March 2021

Trends and Resources

Business Trends: A perspective on new technology impacts on the chemical processing industry

Over the past five years, the industrial evolution has been propelled by the same technologies that have dramatically changed our private lives.

Fernandes, S., Yokogawa Corp.

Over the past five years, the industrial evolution has been propelled by the same technologies that have dramatically changed our private lives. These include cloud computing, wireless telecommunications, device mobility, algorithmic power, data storage, cybersecurity and robotics.

However, two critical observations can be made regarding the industrial environment. First, people will discover that these information technology (IT) capabilities are augmenting digital solutions that have already been deployed over the past 50 yr. In other words, the industry has been practicing digitization and digitalization for a long time. The recent changes have made these applications more powerful, more agile, more portable, more intelligent and more autonomous. Second, evolution in the chemical industry is gradual; it is incremental due to the intrinsic liabilities that are associated with the operation of industrial plants.

Unlike the dramatic changes in the way we communicate with one another today, industrial applications evolve in a conservative manner that is driven by personal and environmental safety, physical security and cybersecurity, and basic economics that will always be constraints to the optimization process. Furthermore, we can add another key, recent requirement: sustainability.

The chemical industry has witnessed the deployment of many proven technologies at a large scale catalyzed by the technology enablers of Industry 4.0 and smart manufacturing. Not only has cloud computing enabled a reduction in capital expenditure budgets, but it has also facilitated the availability of process models—whether steady-state or dynamic—regardless of the end user’s location. An offshore platform operator can refresh their technical skills by running an operator training simulator while at home. A control room technician in Europe can test reactions to the loss of a compressor in a plant in a virtual environment while the plant is being designed and built in Asia—well ahead of its startup.

Control room operators can be trained in central engineering offices by enabling their access to digital twins that reside in the cloud and deploy dynamic, first principle models to represent process units in far-flung locations. Field operation productivity has also increased, while eliminating accidents and errors by employing augmented reality (AR) mobile devices and leveraging wireless instrumentation.

Technology applications can predict the failure of mechanical equipment (e.g., pump cavitation or the potential of off-spec polymer production) by deploying a machine-learning algorithm, which acquires real-time data such as flow, pressure, temperature and vibration from the process.

These platforms are examples of digital twins that are now ubiquitous thanks to the flexibility of the cloud, the fog and the dust. Nevertheless, there are red flags that must be raised regarding these digital applications. For example, a reactor catalyst ages and loses its activity with time; a heat exchanger fouls if not regularly cleaned; a turbine lube oil oxidizes and its viscosity changes if it is not periodically replaced; and a distillation column will weep. In other words, industrial processes are “living” entities. They change with time. Any mathematical representation—such as a digital twin—needs to follow what is happening in the plant, adapt to it, and allow it to be updated by one or more mechanisms; otherwise, it will eventually fall into disuse. Assets require attention; they demand budgets to maintain their sustainability.

This has happened to a field-proven technology that was developed in the early 1970s, which has generated tangible and intangible benefits: advanced process control—particularly multivariable predictive control. However, some plants have this technology turned off after commissioning. This is a warning about a key consideration that cannot be overlooked when implementing new technologies: change. Processes change, people change, technologies change and enterprises change. Sustainable design must be incorporated early in the process.

Nevertheless, the chemical industry continues to look to the future, while embracing the revolution that autonomous operations will bring. The critical need for safer, more reliable, more profitable and more sustainable operations requires a smart balance when deploying human resources in an industrial environment. Risky field operations, repetitive actions, mundane activities, unnecessary trips to collect data in the field and inspection in hazardous areas can be intelligently addressed by current and future technologies.

The chemical industry has undergone new challenges, some in the last few years and other fairly recently. What is common? Change is constant. Whenever there is a change, there is probably a new optimal point. If change is constant, then adaptation, flexibility, agility and savviness are constants. What about the future? What about disruption?

According to a report from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), vinyl records accounted for $232.1 MM of music sales in 1H 2020 vs. CDs, which brought in only $129.9 MM. Conversely, music streaming increased 12% to $4.8 B during the same period. This is a clear example of digital transformation! We may not see such a dramatic evolution in the chemical industry due to its intrinsic liability nature. Nevertheless, we are optimistic about what is next.

In 1951, Arthur C. Clarke wrote the short story “The Sentinel.” That was the inspiration for Stanley Kubrik’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which was released in 1968. We are now in the year 2021 and control room operators do not interact with a computer the same way that Dr. Dave Bowman interacts with the HAL 9000 computer.

However, picture a humanoid sitting next to a person in a control room. In the humanoid’s “brain” (i.e., the CPU) resides all mathematical models of the plant. The humanoid has a digital twin of the whole process inside its body in addition to copies of all process flow diagrams, piping and instrumentation diagrams, drawings and manuals for all equipment, as well as other manuals and process diagrams for the plant’s operations. The only struggle for the humanoid is to cope with the personality of the operator on that particular shift. Is it reading the operator’s lips like HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey?” Well, at this time, like The Go-Go’s sang, “Our lips are sealed.”

Sergio Fernandes is the Chemical Market Leader at Yokogawa Corporation of America, Inc. Throughout his career, he has partnered with process industry companies to leverage advanced technology solutions that result in improved safety, reliability and profitability. He earned an MBA in marketing from The Wharton School of The University of Pennsylvania and a BS degree in chemical engineering from the University of São Paulo. HP

FIG. 1. The convergence of IT with OT: An enterprise architecture.

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