By 2025, digitisation stands to unlock over £400 trillion of value for the chemical industry.
What’s more, manufacturing operations readily have the infrastructure for embracing digital. Existing automated operations, process controls, sensors and real-time data systems generate crucial insights that couldn’t all be analysed, until recently.
Today, big data analytics enable chemical companies to capitalise on their data to better streamline operations and meet rapidly changing customer needs without escalating costs. However, while some infrastructure may be in place, many chemical companies still struggle to know how to best leverage digital technologies to achieve optimal returns.
In this article, I’ll outline the key benefits and barriers of digital transformation in chemicals, and explore how industry leaders are unlocking the potential of digitalisation through their hiring decisions.
Key benefits and barriers to digital transformation in the chemical industry
In 2017, the UK government commissioned Made Smarter to lead a review on how UK manufacturing industries can prosper through digital tools and innovations.
The review involved over 200 organisations across manufacturing, academia, trade bodies and technology companies and resulted in almost 1,000 companies receiving funding for industrial digital technology in 2020.
They found chemical manufacturing organisations equipped with industrial digital technology benefitted from:
- Real-time visibility of processes/supply chains
- Recording of all process conditions and parameters
- Shortened changeover
- Improved quality control through data analysis and automation
- Eliminating ergonomically disadvantageous tasks
- Faster machine fault diagnosis
- Integration of data from R&D and manufacturing
- Improved maintenance efficiency
However, the project’s success was not without its challenges.
Made Smarter identified several barriers and threats to the project’s success that remain key industry challenges.
Key barriers included:
- Skills shortage – Skills shortages in digital engineering capabilities remain hindered by a fragmented skills system and a lack of systematic engagement between education and industry.
- An ineffective landscape of business support – limited empirical evidence, and no clear route to access help make it difficult to understand what ‘good’ digital transformation looks like, and successfully implement it.
- Cybersecurity threats – risks around cybersecurity and a lack of common standards that enable technologies to connect can make adopting new technology challenging, particularly for SMEs.
- Lack of funding – Although the UK has previously funded the technology under a pilot scheme, the UK’s tax system is not targeted enough to incentivise end to end digitalisation.
How industry leaders are achieving the next level of operational excellence in chemicals
While it’s clear that digitisation can deliver immense returns across chemical manufacturing, achieving operational excellence takes more than just large-scale implementation.
Research from Accenture reveals that while most major chemical companies are investing in digital innovation, less than a quarter are succeeding.
However, the companies that did achieve success not only scaled more than half of their proof of concepts; they earned higher than average return on digital investment. Meanwhile, more than 75% of other companies earned lower than the industry average, regardless of how much they scaled by.
The research suggests that to truly unlock the potential of large-scale digitalisation, chemical organisations must have a strategic commitment to facilitating innovation. To succeed, chemicals organisations need to find, and hire skilled professionals, align and upskill their workforce, and support their people to manage and utilise the technology to its full advantage.
While large-scale implementation may deliver benefits on paper, without the right workforce the technology won’t enable business success.
According to Deloitte, talent enablement remains a key hurdle to digital success
Industry-leading chemical organisations overcome this by not only investing in new technologies, but skills programs and training opportunities that create seamless and holistic development opportunities across the business.
This in turn, boosts brand image and helps establish the organisation at the forefront of the chemicals field, attracting more specialists and experts with the interest and capability to make the most of digitalisation.
Candidates can prepare themselves for this by considering their career development in the wider context of digitalisation. Understanding how digitalisation is influencing the industry and developing the right skills to capitalise on new technology will enable career progression across the future of chemicals.
The future of digitalisation in the UK chemical industry
While many in the chemicals sector are familiar with the current technological landscape; including sensors, monitors, and alarms – they are yet to fully understand how digital techniques can be applied holistically across operations.
The future of digitalisation in the UK relies on empowering and equipping the people behind the industry with the tools, knowledge and training to fully succeed.
This means communicating successful case studies, establishing demonstration facilities and turning to experts and strategic partners for support to develop the skill base required to move forward.
It also means that companies may need to accept compromises on skills when hiring and invest in the right training and upskilling opportunities for new talent, as well as established workers to fully capture the advantages of digitalisation.
Investing in junior, rather than senior talent also provides an opportunity to balance out spending and free up the financial collateral to capitalise on better innovative technologies, faster.
While discreet digitalisation projects have long been the norm, it’s time for leaders to go beyond the constraints of small scale adoption, to holistic end-to-end implementation.
Looking to the future, leaders must develop a knowledge of digital techniques, and an understanding of where they can be applied for the most benefit for their organisation. Accomplishing this starts with leveraging data with AI and empowering the workforce with the skills required to capture the full benefits digitisation has to offer.
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