Commentary: The age of digitisation in chemicals

06 July 2017 21:50 Source:ICIS Chemical Business

The news that BASF is close to launching a powerful new computer, the 65th largest in the world, gives an indication of the importance leading chemical companies now place on digitisation in boosting the effectiveness of research and operational efficiency. BASF will have its new 1.75 petaflop supercomputer in operation in Ludwigshafen, Germany, soon, the company’s director of research, Martin Brudermueller, told journalists in late June.

A petaflop is defined as the ability of a computer to do one quadrillion floating point operations per second (flops) and requires a large number of computers to work in parallel on solving a problem. BASF needs more computing power as customers and market demands become more sophisticated, Brudermueller said at an annual research and development press event. He believes that digitalisation is the most significant leverage the company has in research and development.

In chemicals, it will help BASF reduce time to market and costs by simulating processes on catalyst surfaces more precisely, or accelerating the design of new polymers with pre-defined properties. Analysts at Jefferies are convinced BASF’s commitment to investing in this technology will give it a competitive edge for around five years. During this time the company can leverage new systems to strengthen its formulations business. “We expect IT capabilities to commoditise, but the breadth of BASF’s technology platforms and market contacts should be more sustainable competitive advantages,” they said.

Jefferies believes that data collaboration with customers will stimulate innovation and can improve project accuracy and speed and cut costs. Sharing can also optimise manufacturing by identifying bottlenecks.


BASF’s Brudermueller says digitisation is a powerful tool

The possibilities of digitisation for the chemicals sector are almost endless and could be a way to help companies stimulate the growth and profitability which are so elusive in the new normal of slow growth or flat economies. Something as simple as collaborating with customers by embedding sensors in their storage tanks to measure inventory levels could improve efficiency up and down the supply chain.

Consultants at Accenture recently flagged up an example where companies could use 3D scanners to map an entire petrochemical complex, from the reactors to the pipes. From these, a digital model can be developed to which data from sensors can be overlaid, providing operators with real-time operating conditions.

By Will Beacham