From Industry 4.0 in Germany, the Third Industrial Revolution in the US, to Manufacturing 2025 in China, new manufacturing concepts are sprouting around the world. The fierce competition among manufacturing industries leads to higher market demands for both quality and efficiency. Companies can only thrive by constantly seeking for changes and leveraging great opportunities offered by digital technologies.
At BASF sites in China, 90 digital projects are in the pipeline, among which 40 have been launched. These projects are adapted to a variety of application scenarios, covering augmented/mixed reality, predictive maintenance and process optimization enabled by big data, among others. With in-depth understanding of actual conditions and pain points of each plant and facility, the company's digitalization teams have been developing customized solutions to meet different needs.
In the past, paper and pens were indispensable in chemical production. Now, through augmented reality (AR) technology, operators can use mobile devices to record production data directly. Reports are automatically generated, and, when necessary, maintenance orders are created in real time. Efficiency is greatly improved as it saves 10 to 15 minutes for each process.
Many thousands of batches are produced in a coatings production workshop at BASF each year. By scanning the QR codes on raw material packages with AR equipment, operators can record the feeding of materials, as well as the sequence and time of input. AR has become a part of the daily work of plant workers, helping to increase productivity.
AR has completely changed the traditional way of working – this is the most impressive experience to front-line workers. Under smart models, data is entered into platforms, and the expertise of people is incorporated into digital systems as well. Despite who is standing behind the facilities, data and expertise are accumulated, overcoming the increased challenge of the fast personnel changes in the manufacturing industry.
A chemical plant is usually complex, extensive and covers a huge area. In confined spaces such as underground pipes, chimneys and utility tunnels, workers are often exposed to high risks of oxygen deficiency or inhalation of harmful gases. Safety has always been the top priority for chemical companies, which is also a key area for digital technologies to be applied.
According to statistics, 3.5% of unplanned repairs are caused by equipment failure in the chemical industry. This can be partially avoided through effective equipment management. Predictive maintenance utilizes hundreds of sensors to capture real-time data from production facilities. It performs big data analysis with reference to historical data, and through customized modeling, multivariable analysis or data dimensionality reduction. In this way, the approach can identify and forecast potential problems, provide methods for the detection and prediction of anomalies in critical production assets, predict the optimal time for maintenance, optimize efficiency and minimize the impact of equipment failures.
Chemical production sites are required to monitor emissions data and disclose it to the public online. Many chemical companies are increasing investments in environmental protection equipment and measures to improve their environmental performances. Such practices are now aided by more accurate digital tools. Deep learning and neural network algorithms could predict emissions data within the next 15 to 30 minutes, providing automatic alarming to help companies take preventive measures and ensure compliance. In future, it could automatically control and adjust the key process parameters based on the predicted values generated by machine learning algorithms, thus enabling more sustainable operations.
Since concrete walls and metal facilities attenuate wireless signals, traditional navigation satellite systems can hardly apply to chemical plants. However, in the event of an emergency at a production site, real-time positioning is critical.
With "Bluetooth + LoRa" positioning technology, Shanghai BASF Polyurethane Co., Ltd. has enabled a variety of safety map applications. For example, the safety index management shows the ratio of contractors and security staff on site. Once the index exceeds the reasonable range in a specific area, the system will automatically issue an alarm to stop more people from entering the area. The system also provides an e-fence function that monitors in real time whether a person entering a particular area has access permission, which greatly helps during a turnover period.
At present, the development of digitalization in chemical manufacturing is still limited by communication networks to some extent. The high cost of cables between facilities, the signal attenuation between plants, and the delay of signals are preventing the high-precision process from fully benefiting from digitalization. However, this situation will be completely changed after the large-scale application of 5G technology.