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Digitizing the Chemical Ecosystem

Digitizing the Chemical Ecosystem

15 Feb 2017

Singapore’s commitment to increasing productivity through innovation and mechanization has propelled the city-state forward on an Internet of Things (IoT) crusade. Through targeted investments in various technology centers of excellence, the local government is helping drive industrial innovation forward. But industrial application of IoT scratches only the surface of the state’s total technology agenda. The resource-scarce nation is seeking to leverage its formative strength, talent, to transform itself and add value to the global marketplace by building the world’s first Smart Nation. Smart Nation aims to leverage IoT technology to improve the quality of life of its citizens, infrastructure and industrial sector, in a bid for Singapore to remain one of the most economically competitive and livable cities in the world.

The industrial sector factors heavily into Singapore’s Smart Nation equation, with the manufacturing sector representing close to 20 per cent of the country’s GDP. When applied in an industrial context, IoT has the potential to increase productivity, safety and competitiveness of both the enterprise and the economy. By helping solution providers overcome the most difficult “first-adopter” stage for new IIoT technologies, Singapore’s economy stands to gain a first-mover advantage and establish itself as the IIoT technology and business hub of Asia.

Internet of Things (IoT) Explained

This latest technology buzz phrase is taking not just Singapore, but the world, by storm. But what exactly does IoT mean, and how pertinent is the concept to the world of chemicals? For starters, IoT can be loosely defined as a network of physical objects that are linked to one another through the Internet. More concretely, it refers to physical objects, equipment or machinery that are fitted with various types of data collecting sensors.

To complete the IoT puzzle, cloud-based applications analyze the data that is collected by sensors, eventually enabling machines to communicate with other machines, applications or users. The application of IoT is not limited to any particular industry, device or user, but rather can be employed in virtually every sphere of life.

As an example, new smart metering systems in homes digitally provide energy suppliers and end users with consumption data. Smart meters automatically send meter readings to suppliers, and show users how much energy they are consuming in near real time. Provision of this data results in more accurate energy bills, and increased energy awareness among consumers, ultimately leading to cost savings and more sustainable living practices. Now just begin to imagine what IoT can achieve at scale, and within a large chemical facility.

Turnaround Your Plant and Balance Sheet

While IoT debuted decades ago, the concept has begun making strides in the industrial space only recently. You might ask, why is this the case? The answer is simple—data. The amount of data generated within a process plant or mine site has been discovered to be astounding. According to Accenture, 144 terabytes of data are generated in a mine site in the span of just one hour, which up until recently, was not being leveraged. To make music out of the copious amounts of data, Emerson for example, helps “industrial plants gain huge benefits from data analytics, by integrating and analyzing large amount of data using smart field devices on plant equipment, to improve reliability and energy efficiency for the plants,” explained vice president of solutions and lifecycle services, Vidya Ramnath.

These benefits trickle down to the bottom line. A company with EBITDA of $2 billion for example, can save $100 million by implementing digital plant initiatives. By going digital, end users are quickly discovering that industrial IoT (IIoT), or IoT applied within the context of industry, boosts operations on two fundamental fronts: reliability and energy efficiency. And in today’s marketplace, increasing and ensuring both factors are imperative for any firm to remain competitive. By engaging IIoT and installing sensors on 148 of chemical manufacturer Denka’s steam traps for example, the firm was able to save 7% on the cost of steam. The steam traps were remotely monitored and analyzed by Emerson to detect and stop energy losses in real time (Figure 2). “In a highly complex and volatile business environment, companies are finding ways to perform, optimize processes and operate more efficiently to sustain growth,” said head of Yokogawa’s new co-innovation center and general manager of the firm’s Singapore Development Center, Joseph Lee Ching Hua.

Another large chemical manufacturer Afton recently unveiled a new plant on Jurong Island that stands as a testament to the benefits of digitization. “Afton’s plant on Jurong Island is a state of the art chemical additive manufacturing facility. The plant has a very high level of automation and utilizes advanced distributed control systems to manage plant process and utilities systems, ensuring ongoing safety, productivity and sustainability. Notably, it is our first facility in the world to have an installed remote machine-human interface, which reduces manual communication and human error, thereby improving productivity,” said vice president and managing director of Afton Asia Pacific, Sean Spencer.

So how exactly can a chemical plant leverage IIoT to achieve these savings? According to Accenture, four fundamental pieces of the IIoT puzzle need to fit together in order to effect change: sensors, data science, a human-machine interface and action. Traditionally, a contractor comes on site to inspect the health of plant equipment, including the likes of pumps, heat exchangers, blowers, cooling tower cells and non-process compressors. Manual inspection and data collection is typically conducted a few times over the course of the year to ensure smooth plant operation. However, there are a number of caveats associated with this conventional process. The first is related to labor, as large teams are deployed to perform inspections, collect data and identify necessary improvements. Contractors often have to measure the health of dangerous equipment, adding a layer of risk to an already costly and time-intensive process. Further to this, many issues are often not detected on time or at all, leading to damage that interrupts plant operation and production, and loss of capital.

The first and key ingredient in the IoT recipe, a sensor, automates measurements and performs them much more frequently. Affixed to assets, sensors can measure variables such as pressure, temperature, corrosion and humidity, and transmit relevant data over a secure network to analytics software. This is where the second ingredient, data science, comes in to play, generating reports that reveal the condition of a given asset. Thirdly, an interface between machine and human provides the operator with the information needed to act, and make an informed, cost saving decision. Analytics can often specify the amount of financial loss associated with the deteriorated state of an asset, yielding a clear impetus for the fourth ingredient to kick in: action. Hence, leveraging IIoT can result in less time spent on collecting data manually, and more time acting on results, leading to improved productivity, increased efficiency and cost savings.

Rent, Lease, or Buy?

Reading this you might quickly be wooed by the wonders of IIoT. But how can such technology be implemented in a facility without overhauling the entire plant? Do the purported savings justify the cost? There are various approaches to plant modernization and the realization of a total digital ecosystem in which sensors, networking and software fit together. In fact, an IIoT infrastructure can be installed and parceled within a plant in virtually countless number of ways. Traditionally, plant owners have invested in purchasing sensors, networks and software, and conducting reporting autonomously. However, IoT allows for remote monitoring, and new business models that encourage greater partnership and enable less capital-intensive commitments. For example, digital automation provider Emerson installs sensors, networks and software in exchange for zero upfront investment. Instead, the firm offers what can be described as an IIoT subscription, charging a monthly fee for resulting data analytics.

“Pumps, steam traps, and other equipment monitored on-premise, centrally from corporate engineering center, and remotely from Emerson’s center of excellence have enabled our customers to yield huge benefits at the operational level. These real-world implementations are helping industrial facilities to frame their priorities for IIoT investments,” said Ramnath.

With capex considerations also in mind, systems integrator Accenture is offering clients the opportunity to rent or lease equipment, and begin pilots to test the waters before considering building an entire network. “There is also a trend towards permanently leasing and renting, and adopting the use of shared services,” said managing director, digital business lead and director of Accenture’s IoT Center of Excellence, Senthil Ramani. The technology giant is committed to building “custom IoT journeys” for their industrial clients in the region through their newly established IoT Center of Excellence in Singapore.

Electrical engineering and software firm Yokogawa is working alongside its customers in its new Co-Innovation Center, to ensure efficient utilization of data and diagnostics generated by their smart sensors. But regardless of the chosen provider, by leveraging data science, digital transformation has the potential to maximize utilization of existing assets, often with little to no capital expenditure.

Employing a New Generation

IIoT is inextricably tied to the workforce of the future. By 2025, millennials, or digital natives, will comprise 75% of the global workforce. This implies that in order to attract and retain talent to traditional manufacturing industries such as chemicals or mining, business models will have to evolve and incorporate new technologies. Incoming workers are quick learners and gear towards and efficiency, and are not inclined to read hundreds of pages of instruction manuals to assimilate operational knowledge. “Wisdom needs to be digitized, without which smartness cannot meet wisdom, and younger operators run the risk of working in a plant without sufficient knowledge. Going digital can help solve this issue and accelerate the pace of adoption for the incoming generation,” said Accenture’s Ramani. As more and more wisdom is digitized, the results are multifold. Fewer workers are needed inside a plant, which increases productivity as well as enhances safety. As more processes are progressively automated, workers can engage in higher value added tasks that are both more technical and safe.

Leading the Digital Revolution

Singapore is evolving into an IIoT global center of excellence, with technology players such as Emerson, Accenture and Yokogawa pioneering new developments in the sector. With the support of Singapore’s government, these players have established a Pervasive Sensing Center of Excellence, An IoT Center of Excellence and Co-Innovation Center, respectively. Government agencies are also incentivizing the uptake of plant modernization, digitization, and automation, and supporting the development of an innovative industrial ecosystem. These policies are not only in line with goals to improve productivity, but factor in to a greater vision of total transformation.

“Singapore was, and continues to be, a net exporter of chemicals. But more importantly, I believe the city-state is on its way to transforming itself and becoming a net exporter of innovation in the chemical industry, with IoT leading the agenda,” said Ramani. 

This article is part of a Special Report on Singapore first published in IHS Chemical Week. You can also find the report here.