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Connected Chemical Production: Don’t Let COVID-19 Derail Your Efforts

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COVID-19 is not only disrupting production in chemical plants, it’s threatening digital initiatives in an industry that already lags most others when it comes to digital adoption.

Prior to the pandemic, there was genuine excitement about digital transformation among chemical producers. Many were looking at opportunities to use new technologies to improve and reimagine their operations or were even taking the first steps in their digital initiatives. Now, producers are re-evaluating their cap-ex spending in response to reduced or uncertain customer demand.

But the pandemic doesn’t need to stop the momentum of your digital initiatives, especially if you’re still in the early exploratory or planning stages like many other chemical producers. In fact, a slowdown in your business can be the ideal time to focus your efforts on creating a robust digital foundation – one that can accommodate your initiatives and position them for success.

Laying the groundwork

The end goal for most chemical producers is real-time information. This information can provide faster and better insights than paper-based systems. And it can help drive improvements in areas like asset utilization, energy usage, and safety and sustainability.

But how do you get that information? Digital solutions like analytics, MES and digital twin play a role. They can turn raw production data into meaningful information to help plant workers make better business decisions.

However, these technologies can only do their jobs when the right digital foundation is in place. This foundation is a combination of your networks, business and production systems, and connected plant-floor assets that allow real-time data to securely flow to every level of your organization.

Your foundation must be robust enough to satisfy your current and future communications needs. It must be consistent across your operations to avoid islands of information and allow your digital initiatives to scale. And it must be secure to help protect your people, intellectual property and processes from cyber-threats.

Fortunately, given the budget constraints that many now face, building your foundation doesn’t need to be a costly, all-at-once endeavor. You can build it piece by piece, at a speed and price that makes the most sense for your business.

Considerations for your plan

To make sure future investments in your foundation are the right ones, think now about what you’ll need in the coming years to create robust, scalable and secure connected operations.

For example, update the design standards for your entire platform to include equipment and instruments. This will allow you to replace aging production assets with the data-enabled assets your foundation will need, instead of replacing them with the usual like-for-like approach.

A network assessment can also help you identify what network changes might be needed to help you integrate your assets and correlate data across them. Ultimately, your network infrastructure should give you a backbone for scalable and secure connectivity.

For any software you intend to use, make sure you can scale it across your operations and sustain it for the long-term. Some chemical producers have learned that custom software, like MES solutions that are developed in-house, can be difficult to sustain with limited resources to support them. If your resources leave, your ability to manage this critical layer goes with them.

Building on your foundation

Now is an excellent time to start planning for not only your digital foundation but also the digital initiatives you want to implement on it.

This involves identifying the business challenges you want to solve. Then, you can prioritize and plan for each initiative.

Based on our experience working with chemical producers, it can be best to start with the “easy” wins. They can help you quickly demonstrate value of your initiatives and build support for larger, longer-term opportunities. Also, make sure you identify the results you want to achieve and can capture them.

To learn more about putting your organization on the path to a connected chemical plant, visit our chemical industry site.

Robert Swim
Robert Swim
Strategic Account Manager, Chemical Industry, Rockwell Automation

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