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  • Hiren Shethna

My thoughts on Industrial Revolution 4.0 ...

We hear about AI, ML, Digital Twin, Big Data, Cloud, and similar terms used under Industry 4.0, My view is that many of these technologies are not new to the chemical process industry, but rather the chemical process industry is trying to repositioning itself to the fact that Industry 4.0 has made management in general across all industry more aware of these technologies.

For example, chemical process industry always used digital twin for the last 30 years if not more. Technologies such as Real Time Optimization, Operator Training are all facets of digital twin which have been around for very long. But perhaps not recognized as such by Industry in general. Models (digital twins) of plants have always been used by the EPC and Licensors for the sake of design and troubleshooting of plants.

The use of ML in the form of linear and non-linear regression has been with the process industry since Advanced Process Control and Linear programs were utilized for process planning and optimization. Model based price forecasting has always been performed in the industry. Even you can see some use of AI (nueral networks) in publications 20 years ago. So, the application of some of the Industry 4.0 related technologies is evolutionary, and would have happened even if the glamour around it was absent.

But in some ways change even in the chemical process industry has been revolutionary …

In my opinion, a key change is the introduction of the cloud and computing power. This is indeed revolutionary and has made more things possible which were not possible before.

First it has helped in greater digitalization of information. Manufacturing Operations Management which were once a dream is now a reality in many chemical industries. At my previous employer, significant real projects under MOM were planned and executed and benefits reaped. This is enabled in part due to visionary experts, due to significant greater exposure of management to Industry 4.0 benefits, and due to better software and hardware. And I believe more and more process industries should and will ride this MOM wave.

Another area which has seen revolutionary growth directly due to the availability of better computing power and the cloud, is the area of predictive and prescriptive maintenance. Our ability to run through very large quantity of data to recognize patterns of failure of equipment and use that to reduce plant downtime and improve profitability of plants was largely unheard of even in the early 2000’s. We can say that this combination of AI and Big Data to the process industry for optimized maintenance is in its childhood (and not infancy), and will very likely become common-place as LP’s or APC is today. We certainly will expect more academic and industrial investment go into this area, which has seen some success already.

Cloud computing thus was an enabler, which helped sharp minds and technical visionaries utilize it to fast forward the application of some of the Industry 4.0 technologies especially AI. I am sure, there will be many more areas within the chemical process industry which has yet to see the utilization of Big Data and AI for improvement of its safety and profitability.

As I write this view, we are in the grips of a once in lifetime pandemic event. The power of the Internet and the Power of the cloud has still enabled several of us to continue working, albeit from home. Whether to be happy or unhappy about it is a choice we have all have to make!

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