January 20, 2016
Digital Technology: A new key to reducing chemical plant outages
By: Paul Bjacek

For petrochemical companies, unplanned plant outages are a growing problem, and they can be costly—a shutdown at a major cracker in the U.S. can cost $1.4 million per day1. But evolving digital technology is creating new opportunities to use operational data to increase uptime and reliability.

In the United States and Europe, unplanned outages for some product lines are reaching new highs. That’s largely because of the stress of higher operating rates, coupled with greater complexity in plant controls and an increased focus on safety. In addition, plants are aging. For example, the average age of ethylene crackers is 32 years and 38 years for North America and Western Europe, respectively2—which clearly contributes to unplanned outages.

How can digital technologies help? Today, we are seeing the convergence of new software, hardware and communications technologies, making it possible to use everything from wireless tracking and GPS to mobile equipment and visual sensing devices in plants. This convergence is making an extraordinary amount of information about operational processes available, and that information can be used to improve operational performance across many dimensions.

For example, some companies are now using these technologies to enable “reliability-centered maintenance,” which uses analytics to predict potential equipment problems and support more-effective preventative maintenance plans. Others are using cloud-based plant solutions, where computing is handled offsite and delivered via the network—an approach that can bring greater agility in operations and make some IT costs variable. And the list goes on.

Many chemical companies are aware of the potential of such technology, and some are beginning to develop digital strategies for their operations. However, a recent survey conducted by Accenture and ICIS Chemical Business showed that while industry executives believe that including enabling technologies in new plants is important, relativity few chemical companies have taken significant steps in this area. There is a reluctance to implement changes in plant operations, and executives worry about bringing in new technologies or having the talent in place to use those technologies.

Nevertheless, the time to adopt these technologies is now, when digital technology is becoming both more effective and less expensive—and when plant uptime and efficiency are increasingly critical to success.

The chemical industry has a long history of making successful, significant changes to improve performance, from the adoption of continuous-process technology to scale operations to advanced process controls. We believe that the next wave in that history is plant digitalization—and chemical companies should take advantage of the new capabilities made possible by the convergence of these enabling technologies.

If you want to find out more about the benefits of digital technology in chemical plant operations, read our article in ICIS Chemical Business.


Peter Frandina
Managing Director, Accenture Asset & Operations Services – Chemicals
LinkedIn email
Karin Walczyk
Global Chemicals Research Lead & Resources Innovation Lead, Accenture
LinkedIn email

1 According to Accenture Research analysis of Nexant’s Quarterly Business Analysis, 1Q2015; Leader Economics.
2 Accenture Research analysis of ICIS Consulting data

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