Pharma 5.0

The future of industrial automation in chemicals

Published: 5-Apr-2024

The chemical industry is a large and diverse sector that manufactures a wide range of products, including fibres, plastics, surface finishes and pharmaceutical excipients. Agriculture, construction, transportation, healthcare and consumer goods are just a few sectors that use such chemical products

Along with a significant amount of research and development, this industry produces chemicals from raw material such as fossil fuels and other natural resources using various techniques and advanced technologies.

Owing to the nature of its products and processes, various regulations and guidelines relating to safety and sustainability play a significant role. Naseer Shindoli, Global Centre of Excellence Leader, Chemicals Segment, Schneider Electric, examines the global trends that affect the future of the chemical industry:

  • sustainability and environmental concerns
  • digitalisation and autonomous systems
  • changes in global trade and economic conditions
  • the shift towards renewable and biobased chemicals.

Three challenges facing the chemical industry

Although the above trends are global and affect all industries, their impact on the chemical industry is coloured by the segment’s own challenges. There are several chemical industry challenges and considerations for the future that software-centric automation can address.

Complex and rapidly changing processes: Small changes in raw materials or operating conditions or technique impacts production significantly.

Continuous market demand for new chemicals: Frequent updates to production systems and associated workflows require skilled resources to make changes that are tested and validated.

Ageing installed base of proprietary automation systems: Automation applications are system-specific, follow varying implementations of standards and lead to isolated islands that use hard-to-maintain interfaces both within OT and with IT systems.

Automation systems play a significant role in chemical production. End users are beginning to see proprietary automation systems as a barrier to growth and a cost, rather than an enabler and source of profit.

There is a clear need to move from hardware-centric to software-centric automation — universal automation — that supports modular plug-and-produce deployments.

Open processes increase profits

Many organisations recognise that next-generation industrial automation must be interoperable and break free from the proprietary locked-in model we have now.

Moving to open automation not only benefits end users, but it also gives an edge for automation companies that exploit software innovation.

Digital transformation and electricity 4.0 will help the chemical industry to avoid obsolescence and increase both supply change resiliency and profitability.

Path for the future of automation in chemicals

The world of plug-and-produce automation software components that solves industry challenges in a proven way. Universal automation is key to driving open and inclusive technology to achieve sustainability.

Here are several guidelines for the chemical industry to futureproof its automation and avoid obsolescence.

Flexible: Change is the only constant. Production needs to be efficient (energy and raw materials) and sustainable in such an environment.

Autonomous: Bringing new products to market is a significant differentiator for chemical manufacturers. Leverage artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) at every stage of your production facility from design, build, operate to maintain.

Portable: The asset life of a chemical plant is typically in decades whereas automation hardware has a shorter lifespan. Hardware component obsolescence should not force a full system upgrade.

Modular: Standardisation and efficient deployment of control applications mirroring process modules/equipment is essential as these components of the chemical factory are typically built by multiple companies before they come together at site.

Interoperable: A chemical facility has differing automation needs even within a single site. As a result, chemical companies select best-in-class system for each automation requirement. Hardware/software components from multiple vendors can be put together seamlessly in a system architecture.

Sustainable: Application is easy to maintain and update.

Open: Edit and maintain applications or the control system … irrespective of who the supplier is.

Software-centric: Native integration with IT systems and ability to engineer control applications using IT talent pool — attracting the right talent is a challenge for the chemical industry.

Automation in the chemical industry requires machine, batch and continuous process controls that need to coexist and have varying control applications sizes.

Universal Automation.Org (UAO) applications will allow chemical customers to ensure agile and reliable production while protecting their automation investments.

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