Digitally integrated operations in chemicals

March 6, 2019
There’s a funny facet to digital transformations—they’re all different.

By Chris McNamara, Smart Industry content director

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 critical to the success of each project—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 on the first day of ABB Customer World 2019—Dr. Zied Ouertani, global digital lead, chemicals, ABB; Dawn James, Industry Solutions Manager-Americas, Microsoft; and Luiz Melo, MES Product Manager, DOW—to share insights during a panel titled “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 this 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.

“Now we’re getting into disconnected devices—things that we never thought we would have seen. But how are we dealing with all of this data,” he asked the experts beside him. “And how to 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.

“Today we collect data from every device in 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. These 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.  

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 Dr. 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 this panel.

Trying to digitize an entire enterprise at one, all agreed, is usually too high a hurdle to hop. 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 Dr. 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.

Read more from the event right here.