How Big Data Is Changing Chemical Manufacturing
Big data and analytics can make chemical manufacturing more efficient, cutting the cost and time needed to bring a new product to market and improving the industry’s environmental impact, according to Lux Research.
In a new report, Big Data and Analytics in Chemicals: From Cheminformatics and LIMS to Launch, Lux Research says novel sensors, materials and information technologies are making research and development more effective, integrating lab data with chemical databases and academic literature, and quickening the pace of innovation cycles.
Mark Bünger, Lux Research VP and lead author of the report, tells Environmental Leader that big data and analytics can also help chemical companies and their customers, as well as the government and independent organizations that watch them, in their efforts to make the industry more environmentally sustainable.
“A lot of the ways are just simple things that improve normal business practices: reducing the amount of energy and materials wasted, for example, by better understanding supply, demand and the operating condition of the plant,” Bünger says.
“Monitoring equipment to make sure it’s operating in the safe range, to avoid breakdowns, and hazards like spills or explosions,” he continues. “Better tracking of safety incidents, so the conditions that lead to them and the methods for remediating them are better documented and communicated. Providing better data within the company, and to regulators and the public so that everyone can make smarter, more informed decisions about the impact of chemicals and chemical processes on the environment.”
These benefits apply to other industries as well and can be seen in the emergence of “smart factories” that are using big data to drive efficiency, along with environmental, health and safety improvement, on the factory floor. This includes data outputs, which involve using connected devices and mobile apps — think about, for example, using a mobile device to scan a barcode from a chemical container, thus enabling an audit of chemical inventory that can be transferred to a safety data sheet.
In a more futuristic-sounding example, late last year Honeywell and Intel showcased a prototype of a personal connected safety system for industrial workers and first responders that collect data from a variety of sensors on a worker. It pulls data from a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), a heart rate monitor, and other devices, including a toxic gas monitor, an activity detection device, and a non-verbal gesture device.
Using this data, the Honeywell Connected Worker system monitors workers for toxic gas exposure, breathing, heart rate, posture and motion. The resulting data is displayed remotely on a cloud-based dashboard, giving plant managers and incident commanders the information needed to better anticipate unsafe conditions that could threaten worker safety, as well as prevent equipment failure that could create unsafe conditions or costly downtime, Honeywell says.
More specific to the chemical industry, Bünger says big data and analytics can help chemical companies find and formulate new compounds that are more environmentally friendly.
“This is a branch of big data and analytics called cheminformatics, and basically provides powerful computational tools for chemists to design new classes of chemicals and materials,” he explains. “It gives them the ability to model factors like toxicity or energy consumption, which are obviously key actors in improving the industry’s environmental impact. In bio-based chemicals, if helps them model the pathways in microorganisms that will make most efficient use of new feedstocks, and find ways to make renewable, bio-based alternatives to petrochemicals.”
The report evaluates the impact of big data and analytics on chemical research and commercialization. Among the findings:
- Smaller, cheaper and better sensors are a driving force. In chemical research, room sized instruments now fit a benchtop and benchtop tools fit a factory worker’s hand, allowing one researcher to do the work of a dozen. Further efficiencies come from cheap satellites and drones that gather data about chemicals in the environment.
- Software is key to lab management. Laboratory information management systems (LIMS) integrate lab data with chemical databases and academic literature, and also track inventories of reagents and consumables, status of samples, and even human resources data. With the availability of tablets and mobile interfaces, the benefits of LIMS are growing but have yet to be quantified.
- Automating design of experiments. Every step of the workflow is amenable to automation but design of experiments (DOE) is critical. With a single experimental run costing up to tens of thousands of dollars in time and materials, avoiding even a few worthless ones can justify the cost of automating the DOE process.
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