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‘Improving plant efficiency boosts competitiveness and sets Chemicals Manufacturers up for long-term success’


In this week’s ChemTalk Q&A , I had the opportunity to pose a series of probing questions to Matthew Capstick, Sales Manager, Chemicals, Refining & Pharmaceuticals ABB UK Energy Industries, addressing  the uptake, challenges and opportunities of digitisation and automation within the chemical industry..

IS. To scene set, what are the current and future challenges facing the chemical & chemical product manufacturing sectors (competition/sustainabity/regulatory/performance/cost-efficiency/safety/agile etc etc)

MC: The UK Chemicals Sector faces a wide array of challenges. These span a range of areas, including but not limited to:

  • The implications of our future overseas relationships and trading arrangements as a result of Brexit, given the significance of exporting Chemical products to other countries. This includes applying for Authorised Economic Operator (AEO) status, having a clear view of UK REACH / EU REACH implications etc.
  • The regulatory regime within which manufacturers operate, including increasingly challenging regulatory targets (including for example, IED and new WGC (Common Waste Gas in the Chemical Sector) BREF)
  • The cost of energy and security of supply, in an energy intensive sector
  • The growing skills and competence gap, and competition vs other sectors for the right talent (including emerging and growing market segments that can draw on equivalent resource e.g. Hydrogen, CCUS, Renewables etc)
  • The competitiveness of the industry vs other geographies, particularly China
  • The adoption of Digital Technologies
  • The challenge of managing aged assets
  • The ever-increasing Cyber Security risk
  • And no list of challenges would be complete without mentioning the impact of Covid-19 on businesses, markets and behaviours

IS: Digitisation and Automation are the ‘buzz’ words of the day, but where are we ‘right now’ with respect to the Chemical industry’s adoption of its attributes? Both in terms of large players and the hundreds of SME speciality players?

MC: Over recent years, we have seen widescale recognition in the UK Chemicals Sector of the opportunity that Digitalisation creates, including opportunity to improve operations and make organisations more competitive. ABB see a shift in how Chemical Manufacturers are approaching Digitalisation, recognising that knowing what the journey looks like is the optimum place to start, not jumping straight to the solutions. By doing so, operators can start small and scale, or can ‘eat the elephant’, and can take themselves on a learning journey as they move forwards. Piloting a Digitalisation road mapping process at an individual site or implementing small scale deployments of Digital solutions at a site are becoming more prevalent. This allows operators to test ROI prior to wider scale deployment across multiple assets. Start small, then scale, is proving highly effective.

Operators can increasingly utilise the services of third party suppliers, who rather than bringing just their own view of what Digitalisation can achieve, also come armed with learning from an increasing array of partnerships with technology providers, a trend that has progressed rapidly in recent years. For example, ABB has strategic Digital partnerships with Microsoft, IBM, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and Dassault Systèmes, amongst others, that complement its existing Digital solutions and services capabilities.

Large players in Chemicals manufacturing are undoubtedly adopting the drive for Digitalisation at a corporate level, which is demonstrated by the creation in recent years of dedicated Digital Information Officers or Digitalisation responsible individuals, to aid their Digitalisation drive and to commit resource both at a corporate level and a site level to move forward their initiatives. Conversely, SMEs have thus far struggled to justify these standalone roles and are typically giving existing employees additional responsibility on top of their ‘day jobs’, thus progress with regards starting on a Digital journey has been slower.

IS: Where do you see the biggest challenges in rapid innovation successful uptake?

MC: In the UK Chemicals Sector, we have a significant brownfield asset base, much of which has been in existence for a considerable amount of time, and little by way of new greenfield developments. This creates challenges when it comes to innovation, in both the Digital and Automation spaces. Enabling new solutions often comes with challenges you don’t face with regards a Greenfield asset, when you can plan on a ‘blank sheet of paper’. These can include network infrastructure challenges, and compatibility with existing systems. As such, Operators are looking at addressing these challenges to allow themselves to adopt a true Digitalised future.
Increasingly, large suppliers including OEMs in this space have embraced the need for high levels of connectivity and requirements for flexibility in solutions to overcome such data transfer challenges, which is helping drive innovation on a brownfield asset base in earnest. Again, key to progressing is being able to demonstrate a clear ROI early in the process, taking into account any complexities (which often add cost). Implementing new technologies and driving innovation in a plant’s design phase is arguably easier and has the biggest impact on steam and fuel consumption, the primary sources of energy waste in most plants, two issues facing Manufacturers. Older plants may try to incorporate new technologies into existing infrastructure but realizing anticipated efficiency gains can be challenging.

IS: Are ‘Digitalisation uptake’, ‘Sustainability goals’ and ‘Safety goals’ inexorably linked?

MC: Improving plant efficiency boosts competitiveness and sets Chemicals Manufacturers up for long-term success. It also reduces waste, reduces environmental impact and helps manage risk appropriately. New digitalisation and automation technologies hold the key to increasing plant efficiency, but they also offer a host of other benefits that impact both capital and operational budgets.
The array of Digital Solutions that support Sustainability and Safety goals is extensive. For example, ABB has had significant success with our ABB Ability Safety Insight tool, which is an end to end Safety Lifecycle tool. In addition to offering customers a Digital based solution, that helps them manage risk on their assets, it also offers significant operational and engineering benefits to allow customers to be more competitive by using their engineering data in their decision making processes, and giving the organisation easy access to this data to make smart decisions.

IS: How crucial is digital adoption & energy management strategy to the UK’s global chemical sector’s long term prosperity?

MC: Competition is fierce in the Chemicals sector, both domestically and internationally, and as described above Digitalisation is key to driving competitiveness. With regards Energy Management, operators in the high hazard industries are facing increased electricity demands, escalating energy costs, increasingly challenging emissions targets and increased pressure on grid connections. Operators in the Chemicals sector are continually looking for efficiency and production gains, and thus many operators in recent years have been looking at options such as on site heat and power, to drive down their energy costs, lower their emissions, and remove reliance on the grid. There are also a range of Digital tools in the industry that help people achieve their Energy Management objectives, without large scale capital expenditure on new plant. For example, ABB’s OPTIMAX® solution enables industrial, commercial, island and other microgrids to cut their energy costs by 5% to 10% without impacting operations. OPTIMAX® provides day-ahead optimization based on weather and load forecasts. It then coordinates your energy resources — in real time — to balance supply and demand using dynamic load shedding.

About Matthew..

Matthew has some 15 years of experience with ABB, initially in the Consultancy space delivering works across the high hazard industries, and latterly with market segment responsibility for ABB’s customers in the Chemicals & Refining sectors.

Matthew and his team manage ABB’s extensive relationships and ongoing engagements with a wide range of Chemicals & Refining customers in the UK and internationally, ranging from SMEs to Multinationals, providing a range of solutions in the Engineering Consultancy, Digital Services and Electrical, Instrumentation, Control & Telecommunications Solutions & Service space.

ABB Energy Industries Overview

ABB is a leading global technology company that energizes the transformation of society and industry to achieve a more productive, sustainable future. By connecting software to its electrification, robotics, automation and motion portfolio, ABB pushes the boundaries of technology to drive performance to new levels. With a history of excellence stretching back more than 130 years, ABB’s success is driven by 110,000 talented employees in over 100 countries.
With over 5 decades of experience in delivery of complex projects within the chemicals and refining industries, ABB provides products, solutions and services that enhance the productivity and energy efficiency of a broad range of chemical processes, from the smallest batch plant to the largest continuous petrochemical complex.
We enable safe, smart and sustainable projects and operations. Safe because we support the highest industry standards and always focus on risk reduction. Smart because our integrated solutions come with 50 years of expertise with projects around world. And sustainable because we know that efficiencies make the difference – environmentally and operationally


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