As Green Becomes the New Cool, Chemicals Get a Digital Makeover
Published on : Tuesday 31-10-2023
Data-led technologies are driving efficiency, supporting greener approaches, and advancing the circular economy in the chemicals industry, says Stephen Reynolds, Industry Principal for Chemicals at AVEVA.
Sustainability in business is now non-negotiable – particularly for the chemicals industry.
The sector has already been identified as the largest industrial energy consumer1 and the third largest industry subsector in terms of direct CO2 emissions, according to data from the International Energy Agency.
While mitigating these outcomes through ESG targets remains important, the sector’s primary focus lies in building sustainable and greener models to enhance efficiency and growth.
Digital transformation is fueling the chemicals industry’s evolution. The latest digital tools are already enabling companies in the energy, chemicals and power industries to proactively address the bigger picture by minimising their carbon footprints, promoting recyclable raw materials and products, and electrifying and automating operational processes.
By harnessing technologies such as big data, artificial intelligence (AI), simulation, automation, cloud and the industrial internet of things (IIoT), chemicals companies are realising both sustainability and value gains.
Three-step digital framework boosts sustainability
Across brownfield plants and greenfield developments, these goals can be achieved with the help of a model-driven framework built around data-led technologies such as cloud-based data management platforms or digital twins.
Technologies such as big data, artificial intelligence (AI), simulation, automation, cloud and the industrial internet of things (IIoT) can support chemicals companies in realising both sustainability and value gains.
Three pillars are essential to unlocking sustainability goals for chemical companies:
1. Improve efficiency to create agility
Reliable and efficient plants can produce products more quickly with fewer resources at a lower cost. The operation gains in terms of flexibility and can better adapt to dynamic market conditions. For example, production can be quickly adjusted in response to demand shifts or to harmonise with changes in feedstock availability.
Digital tools can be harnessed to improve efficiency on a number of fronts. By using a digital twin to determine the ideal state, process modelling and simulation can identify areas for improvement and determine the most efficient ways to reduce waste and increase throughput. Further, with AI-powered simulations, asset optimisation helps ensure that equipment operates at peak efficiency and reliability. In addition, human efficiency can also be improved, such as by enhancing workforce competency through experiential training programs to develop employee skills and enhance health and safety.
2. Adopt greener approaches to production
Embedding clean-tech elements across the value chain supports greener outcomes for chemical operations. Such measures include tweaking existing processes and developing innovative production methods.
Incorporating feedstocks that have a lower footprint, such as bio-based materials, can dramatically reduce emissions. With the help of a process digital twin, companies can evaluate the impact of feedstock changes, and ascertain when to shift to cleaner materials, such as those sourced from recovery chains.
Similarly, digital technologies can help engineers to identify and design novel and sustainable processes. The use of AI simulation, predictive analytics, and supply chain and information management solutions enables fast and low-risk engineering cycles, optimising every phase of capital projects and giving companies control over their value chains.
3. Shift gears to advance the circular economy
In a rapidly changing business landscape, embracing the circular economy is a game-changer for the chemicals industry. Digital technologies light the way to the sustainable and regenerative approaches that are essential to circularity, showing how resources can be used more efficiently, waste minimised, and materials are recycled and repurposed.
Process simulation supports the switch to circularity by helping operators understand how different energy sources can impact their operations. For example, replacing gas-powered steam generators with electrical boilers slashes energy consumption. Similarly, with the help of solar panels, wind turbines and a repository of real-time weather data, companies can create 360-degree simulations of green hydrogen production, modelling electrical fluctuation and predicting hydrogen output.
True circularity requires the use of recycled feedstocks. Here, a process digital twin serves as a valuable tool to monitor, optimise, and visualise operations in real-time for the efficient uptake of recycled materials.
A third application comes from real-time KPI monitoring and reporting. Digital twins provide a holistic view of operational data, enabling companies to quantify and optimise critical metrics. With programs such as AVEVA Process Simulation, organisations can track environmental KPIs in realtime and make realistic visualisations for sustainable operational excellence.
Real-world chemical industry successes unlock data dividends
Industrial enterprises are increasingly deploying data-led technologies – including the digital twin – for their numerous benefits.
Across the industrial sector, early investors are already reaping the benefits of this new technology.
Here in Asia, SCG Chemicals, for example, achieved a transformative impact with the adoption of a unified digital reliability platform. Teams at the petrochemical leader benefitted from integrated, real-time visibility into various facets of operations, leading to improved operational efficiency and reduced unplanned downtime across the value chain. Thanks to this enhanced visibility and analytics models, SCG Chemicals was able to demonstrate exceptional results, including 100% plant reliability and an impressive nine-time return on investment (RoI) within just six months.
Elsewhere, Eastman Chemical, a producer of advanced materials, chemicals and fibers, was able to drive circularity and improve the sustainability of its operations with a digital transformation platform, SEIGA (Seamless EPCom Integrated Global Access). With engineering documents replaced by a data-centric system, teams benefit from seamless data-sharing and improved collaboration among engineering, construction, operations, and maintenance functions. Engineering errors and rework has been reduced, while project efficiency has improved. The company can now undertake new capital projects more sustainably.
Meanwhile, Covestro, a leading manufacturer of high-quality polymer materials and their components, used a cloud-based data management system to improve vertical integration within the organisation and facilitate horizontal, or B2B, integration with authorised industry partners. Internal stakeholders benefited from one version of the truth and a shared understanding of how to address problems, while shared data supported innovation and service improvements for external suppliers. The system enables teams to standardise energy and production data and identify resource savings opportunities. As a result, Covestro was able to reduce energy consumption by 30% and cut CO2 emissions by 39% per ton of product. It is now on track for a 50% reduction in consumption and emissions by 2030.
Industries invest in digital solutions to combat disruption
With disruption increasingly being seen as the new normal, industrial leaders are looking to ramp up investments in industrial digital solutions.
Some 87% of executives polled in a recent survey by Wakefield Research and AVEVA said they plan to spend more on industrial digital solutions in the coming year. They will do so in order to tackle combined business challenges, including economic uncertainty, unstable geopolitical environments, labour shortages, and disrupted supply chains. The October 2022 survey polled 650 executives at global companies with a minimum annual revenue of US$50 million in the chemicals, manufacturing, and power industries around the world.
In the chemicals industry, 62% of business leaders have increased or accelerated their investment in industrial digital solutions, surpassing other industries. The investment reflects the sector’s response to environmental regulations and sustainability pressures, with 33% identifying them as the most significant challenge in the next 12 months (compared to 23% across all sectors).
As McKinsey points out, end-to-end digitisation can positively impact the chemicals value chain, nearly doubling the average EBITDA earnings from 8.5% to 16%2.
With data-led technologies, chemicals companies can drive sustainability and deliver significant value gains. By leveraging real-time insights, advanced analytics, and process optimisation, companies can minimise waste, increase efficiency, and drive innovation at every level.
Stephen Reynolds, Industry Principal for Chemicals at AVEVA, is a 25-year chemical engineer with experience in the polyethylene, polypropylene, methacrylate, and phenol processes. He has a BS in Chemical Engineering from Texas A&M and an MBA from Loyola University Chicago.