chemical industry

2020 Vision for Chemicals

December 18, 2019
As we approach year end, it is only natural to ponder the future. I find this exercise helpful every year, using a calendar trigger to assess future strategies and opportunities. A vision for 2020 seems particularly appropriate, especially for rapidly moving digital transformation activities in the chemical industry. Key opportunities for chemical companies revolve around addressing the challenges of sustainability targets, especially regarding circular economy metrics, waste reduction, and the shift from batch to continuous production processes. 

The chemical industry has been behind many industries in its digital transformation but has been making rapid progress and learning from the experience in more advanced sectors, like banking and retail. Most leading chemical companies now have some type of digital initiative and, as early adopters have displayed success, many senior leaders are establishing – and driving – digital strategies. Most of these early efforts have targeted operational excellence, but some companies are beginning to integrate new digital-based businesses while also seeing the value that digital solutions bring to sustainability efforts. 

Improving Sustainability With Digital Solutions

A report released last month by the European Technology Platform for Sustainable Chemistry reinforces the value of digital solutions in enabling sustainability efforts. In the report, Innovation Priorities for EU and Global Challenges, the authors noted, “Digitalisation will be a source and driver of transformational change across the chemical industry, with an emphasis on safety, operational excellence and sustainability”. The report also highlighted that, “digital technologies have the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by 60-100 million tonnes and avoid 2,000 to 3,000 injuries over the next decade.”

Sustainability is top of mind for many companies as we move into 2020 and digital solutions have a key role in driving progress in this area. These technologies help to deliver on energy and waste reduction targets, improve workforce effectiveness and satisfaction by providing capabilities for success, and give businesses the flexibility to respond quickly in volatile markets. 

One tool to structure and assess sustainability efforts is the concept of the “circular economy.” Circularity in this context means balancing the ability to achieve economic growth via the consumption of natural resources with consideration of the entire product lifecycle. The most obvious reference point today is using recycled plastics to make new products. This activity is limited by effective collection after use, but also by several technology constraints. That is, most recycled material is in fact “downcycled,” meaning that the plastic is used in a less valuable application than the original. 

To change the cycle, several companies are pursuing depolymerization processes to deconstruct the plastics back to their base raw materials — an approach often referred to as molecular or chemical recycling — allowing for the same high-quality product to be produced again. However, most of these processes are inefficient and can only be executed on a small scale. Many companies are investing significant effort to improve this approach. These processes will need further development to be competitive solutions for the global market. Modeling software is a critical tool to boost the speed and efficiency of these experiments and to optimize commercial processes.

Reducing Waste in Manufacturing

Chemical producers are also focusing on waste reduction in manufacturing processes. Ensuring on-spec production is particularly challenging for complex specialty chemical business, and related losses of energy and raw material can have a significant financial and environmental impact. Leading companies are using multivariate tools to analyze interrelated operational data to identify and eliminate sources of process variability and boost production quality. Businesses apply this analysis to batch and continuous processes to ensure more production that meets specification.

Batch processing offers more opportunities for improvement. Many specialty chemicals and pharmaceutical products use batch processes for significant control over the reaction conditions and composition. However, the control advantages also make this approach more time-consuming and expensive when compared to continuous processes. Many companies are considering this switch, where possible, with an eye to maintaining high quality and performance. Modelling software can be very helpful in designing new continuous processes to make specialty products, and to shorten the time-to-market for new products and processes. Additionally, ongoing improvement in advanced process control capabilities can provide confidence to producers as they shift to continuous processes. 

A Japanese pharmaceutical company recently reported success using simulation software to convert an existing batch process to continuous, reducing processing time from 8 hours to just 20 minutes while also lowering product impurities. 

Digitalization projects have the potential to deliver substantial value and leading companies have already made significant gains with their initial investments in advanced technologies. I think 2020 will be a pivotal year for the industry as many more organization make progress along their own digitalization journeys.

Learn more in the article “Digitalization: The Next Step in Chemicals Excellence.”

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