As sensing technology continues to become more ubiquitous and affordable, chemical processors have come to rely on quantifiable data collected from their assets to bring new products to market and optimize the production of current ones. Not only within the plant but across the entire enterprise, chemical makers are looking to digitalization to help ensure safety and deliver greater mechanical availability with lower maintenance costs. These improvements in turn increase utilization rates while lowering operating costs — a critical differentiator in a highly competitive marketplace.
Flexible, scalable and powerful, digital transformation technologies and strategies — coupled with a well-planned and executed pilot initiative — are driving a step change in plant performance (Figure 1). Companies that make the commitment to embark on a digital transformation reduce downtime by up to 70% and lengthen asset lifecycles by over 15%.
A small digital transformation initiative implemented with the right strategies can provide opportunities to build momentum and knowledge across the organization from a small initial investment.
Key Steps For Success
By leveraging ten critical steps, companies running a digital transformation pilot can avoid common roadblocks, helping deliver better implementations of any size. Let’s look at each of these steps.
1. Clearly define success criteria. Prescriptive analytics can glean new insights from data (Figure 2). However, because prescriptive analytics strategies are new, many organizations are skeptical about their impact. While caution is healthy when implementing new technology, undue skepticism sometimes can lead implementation teams to focus too much on technology and not enough on business goals. This can result in a rushed or poorly planned pilot implementation that incorrectly confirms a company’s worst fears and creates the mistaken conclusion it isn’t ready for digital transformation.
Operations leadership can navigate around this potential pitfall by understanding key performance indicator (KPI) goals and using those goals to drive decisions on pilot implementation. A gap analysis allows a company to see opportunities for improvement. These opportunities then drive business goals, helping teams create pilot projects with return-on-investment (ROI) impacts that are easy to quantify and demonstrate.
Setting goals matters. Consider the experience of one life sciences company that embarked on a pilot program to determine if digital transformation technology was right for a plant. Its reliability team focused primarily on data availability, assuming the best assets to test were those with the most instrumentation that also were common throughout the organization.
The problem with this approach was that the chosen skids are extremely stable pieces of equipment. Because these skids had few reliability issues, the data the team collected showed very few problems. Without problems, there were no solutions and no savings, making it hard to build a business case centered on the success of the pilot.
Planning for success also is essential. A large refinery determined that injecting a chemical into the oil refining process could enhance efficiency and lower costs of crude processing. Although the change potentially could significantly improve the refining process, it also ran the risk of very high temperature spikes. The company needed analytics to identify the perfect injection level to accomplish higher yield and better efficiency without compromising safety and production in the unit.
The company knew it could test four KPIs:
• energy consumption;
• optimization of production; and
• increase in equipment reliability.
Focusing on these specific, measurable KPIs underscored to the team the business opportunity related to the project. If the injection process had no or negative KPI impact, the project clearly wasn’t suitable. On the other hand, any positive impact on one or more KPIs would show the injection program had promise.
2. Understand current systems and solutions. Chemical makers often have many legacy systems that were put in place over decades of operation. Over time, these systems form a complicated web that can make integration of digital transformation appear difficult (and also complicate cybersecurity efforts: see “Combat Cybersecurity Threats to Process Safety").
A company can overcome the complication of interconnected legacy systems with an assessment of current equipment and practices. An architecture gap evaluation can help all stakeholders understand what systems are in place, the synergies between these systems, and what integration options exist.
Getting a clearer understanding of the successes and shortcomings of how the plant currently operates not only can simplify digital transformation but also provides value for numerous other initiatives. Armed with this knowledge — and the grasp of how any implemented technologies must meet cybersecurity and hazardous environment risk standards — the team can develop small pilot initiatives for integration into even the most complex system configuration.
3. Identify relevant stakeholders. As integration of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) gets more complex and as plants shift toward more industrial Internet of things (IIoT) infrastructure, additional stakeholders become relevant in digital transformation projects. Before implementing a project, an organization should reach out to relevant stakeholders to ensure that misunderstandings or corporate policies don’t impede successful execution.
Reaching out provides tangible benefits. Consider what happened at a global chemical processor ready to move on a large-scale digital transformation project. The implementation team had completed plans, set a timeline and even made purchases. However, the project ran into a roadblock because the team hadn’t communicated its plan to corporate leadership.
The team discovered that IT required validation of any new digital systems before implementation, per corporate restrictions. Waiting for this approval put the project on hold — mid-execution — for nearly three months. The brand-new equipment sat stagnant. Moreover, significant momentum for the project was lost, complicating scheduling, training, and startup further down the project path. Reaching out to the IT department before implementation would have saved the team substantial delay and frustration.
Implementation teams also must consider the end users as stakeholders. High quality, regular training should include how to use the new tools, where to use them, and how to maintain systems. Comprehensive training will give operators and maintenance staff the confidence to be effective and efficient, while drastically reducing the temptation to continue operating with old habits.
4. Redefine workflows. Before beginning a pilot implementation, a company must fully understand workflows that are already in place, and which of those the implementation of new systems will impact or remove. Cataloging critical workflows helps organizations define pains and needs. With these pains in mind, operations leadership can create customized solutions.
Teams can use information gathered from a workflow study to develop documentation, rules and key personnel as well as determine which old workflows have become redundant and need replacing. Such data also help define business needs because the results often show areas where work hours or resources are wasted on unnecessary, impractical or outdated maintenance procedures.
5. Design a solution architecture. Using the new KPIs developed from examining workflows and identifying stakeholders, an organization can begin to determine a path toward a successful pilot. In this step, engineering design —implementing new systems on top of the systems that currently exist — begins. Finding points of seamless integration is critical at this stage; successful programs needn’t be based on entirely new technology. By leveraging capabilities and equipment the company already has, coupled with new technologies and direction from solution providers, it’s possible to augment existing systems to deliver returns on investment (ROIs) that initially may not have been considered.
6. Chart the path. Always remember that positive change is about more than just putting new technologies in place and forgetting about them. Successful digital transformation pilots require proper planning, execution and documentation. Based on the data collected from previous stages, an organization must redefine the roles, responsibilities and relationships of personnel to drive success from digitalization, creating a foundation both for the success of the new technology and for the people who must operate it.
7. Start adopting new technology. Once all planning is complete and the transformation team is confident that it has accounted for redundant workflows and practices, a company can begin to integrate new processes and practices into the daily routine.
8. Deploy, operate and test the system. Monitoring progress allows detection and correction of any course deviations before they become instilled in the culture of the company, helping to ensure the work of putting together a predictive maintenance system doesn’t go to waste.
Three common methods exist for validation:
• Backwards validation involves reviewing historical data to ensure any new prescriptive maintenance technologies are catching the failures that happen in the plant. Typically, this is done by checking records to identify anomalies and then seeing if the predictive maintenance system caught them.
• Side-by-side validation takes advantage of old workflows and technology to check the performance of the new system. Many organizations choose to keep these in place for a predetermined period after implementing new predictive maintenance technologies. If these old but familiar procedures — often performed via visual inspection or with handheld analyzers — catch problems that were missed by automated systems, the team knows it must fine-tune prescriptive maintenance. However, it’s important to set a timeline for retirement of old workflows to avoid unnecessary expenditures on redundant analysis.
• Stress testing deliberately introduces failure into non-critical parts of the system to see if the prescriptive maintenance equipment catches it. This process offers the most control but also is the most invasive method of testing. It can be used either on its own or alongside another validation method.
No matter which method an organization chooses to confirm successful adoption, validation is necessary both to ensure safety and productivity and to show management and the workforce that the new systems are working. For a chemical maker looking to start small and gradually scale its pilot programs into global initiatives, validation is particularly important because it generates buy-in for better efficiency in the plant and faster approval for future projects.
9. Drive adoption. Getting the most from a digital transformation pilot requires employee buy-in on all levels. So, the transformation team should develop and implement a strategy to collect feedback from users at every level — and to apply that feedback in a measured, reliable way to make appropriate adjustments as the project progresses.
10. Plan to scale up. Mine the pilot program for ways not only to improve the processes that have been put in place but also for areas of the plant ripe for similar expansions. Use gathered ROI data to build a case for expansion of successful programs, remembering to look for opportunities everywhere (Figure 3).
Achieve A Lasting Impact
As with any step-change initiative, a company may experience potential roadblocks on the path to a digital transformation. However, the adoption benefits of a well-implemented digital transformation program of any size outweigh the costs and time spent. Starting with a pilot focused on leveraging the processes, technology and people already in place, and using those resources in a way that suits the unique needs of your facility can build the foundation upon which to create a scalable, business-need-driven program. Such a program not only can provide benefits today with potential availability improvements of 20% or more but also can drive improvements in operations across the lifecycle of your equipment.
WILL GOETZ, is Watertown, Ct.-based vice president – digital transformation, practice lead, for Emerson Automation Solutions, email: Will.Goetz@emerson.com. NIV WEISENBERG is an operations consultant in Austin, Texas.