The chemical industry is in the early stages of a major transformation in the way it carries out manufacturing. This comes as a result of Industry 4.0, the name given to the trend of increased usage of automation and data in the manufacturing industry via advanced analytics, artificial intelligence, robotics, and the Internet of Things (IoT).
Industry 4.0 means getting the maximum value out of data available in our factories and supply chain and bringing our factories to the next level of performance. We are already seeing some enormous benefits. For example, we can now use drones to carry out inspections in places where we don’t want people to go. We are also integrating technologies which can predict when a pump will fail and thereby ensure that we replace it at the right moment.
The tools of Industry 4.0 can also help us respond faster to changes in the external world. We rely increasingly on renewable energy from sources like wind, but supply can fluctuate a lot—a key issue for our since we use a lot of electricity to manufacture chlorine, caustic, and hydrogen.
At our Rotterdam site, for example we use a proprietary technology called ‘e-flex’, which automatically adjusts production in line with electricity supply fluctuations, turning down slightly when supply on the grid is low and ramping up slightly when there is a temporary oversupply on the grid. This is rewarded with significant savings in energy cost.
To help us to build factories of the future, it is also important to work with partners to access capabilities we don’t have within our own organization. One way we do this at Nouryon is through our Imagine Chemistry collaborative innovation program, in which we invite universities, startups, and other companies to help us tackle key challenges faced by our business. For example, one of this year’s challenges are “Sensing in demanding chemical environments,” aimed at identifying innovative sensing solutions to help us achieve 100 percent resource efficiency.
We are already testing and commercializing several ideas with partners found through Imagine Chemistry. These include Semiotic Labs, which uses machine learning and proprietary sensors to predict when and why equipment fails; and Invert Robotics, which provides safer, non-destructive inspection services using state-of-the-art mobile climbing robots.
Implementing Industry 4.0 also requires changes in the skills of employees working in manufacturing, R&D, and technology, as well as plant operators. They not only need to learn new skills, such as process automation and data analytics, but also to adopt a new mindset. To help with this at our company, we have developed a program called “Reboot Yourself” in which people can learn the competencies they need and get actively involved in the projects we are implementing.
Industry 4.0 also promises to deliver significant sustainability benefits to our company—helping us to operate our factories more safely and much more efficiently by using less energy and materials. Though it is early in this journey, I believe that in 10 years’ time we will have achieved near maximum efficiency in our plants, and they will have become not only safer but also more exciting places to work.