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Digital Transformation in the Chemical Processing Industries

Digital Transformation in Chemical Industry

Sensors, instruments, and other devices are increasingly being networked with computers in the chemical processing industry.

The integrated data collection, exchange, and analysis system are allowing companies to enhance product quality, lower maintenance costs, reduce downtime, and improve process safety. It is also helping manufacturers efficiently utilize resources and optimize energy use. The article discusses specific examples of how new technology is allowing companies to achieve these objectives.

  1. Introduction
  2. Current Industry Trends
  3. Innovations & Benefits
  4. Problems in implementation
  5. Conclusion


Smartphones have transformed the way we communicate, collaborate, plan, and execute tasks. A smart device integrates various sensors such as an ambient light sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, GPS unit, and proximity sensor, which collect and store data.

The collected data is processed locally or transmitted to the cloud for analysis. The information is used to compile informative reports, raise alerts, or generally help us make informed decisions. For example, your phone may alert you regarding a traffic jam on your way to work based on your GPS data or it may notice that your level of physical activity has been below par this week. It also uses the sensor data for self-adjustment such as changing the screen brightness with a change in ambient light.

This data-based self-tuning and availability of useful insights into everyday tasks have revolutionized the way we work. The chemical industry is going through a digital transformation of the same proportion.

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is the interconnection of sensors, instruments, and other devices networked with computers in industrial applications. This integrated data collection, exchange, and analysis system facilitate improvements in productivity and efficiency leading to significant economic and social benefits.

IIoT is not just about process control; it is about making data more widely accessible and getting the right information to the right person, at the right time.

Current Industry Trends

The current transformation in the chemical processing industry is driven by the following technological advancements which form the backbone of IIoT:

  • Availability of a new generation of smart sensors and smart diagnostic equipment
  • Secure and reliable networking of a large number of individual devices
  • Transfer of large amounts of data in real-time and with minimum delay
  • Wireless technologies reducing connectivity costs within the plant and beyond

The increasing number of sensors and smart devices generate large volumes of data. Advanced computing technologies are being employed to connect these devices to each other and to analyze and use the data in a variety of ways. The digital data is transformed into digital intelligence through the use of advanced analytics.

The interconnected architecture creates an intelligent network allowing decisions to be made based on recurring patterns rather than individual measurements. The intelligent networks along with the entire value chain feedback into each other triggering alerts and predicting failures.

Innovations & Benefits

Maintaining a competitive edge, in the face of stiff competition, is a key driver for digital transformation in the chemical processing industries. Businesses must lower production costs, reduce downtime, and respond swiftly to changes in market demands.

Digital integration of the entire value chain eliminates layers of complexity to bring relevant business intelligence directly to decision-makers in key areas. Intelligent networks are being employed in chemical processing industries to achieve a variety of business objectives. Major chemical companies are fast integrating IIoT into their existing facilities and planning for their digital future.

BP plc monitors more than 1,700 wells at its Prudhoe Bay field. Personnel was required to record manual readings from each well in extreme weather, with temperatures as low as -50°C. Working with Emerson, a global technology and engineering company, BP replaced existing mechanical pressure gauges with more than 3,500 Rosemount Wireless Pressure Gauges on wellheads.

The wireless gauges transformed the way BP monitors its wells. The system provides continuous real-time data and notifications of good anomalies without the need for staff to physically enter the well. The wireless gauges can update readings at a rate of once per minute which were previously updated only once per day. Through a digital transformation of its monitoring system, BP was not only able to reduce personnel risk and costs but also able to increase the safety of its valuable facilities.

Unitywater owns 17 sewage treatment plants in 3 different regions of Australia. Wastewater is treated in the plant before it is recycled or discharged into rivers or oceans. The flow of wastewater is controlled through the use of penstock gates. The gates were being operated manually with personnel using ladders to access them. It took a team of 4 people 6 hours to fully open or close a valve.

The company installed Rotork intelligent electric actuators to automate the operation of the penstock gates. The system allows operators to carry out operation and configuration from up to 100 m away. Event logs and torque profiles from the system can be accessed and downloaded remotely and analyzed on computers running specialized software for asset management and maintenance prediction purposes. Through the digitalization of its operations, Unitywater was able to reduce personnel and maintenance costs while increasing the efficiency of its operations.

Eastham refinery was faced with operational challenges in the management of its bitumen loading operations at the refinery’s terminal. The critical system and asset availability issues were causing losses in productivity and profitability. Eastham selected Emerson for the design and implementation of its terminal automation system to enhance system reliability and availability. With the new integrated solution, implemented at the Eastham site, operators can now access inventory and other operational data in real-time.

The system minimizes costly errors and delays, maximizes tanker load quantities and greatly reduces the likelihood of safety incidents. The digital transformation of Eastham’s operations has helped the company achieve a significant reduction in operation and maintenance costs and downtime. The scalable logistics management solution has helped Eastham achieve operationally and capital performance within the top 25 percent of its peer companies.

SNF s.a.s. produces water-soluble polymers used in a tertiary oil recovery method called polymer flooding. Expert application knowledge is necessary to ensure that the right polymer, with suitable dosing and mixing, is injected into the well, depending on temperature, permeability, water composition, and other variables. To address the challenge, SNF needed a turnkey solution that could be quickly set up in oil fields. SNF developed polymer injection skids that employ a wide variety of digital process instruments including pressure, level, and temperature transmitters; flow-meters, pH, and conductivity analyzers.

Previously, the company was using separate hand-held terminals to obtain readings from these instruments. It has now implemented a FieldMate device tool, loaded on a tablet, to assist with configuration and commissioning of skids. The new system provides a single interface for all intelligent devices which allows users to easily navigate all details such as diagnostics, configuration parameters, and maintenance information.

The skid installations and an integrated management system ensure the correct preparation, mixing and dosing of polymers as part of the oil recovery process. The system has helped SNF streamline device commissioning and maintenance tasks, increase productivity and cut maintenance and service costs.

Akzo Nobel, a Dutch manufacturer of paints and performance coatings, has been driving digitalization across its entire business. The availability of actionable data is allowing the company to reduce reliance on “gut feeling” and make better decisions based on real-time data. The company is utilizing data collected across the value chain to make decisions about plant utilization, selecting R&D projects to fund, and choosing sales accounts to focus on.

Dow, a US manufacturer of plastics, chemicals, and agricultural products, ranks amongst the top three chemical companies in the world. It is connecting data streams from R&D, manufacturing, marketing, and supply chain to better serve its customers. The company also aims to utilize big data and augmented reality to improve its safety performance and help achieve its sustainability goals.

Evonik Industries, a German specialty chemicals company, has underlined the importance of digital transformation by establishing a digitalization subsidiary. It is developing a digital business model to realize a truly personalized customer experience. The company believes that future competition will be between business models rather than between physical products or process technologies.

IIoT is helping companies achieve various business objectives. Some of these objectives are discussed below with relevant applications:

Enhance product quality

The availability of a new generation of sensors, interconnected to advanced analytics, is helping chemical engineers improve process control to increase the consistency of results. Instead of detecting variation only after it crosses a critical limit, manufacturers can now sense and predict tiny output variations by applying analytics to the data as it streams off the production line.

Minor variations can be communicated upstream for corrective adjustment of process parameters. Information can also be communicated downstream to make adjustments that ensure that the final product is within specifications.

Lower maintenance costs, reduce downtime and improve process safety

Proper maintenance of production equipment can help avoid equipment failure during production, reducing downtime, and increasing production efficiency. The traditional, scheduled maintenance approach, prescribes periodic checks based on manufacturer’s recommendations or historical data.

This approach, however, allows for unexpected failures between maintenance checks. Processors are now taking a more proactive approach to maintenance which relies upon condition monitoring. For example, pumps are literally the heart of many chemical processes. Manufacturers are now monitoring several variables such as vibrations, suction and discharge pressures, temperature, motor current, motor voltage, and pump flow to predict pump failure and to trigger maintenance checks autonomously.

Efficiently utilize resources

Companies are utilizing valuable resources more efficiently by connecting their inventory data to intelligent networks. They are taking advantage of self-organized logistics that react to any unexpected changes in inventory. For example, bulk storage of liquid or powdered raw materials is widely used in the chemical industry.

Implementing IIoT for storage tank monitoring is allowing manufacturers to improve production planning with level monitoring through the use of networked wireless sensors. The system is also helping companies guard against leaks, theft, and product tampering.

Optimize energy use

IIoT technology is going beyond basic process control to provide additional sensing for energy conservation. Suboptimal performance of heat exchangers can lead to increased use of energy, rising costs, and increasing a company’s carbon footprint.

Traditionally, heat exchangers were wired to control systems by shutting down the process and installing thermo-wells and temperature sensors. New clamp-on, non-intrusive wireless transmitters are now in use to measure the external pipe temperature at various points. The data is used in thermodynamic equations to calculate the temperature inside. The technology allows continuous monitoring of heat exchanger performance and early detection of energy inefficiencies.

Problems in implementation

Implementing IIoT in the industry offers a host of benefits but also poses its share of problems. Sensors and devices from various vendors are not always able to talk to each other.

Data may be stored and transmitted in varying formats by different devices which must be converted to a standard format. Companies are concerned about the security of their data and show aversion to its transmission over public networks and storage in the cloud.


Digital transformation offers opportunities for significant performance improvements to chemical processing companies. Manufacturers must identify their key objectives to devise a suitable strategy which not only upgrades their plant and equipment but also transforms the way they do business.

In order to truly reap the benefits of the digital age, companies must also work on changing their organizational culture by reevaluating traditional practices. Connecting devices and rewiring networks is a good start but the eventual goal must be to connect key business areas and rewire the flow of actionable information.


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