Chemicals Manufacturing: New Technologies, New Thinking

FactoryConsider this quote from a high level Chinese spokesman: As supply of capital, land and other factors is on the decline and resource and environmental restriction become more serious, the proportion of first and second industries, which consume capital, land and energy heavily and pollute the environment will fall. This is non-conventional thinking, but needs to be considered.

It is instructive to look at this in the context of the unprecedented new investment in shale gas-based new ethylene plants. 10 million new tons of ethylene need to be placed at a time when U.S. ethylene derivatives production is barely rising. The new ethylene volumes can only be accommodated if major new exports are identified, much worldwide ethylene closures occur and U.S. derivatives demand increases substantially. None of these options are sure, particularly as crude oil prices come down. So, the profitability of these giant plants is in question. It seems as if the Chinese are on to something, particularly as new technology appears on the horizon. While the concepts described below may not apply to polyethylene manufacture, new investment in giant plants may be increasingly risky (given issues of land use, pollution, resource availability and cost and, last not least profitability.)  Many companies are therefore looking at new concepts such as Bayer’s “Factory of the Future” and other initiatives being carried out by Western European companies and research organizations who are developing new approaches to manufacturing, employing novel technologies and modular designs. The goal is to use “plug-and-play” technologies to increase investment flexibility and deliver faster time to market. These are now starting to be implemented across the chemical industry, with companies such as Rhodia-Solvay, Astra-Zeneca, Evonik. BASF and Proctor& Gamble providing case studies. The chemical industry was once defined as consisting of “commodity” and “specialty” chemical chemicals. Companies are now considering how the changing world and new technologies will define their future activities.

New technologies, first trumpeted widely, then considered as unlikely to see commercial success before overcoming initial obstacles, are now starting to take over important roles, with 3D printing a prime example. GraphThis interesting graph(sorry- difficult to read, but see link)  was published by respected firm Gartner to illustrate how new technologies showing promise at innovation go through a cycle of initial enthusiasm(peak), then disappointment(trough) then, for certain ones, adoption and commercial application.

As an example, if your car needs a new bumper it may take a week or more to get it from a warehouse to your body shop. Why wouldn’t it be simpler to download the design and “print” the bumper at the shop, ready to go in less than a day.

I believe we are at the start of brand new thinking in manufacturing – new techniques that started with the use of robots and are now branching out in many directions. Chemical firms will look at the many opportunities that new technologies provide for polymers and other molecules to use in the new approaches to manufacturing.

 

 

 

 

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