Digitization: Catalyst for chemical industry’s growth

Digitization: Catalyst for chemical industry’s growth

Despite numerous challenges, Indian chemical companies are warming up to the concepts of digital driven automation and smart factories

  • By Rahul Koul | August 02, 2021

Various types of software are playing a key role in the automation of an entire plant without the need for any external help, says Maulik Patel, Chairman & Managing Director, Meghmani Finechem Ltd. that is looking at successful commissioning of its fully automated Epicholorohydrin and plant during the first quarter of 2022.

Patel explains: “Given the COVID-19 scenario, the entire project will be executed digitally. Our team has adapted itself to the changes and the work has been progressing fairly well but there were challenges such as delay in manufacturing of equipment by 2.5 months. Despite the challenges, we are looking at getting both the projects commissioned in the first quarter of next financial year. As of now, the smart factory is a challenge as skilled manpower is scarce. In India, we are not doing complete automation as in western countries. We keep a room for physical interventions as the Capex is lesser in that case. However, the way the chemical industry is expanding, the companies are going for completely automated plants because of attrition of people and also because contract manpower shortage became an issue during the pandemic. Though it is a long journey, I am sure we will soon get real-time data on a daily basis online to address issues in plants.”

Patel shared these insights at the E-conference on "Digitization: Achieving Optimization of Operations, Newer Products & Customer Engagement" organized by Indian Chemical News on July 30, 2021. The virtual event moderated by Pravin Prashant, Editor, Indian Chemical News was attended by many other experts from chemical industry.

Institutionalizing digitization is important, says Rino Raj, Chief Information & Digital Officer, Tata Chemicals Ltd. who also agrees that it is a developing field and not too many solutions are available as of now.

“On the plant and operations side, we have witnessed many awareness campaigns that have started developing within projects. A lot of experience is getting generated. Safety of data is our priority as we are trying to identify data sets. While we are limited by availability of data but whenever we have enough data, relevant features within the same have to be identified and taken forward. Technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) rely on rich data. It indeed is a long journey as data must get enough platforms to make sense out of it. There should be the ability to create an overall analysis. It should not be able to just make recommendations but make the challenge itself. Aim is to help a human being in the operation room. While we are making a change in an automatic manner, it is always linked to the accuracy of the model. The changes have to be such that management could trust a machine to do it,” opines Raj.

“Digitization is a journey. Nobody can claim to achieve it fully in one go. It is a cross functional exercise that includes electrical, mechanical, digital etc. aimed to maximize production and reduce dependency on humans. The challenge is that people who generally work together are a bit hesitant when it comes to digitization," says Vivek Gupta, Assistant Vice President & Head - Instrumentation, DCM Shriram Ltd. 

On what drives digitization, Gupta says, “The goal of every company is to run its plant with full efficiency. These days, the word ‘production’ has been replaced with productivity. If we have people who need to take the measurements of equipment then there is all the need for automation of such manual jobs. We can at least take up small automations to cut down on the losses. Overall efficiency of equipment could be monitored. Smart box tells us how long a compressor could run. It is not only giving us alerts about duration but the overall health of the equipment. The basic parameters such as temperature, noise and other few things are never thought of. Cooling tower doesn’t get the attention it requires. The introduction of sensors in this direction can certainly help. Digitization will help us achieve complete remote monitoring. With the help of technology, we can make the data available and use that to monitor and predict. That way we are also ensuring the safety of equipment. Dashboard is for monitoring but use of sensors can tell us the exact issues. We can actually do comparisons between the health of the assets before digitization and after it. That way we can satisfy the expectations of the management.”

“Digitization is a part of our survival down the line and companies must accept this change, says Partha Sur, General Manager -Technology, Haldia Petrochemicals Ltd. who points out its role in ensuring sustainability.

“The rankings on sustainability index to avail loans might soon become a reality. Given that companies are always looking at ways to address the safety and environmental regulations, they employ the rule of reduce and reuse. Digitization can help in reducing the environmental footprint. Digitization is vast and there are a lot of technology tools such as sensors, 5G, 4G, robotics, cloud and so on that are a part of the smart manufacturing process. Since at present complete automation is still a dream but we need to begin somewhere. For an entire value chain, the data validity, infrastructure, capability development, and skill sets are required in course of time. The companies, therefore, must become learning organizations. It is important that when you build a new plant, design a plan that is futuristic. Plan should be in such a manner that you adopt the technology as you move forward.”

Resolving the pain points, especially in chemical companies, is part of digitization, says Mithilesh Kumar, Chemicals & Natural Resources Industry Practice, Accenture.

“The companies have to re-orient their approach towards customer usage and experience. They must realize that the orthodox way of working is no longer feasible as their customers are well aware of digital technology. Chemical companies abroad are using the concept of fail fast and fail early. This helps them to gain experience that is later used to set the things in accordance with customer expectations. As of now there is a traditional approach and then there are small means such a configuration to help customers choose the same product. Enabling sales force and developing customer proximity are the goals,” says Kumar.

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