09/05/2022 | Digital Innovation

Digitalization as an opportunity for the process industry

Digitalization is one of the big issues facing the process industry. At ACHEMA 2022, the often abstract topic became tangible – and tiptoed through the exhibition hall on stilted legs.

The innovation challenge “Plant Service Robot” in Hall 11.0 was a real magnet for visitors. That’s no wonder because there the digital future was within reach. Six teams and their robots were in competition with each other. The autonomous service robots had to prove in various tasks that they are fit for use in chemical production plants. These included an obstacle course that recreated the environment of a chemical plant, reading data and taking and transporting a sample. Some of the “new colleagues” walk like dogs on four legs, others are on wheels or chain driven. They perform their tasks with the help of cameras, sensors, and grip arms.

“What we are seeing here is a giant leap. The development is running at the speed of light, so to speak. Just three years ago, such robots were unthinkable. Until now, it was unimaginable that mobile systems would work autonomously,” said Dr Charly Coulon. His company Invite GmbH launched the competition together with BASF, Bayer, Boehringer Ingelheim, Merck and Wacker. All these companies hope to send robots into the factories to relieve employees in the near future.

They are particularly good at routine tasks, such as collecting data or taking samples – flexibly and around the clock. Another advantage is that the robots can be equipped with sensors and can conduct measurements anywhere in the plant. This means that fewer sensors would have to be permanently installed. Tasks that require world knowledge are challenging. “A robot has to be told everything, for example how to avoid obstacles. Grabbing a bag of unknown contents, that means unknown weight, without breaking it is very difficult for machines,” says Coulon. He expects that the robots could be available on the market before the end of this year. So far, a larger project team is needed to train the robot. In the future, they could be sold ready for use – just like domestic vacuum robots today.

Service robots are just one example of the broad topic of digitalization in the process industry. Other aspects were discussed in one of the Highlight Sessions at the ACHEMA Congress. Dr Kai Dadhe, Vice President Digital Process Technologies, Evonik Operations GmbH, compared the digital transformation to a journey. It takes time and you don't always know where it will lead you. He sees the human factor as the most important and most difficult aspect of that journey. New tools change work processes and the way we interact with each other. In addition, employees need to be educated and trained. Apart from that, a good data strategy is important, software must be maintained just like technical equipment, and technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) should be implemented where their use makes sense. He said: “We have entered the digital transformation journey. We don’t do it for the sake of tools. We do it to make our operations better, greener, more efficient.”

In his keynote, Robert Feldmann, Director EMEA Manufacturing Industries, Microsoft, explained the potential of artificial intelligence in the process industry and how it can be applied: In the future, there could be a hyper-efficient network in which a “big brain” has the overview of the local plants and makes decisions, like the tower at the airport. Factories could have their own “local brains” that communicate with the big one.

Artificial intelligence has great potential when it comes to optimizing existing plants. “We are forced to reduce our CO2 emissions. We are forced to treat our resources like water with more caution, and we are forced to waste less. Wasting less means becoming more efficient,“ said Robert Feldmann. “And only AI can achieve that because AI runs constantly 24 hours. It does 30- or 20-seconds adjustments and it runs autonomously.” AI applications can also have a financial benefit. Improvements of hundreds of thousands to millions of euros per year are possible. In many projects the payback is less than a year. In practice, AI has been used, for instance, to increase throughput, reduce the cost of steam, and to optimize the feedstock mix. But there are also hurdles: AI needs high-quality data, good data preparation, maintenance and it has to be done on a large scale. “We‘re not going to get the benefit if we just do one project here, another one here, another one here. We have to deploy it three hundred times, a thousand times, two thousand times,” said Feldmann. The experts agreed that AI will not replace humans but support them. “When it comes to the point that you need intuition, you need people. AI doesn’t know that,” explained Kai Dadhe.

It is also clear that the importance of digitalization in the process industry will increase in the coming years. That is why the “Digital Hub” was introduced as new exhibition group at ACHEMA 2022. There, exhibitors were able to demonstrate digital solutions, engage in discussions with companies and expand their network. “The exhibits make the topic much more tactile and digitalization tangible in a different way,” said Julia Lorei, Executive Director of the 4.OPMC Open Production and Maintenance Community. “The hub is also a good opportunity to make contacts. Because it’s hard to manage the transformation alone. It can only be done through cooperation.” For Microsoft, too, the appearance at ACHEMA was a good opportunity to exchange ideas with representatives of the process industry. Melanie Weber, Senior Industry Executive – Process Industry at Microsoft said: “This first big and important on-site industry event in a long time, offered us the opportunity to have plenty interesting, insightful and deep discussions about most important challenges and innovation ideas of the process industry decision makers and its suppliers. We clearly felt the growing interest of participants to collaborate within the ecosystem with partners and also an open mindset when it comes to digital transformation and cloud solutions.”

Some companies have already travelled far on the journey of digital transformation, others are just getting started. But sooner or later, no one will be able to avoid the topic. “For financial reasons alone, companies will have to digitize in order to survive,” said Tim Frie, Regional Sales Director Europe and Africa at Smap3D Plant Design GmbH. “At the moment, I have the feeling that many perceive digitalization as pressure. I think you should see it as an opportunity because it's great when processes run smoothly, and you can expand your horizons.”

A recording of the Highlight Session “Digitalization in process industry” can be found in the ACHEMA Media Library.

Further information on the innovation challenge “Plant Service Robot” is available here.


Julia Biermann

Corporate Communications, DECHEMA e.V.



Keywords in this article:

#automation, #digitalisation, #robotics

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