There is a lot of buzz about the metaverse lately—and for good reason. The metaverse is emerging through a continuum of technologies and experiences rapidly reshaping how businesses and people interact with blended digital and physical worlds.
In the metaverse, organizations have the power to take digital transformation to a whole new level. It’s a world in which artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), Web3.0, Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, 5G, cloud, quantum computing and digital twins, as well as other technologies all converge. The impact can be game-changing for chemical companies in terms of safer and more reliable plant operations, closer customer experiences, deeper supplier collaboration and improved data-driven decision-making across the chemicals value chain.
The metaverse provides the technical environment, experience sharing platform and user enablement to make these possibilities real. Accenture is not alone in this optimistic thinking. Our Technology Vision 2022 research found that 100% of surveyed executives in the chemical industry believe continuous advances in technology—like the metaverse—are becoming more reliable than economic, political or social trends in shaping their organizations’ long-term strategy.
So, the question really is—how should chemical companies adopt this futuristic, science fiction-sounding “thing” called the metaverse? First, it is important to look at the metaverse not as one all-encompassing concept, but instead as a continuum of digitally enhanced capabilities and experiences. In fact, we view the metaverse as a breakthrough in opportunity and value for technological developments that have already been shaping enterprises around the world, including chemical companies. But the technologies alone are not enough—they have to be met with careful human-centered experiences for adoption to grow and be maintained.
Four key trends
As highlighted in the Technology Vision 2022 report, we’ve identified four key trends emerging from the metaverse continuum. Each trend has exciting implications for the chemical industry, as we explore below.
The last two years spurred enterprises to explore new modes of digital experience and pushed people to live virtually to an extent they never expected. Now, the metaverse is emerging as a natural evolution of our digital world that reconciles how the internet is designed today with what we would demand from it going forward. This is “WebMe”—an evolution that is taking place on two fronts: the metaverse as a re-platforming of digital experiences and Web3 as the reinvention of how data moves through that system.
As with any major technological—and cultural—shift, this trend will present chemical companies with new challenges, but also new opportunities. We are already seeing exciting use cases emerge among our chemical clients in areas such as digital twins and digital workforce enablement through AR and VR, among many others. In fact, our research found that chemical executives report that their organizations would expect AR technologies to bring them improved operations (93%), talent-related benefits (85%) and increased revenue/cost savings (35%) in the next three years.
Consider digital twins, which are software models that represent the attributes and operating behavior of physical assets and processes. Chemical companies can use digital twins to mimic their production lines. With this technology, companies can explore ways to automate processes, optimize uptime, increase capacity utilization, rethink logistics workflows and many more aspects of production without replacing any existing systems. For example, they could assess the value of replacing a certain part in the production line: determine the replacement time, test operations with the new part, run scenarios and view the implications on production all within the software, before implementing any physical changes.
Typical use cases for the digitally enabled workforce utilize AR technologies to provide “over the shoulder” technical support for maintenance personnel or create simulations for on-the-job training in handling dangerous materials—without putting the employee in harm’s way. For example, Accenture worked with an ingredient solution provider to identify and design ways to use Microsoft HoloLens mixed reality smart glasses with Microsoft Dynamics 365 Guides as an immersive learning tool. This engagement produced three mixed reality guides: one for virtual safety training based on 3D models, another that gives the company’s customers an innovative and effective way to learn about its products, and a third that helps employees learn about various pieces of equipment and their different settings.
In the emerging programmable world, the convergence of 5G, quantum computing, augmented reality, smart materials and more are paving the way for businesses to reshape how they interact with the physical world. As technology becomes more tightly woven into the fabric of our real-world environment, it unlocks an unprecedented fidelity of control, automation and personalization.
For chemical companies, the trend takes shape in ways that enable programming material properties and behaviors to predict performance. It sets the stage for creating “smart” substances and self-healing materials. And in the programmable world, these materials can be produced with 4D printing where the output is not only 3D but also able to predictably change its shape or properties as the material is exposed to external forces over time. Executives in the chemical industry recognized the possibilities: according to our research, 91% agree that smart materials have the potential to create new business opportunities for their industry and drive a new generation of capabilities, properties and form factors.
Imagine being able to conduct extensive research and development purely through software—creating novel combinations of molecules and discovering marvelous new possibilities for improving people’s nutrition, health, safety and comfort. Digital discoveries could then be transferred into the physical lab to prove their viability or sent to 3D or 4D printers for immediate application. In the world of healthcare, for example, this process could lead to highly personalized medications, tailored to an individual’s disease manifestation and genetic profile, “printed” at home.
Humans may be the primary residents of the intelligent world, but we have new neighbors starting to move in: the “unreal”—machines that are passably human. “Unreal” qualities are becoming intrinsic to the AI—and even the data—that enterprises aspire to integrate into mission-critical functions. Yet, there is a dark side. Bad actors are also finding ways to exploit technologies like AI, from deepfakes to bots and more.
To navigate this murky environment, chemical companies can leverage technologies like AI and blockchain for a number of important use cases, including cybersecurity, tracking materials and monitoring social media perceptions. For example, smart technologies can help companies defend against malicious attacks by identifying suspicious activity in the supply chain based on requests or actions outside the norms, which could prevent bad actors from finding a digital back door into critical systems. This would be particularly important for companies that need to keep dangerous chemicals out of the wrong hands or that operate processes under Computer System Validation (CSV) regulations, which verify that a computerized system does exactly what it is designed to do in a consistent manner.
Blockchain can be used to track and trace the flow of goods and materials all along the supply chain, thereby building a chain of transparent data sets. For example, a plastic or composite material traceability solution can be built using blockchain technology to help chemical companies meet their circularity goals. It provides an unalterable ledger for digitally registering materials and forming legal agreements and processes for the secure exchange of goods, thus protecting against nefarious activity. Similarly, companies can use AI to track social media perceptions, continuously scanning the web and apps for key words associated with a company’s brand. Companies can then use that information to identify disinformation campaigns by bad actors or uncover useful information to strengthen marketing strategies and tactics.
We stand at the precipice of a new age of computing power, where computations once considered beyond technology’s reach are now in hand—where computing the impossible is resetting the boundaries of traditional industries. Quantum, biologically inspired, high-performance computing is allowing companies to tackle grand challenges that previously defined and shaped the very core of their industries. But now solving seemingly impossible problems is becoming possible, and this fact is pushing leaders to reimagine some of the most basic assumptions about their enterprise. In fact, our research found that 89% of chemical executives agree their organization is pivoting in response to the unprecedented computational power that is becoming available.
What will chemical companies do with this new super-computing power? In one example, companies could use this technology to develop new chemical materials and to predict chemical reactions that were not previously fully understood. Calculations traditionally considered impractical due to complexity or the time required to process a vast number of variables may now be possible in relatively short timeframes, resulting in exciting new chemical formulations.
Other use cases include helping companies support their net-zero goals by designing more environmentally friendly routes to existing chemicals or modeling product lifecycles in a way to improve sustainability. Companies could leverage real-time production data and AI to optimize the efficiency of a multi-step chemical manufacturing process involving thousands of employees and digital sensors. Or they could eliminate transportation altogether by using 3D printing for some materials.
Given unbound computing power, the possibilities are now limited only by one’s imagination.
The most important question now facing chemical executives is how they get started on a metaverse journey.
Next stop: The metaverse – key steps chemical companies can take
In many ways the metaverse is still forming, but there are elements accessible to chemical companies today that can be used to begin the transformation to a more digitally driven future. Figure 1 shows which technologies can be implemented immediately or in the near future to help chemical companies accelerate their digital journey.
Figure 1: Technologies critical for the metaverse journey in the chemical industry
The chemical industry is rapidly becoming a tech-driven sector, and companies that ignore this fact will likely face daunting challenges down the road. Chemical executives should assess the specific value each of these trends can create for their business and operations. They should make the necessary investments in the technologies available today or in the near future that will enable the metaverse continuum. The SlideShare below explores how the future could be implemented today in the management and operations of a chemical business.
We recommend starting with the most relevant use cases, defining which add the most value for your business, then implementing and scaling the solutions. New technologies will be the key to helping companies take the steps or leap (in some cases) into the metaverse. An important precursor for the metaverse journey—chemical companies should rethink their technology reference architecture and activate the relevant capabilities across their people, processes and systems.
The most important question now facing chemical executives is how they get started on a metaverse journey. We recommend creating and following a programmatic approach—an example of which is outlined below.
1. Metaverse: Take an outside-in perspective
Learn about the metaverse and what it offers.
Research chemical industry best practices and leading examples.
Analyze your company’s relevant business challenges.
2. Vision: Define your North Star and strategy
Identify your North Star—your overarching mission and goals—in order to achieve your vision and strategy.
Find relevant metaverse use cases.
Clarify the key guardrails of a metaverse business and IT architecture regarding partnerships, platforms, skills and a roadmap.
Define your desired outcomes and how they will be measured.
3. Use cases: Prioritize and prepare
Refine and finalize the use cases.
Assess the current capabilities within your company in terms of data, infrastructure, integration, new technologies, talent and skills.
Define the project goals, timeline, roles and responsibilities, skills needed and relevant stakeholders.
4. Action: Design, develop and deploy
Identify the enablement partners needed to realize each use case.
Initiate story boarding with user stories, user roles, avatars and wireframes.
Configure a workbench to determine which physical components are needed.
Design the environment, including coding, testing, staging and production.
Deploy the use cases in a production environment.
The risk of losing out could be significant for chemical companies who delay embracing the metaverse. Are you ready?
Note: All data points in this article are based on a poll of 100 chemical company executives conducted between December 2021 and January 2022 as part of Accenture’s Technology Vision 2022 research. Respondents were from the following 10 countries: Canada, China, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Sweden and the United States.