By Dr. Paige Marie Morse, Industry Marketing Director, Aspen Technology, Inc.
Sustainability is emerging as a critical business topic, as many companies focus resources toward energy efficiency, pollution control, and value chain optimisation. This important concept can apply broadly to company operations, especially when considering the expansive view of the triple bottom line that measures the impact of company operations on people, planet, and profits.
Sustainability efforts have broad impact across a business, but fundamentally impact four key areas for processing industries: safety, efficiency, economics, and talent. While energy sustainability may be a clearly defined goal for some organisations, there are other areas that also benefit from energy-targeted sustainability efforts and vice versa.
Digital tools have been helping with sustainability goals for decades, since many digitalisation efforts often targeted efficiency improvements. However, while energy consumption reduction is typically measured solely in dollars, the industry is slowly moving toward more specific metrics about processes and the amount of energy saved. Additionally, companies are increasingly focused on reducing waste and discharge from production units, tasks that are more easily executed with the visualisation and efficiency capabilities of digital solutions.
Most advancements in digital transformation tend to result in tangible benefits across a variety of areas. Processes that lead to reduced energy consumption can lead to more business profit. Processes (like knowledge automation) that promote better employee onboarding or more technical guidance will not only attract and keep talent but can also help curb unintended manual mistakes during production. All four areas are linked through digital transformation and have an undeniable need for increased focus on sustainability.
Ensuring the safety of factory workers, along with the surrounding community, is paramount, and digital technology can help companies improvetheir performance. Beginning with simulation solutions that enable more accurate selection of safety equipment such as flares and pressure relief systems, digitalisation helps to design for process safety from the start. Monitoring and control technologies work to continuously optimise unit operations to stay within safety limits and alert for equipment failure and process degradation that can lead to unexpected incidents.
And when processes do not run as expected, digital technologies can provide insight and avoidance measures. Artificial intelligence gives operators advance warning of potential breakdowns so they can avoid the most dangerous conditions and reduce the amounts of effluents released into the environment.
For years, technology has had the ability to simulate and predict carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for different process options. However, as erring on the “greener” side of business has become the norm, organisations increasingly look for more visibility on important targets and ask for CO2 metrics on their operating and reporting dashboards. CO2 emissions related to energy of the process is the most obvious metric, but other efficiency metrics often include factors like on-spec or quality of production. A bad quality batch can be very costly in terms of energy and raw material wasted, as well as potential disposal costs. For complex processes, multivariate analytics solutions consider many process variables to identify those that are critical to reduce off-spec production and lower waste. Technologies that can improve the quality of production ultimately improves what companies can sell to customers, which, in turn, creates less waste and a more efficient process.
Another example of this is in scheduling tools, which help companies increase efficiency in production planning to eliminate waste throughout the supply chain. Scheduling tools can help companies decide when to make which product, based on customer demand, and in which order to make them —resulting in less energy usage and less waste in the production phase.
Digital simulation tools can also drill down into specific emissions that are tracked, correlating certain emissions with various steps in a reaction. For example, digital solutions will help organisations notate specific correlations and will help uncover specific data about each of the processes. This is not something that can possibly be done on a manual level, as so many industrial processes are too complex to track and adjust. Meanwhile, advanced digital tools help workers see the value in adjustments and guide them in how to make them.
Profits are often tied directly to sustainability. Consider the off-spec batch example: processes that prevent producing a bad batch help save an organisation money on the backend with less waste of raw material. Downtime can directly impact company revenue and profit.
In volatile industrial markets, making business profitability sustainable is crucial. Planning tools that give visibility on operational flexibility and aid decision-making capability during market fluctuations are important aids to company success. Additionally, insight into equipment reliability and performance, often called predictive maintenance, can give advance warning of outages so companies can better prepare to meet customer needs.
Predictive maintenance is not just a digital transformation tool, helping plants with operational efficiencies. It has a direct impact on an organisation’s bottom line by keeping machines running to the limits of their performance while avoiding maintenance and capital costs from unexpected failure. Reliability software in the maintenance process is a value creator in that sense. It knows the limits of equipment, so it enables organisations to get the most out of them from a production standpoint, knowing they are not going to cause damage or breakdown.
Building a future workforce is a critical need for all companies, especially as reports of as many as 2.4 MM unfilled jobs in the manufacturing sector. Technology can make plant work safer, especially through operator training simulations, allowing fresh hires to get a feel for their responsibilities, plant operations, and the different and challenging circumstances that may arise in those operations, in a totally simulated setting. It allows them to grow and learn and make mistakes in a closed environment that does not have real-world impact. Using technology to better train talent is a huge value-add to a company, but it also helps make the work and onboarding processes easier and more attractive to fresh talent.
In addition, software that helps guide talent to make better decisions and be more efficient in their work completely changes the nature of these industrial roles, bringing them into the modern age and removing a layer of complexity that has always existed in the factory, from a historical perspective.
Indeed, the importance of linking sustainability concepts to worker satisfaction cannot be underestimated. At a recent industry event,LyondellBasell CEO Bob Patel highlighted this importance noting, “Ten years ago, employees asked ‘how do I get ahead?’ Today a new employee asks, ‘how do I make a difference’”. Digital technologies are an important element in helping employees achieve their full potential. (www.aspentech.com)