Industrie 4.0 technologies in place. Some cyber-physical systems enabling the intelligent plant are mainstream in the process industry. For example, most valves are operated by actuators under control of an algorithm in a digital process control system. The IoT "vendor-managed inventory" concept of the household refrigerator sending orders to a grocery store when items reach a low threshold, is commonly employed in the industry. Many chemical companies also already employ analytics based on first principles, empirical, and hybrid models. However, new data-driven analytics are emerging.

How about industrial Big Data (in the cloud)? Some companies provide their personnel and contractors with access to historical and real-time plant data via private cloud. So, is this Big Data, characterized by high volumes, high velocity and a large variety? As a good-sized plant generates in the order of a billion data points per day (with some parameters being sampled at sub-second frequencies), the volume and the velocity certainly are there. The variety comes from logged events, so-called unstructured data. Some cloud applications are therefore mainstream, but most operations management applications and process control are on-premise. And the industry wants to keep it that way.

Computing power is ever increasing, with many new and easy-to-use technologies. However, the key is to know where to focus and to recognize if expectations for these technologies are "a pie in the sky" or realistic, according to Hanisch. To decide where to focus, a company needs a digital strategy. Covestro believes this strategy must be organized along the company’s vertical and horizontal integration axes. The goal of the vertical integration is to make the right data accessible to the right people to be able to make the right decisions. The objective of the horizontal integration with suppliers and customers is to share data, improve cooperation and improve order fulfillment and service levels. Opportunities arise when scrutinizing the processes and applications along these axes.

Covestro uses the “digital compass” that identifies value drivers related to the digitalization of the manufacturing sectors. Each of those can be influenced with applications and technologies. Estimations of the ranges of added value per driver, even if approximate, are too important to be ignored, according to Hanisch. Examples of incentives to do so for companies such as Covestro include reduced downtime and improved reliability.

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What does Industrie 4.0 mean for chemical companies?

Chemical manufacturing differs in many aspects from discrete manufacturing. Chemical processes are highly complex and intermingled. Components in these processes are often produced by a network of companies. Components can be very toxic, making them difficult or impossible to transport safely. Chlorine, for example, is sometimes transported directly by pipeline from one company’s site to another’s. In general, safety considerations constrain supply-chain flexibility considerably, and create stringent requirements for security and process safety.

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