In a world where the unprecedented has become commonplace, the global chemical industry is in the midst of a “massive pivot” in response to the escalating COVID-19 pandemic.
Manufacturers that normally make fuel-grade alcohol are switching gears to produce neutral alcohol for disinfectants. Companies have diverted tankers full of isopropyl alcohol (IPA) to epicenters of the outbreak so it could be utilized to produce hand sanitizer. Plastics manufacturers that typically produce Mylar for hockey and lacrosse masks were instead making it for medical shields. One manufacturer, Ineos, the largest European producer of IPA and ethanol—the two raw materials needed to make hand sanitizer—said it would build three new factories in the span of 10 days, each capable of producing one million bottles of hand sanitizer per month, “manufactured according to the specifications of the World Health Organization and … specially designed to kill bacteria and viruses.”
They were among dozens of chemical companies that were ramping up production, rallying their supply chains and adjusting their manufacturing operations in response to urgent calls for hand sanitizer, personal protective equipment, protective screens and other products.
Here’s a look at several of the Industry 4.0 and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) digital capabilities that enabled companies to execute these types of pivots in the name of helping communities and people:
Connected, enterprise-wide operational intelligence. A manufacturer can continue to operate efficiently even during a major crisis-induced pivot when its entire enterprise is digitally connected and able to access and share real-time insight (such as via a robust ERP and/or CRM platform). With the ability to remotely monitor and manage raw material stocks with IIoT sensors, etc., a company can optimize stock levels to be lean yet still responsive enough to answer demand signals from a customer that’s orchestrating its own pivot into a new product like face shields for medical applications.
Maybe, to meet the demands of a medical application instead of a sports application, those face shields require a different plastic formulation. Based on specifications provided by the shield manufacturer, the company supplying it with polyethylene terephthalate (PET) could immediately engage its R&D and engineering teams to tweak the molecule as needed and develop processes to produce that formulation.
Information about parameters and processes for producing the specific PET formulation needed for the face shields would then flow directly to the plant floor, the digital platform communicating the new parameters and processes to the reactor and other connected production equipment, enabling the manufacturer to quickly ramp up production of the new PET formulation, and to do so in a capital- and resource-efficient manner.
The ability to communicate, collaborate and adapt across a supply chain. As accustomed as chemical manufacturers are to B2B relationships, the COVID-19 crisis in some instances has required them to extend those relationships to the end consumer. In order to pivot their businesses to assist in meeting the public’s urgent need for various products, chemical companies needed a better understanding of not just their direct B2B customers, but also their customers’ customers—the companies making medical visors, plastic shields and other products that have been in particularly high demand during the pandemic.
A highly networked and data-responsive system provides real-time supply and demand information at each point in the supply chain, which can be used to inform production and logistics decisions as circumstances change, down to the hour. Manufacturers can adjust or bolster production in response to surges in demand for certain materials, looping government, healthcare and other entities into the ongoing digital supply chain conversation.
Eastman was able to send an infusion of PETG film, a co-polyester commonly used for rigid medical packaging and medical devices, just in time to replenish the supply for a 3-D printing COVID-19 partnership involving the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and Austin Peay State University. The infusion came just as the partnership was running out of acetate sheet to make 10,000 urgently needed face shields for medical providers in Nashville. With insight into stock levels at its manufacturing facility in Kingsport, Tenn., the company could identify how much of the PETG film it could supply, when, then work with its new partners to get the material to them promptly.
Rapid modeling and prototyping capabilities. Premium machine learning- and AI-driven predictive tools enabled chemical manufacturers to quickly digest huge amounts of data to predict the performance and behavior of the formulations they were developing to meet pandemic-generated spikes in demand. These types of capabilities could, for example, enable a company like Ineos to model various formulations of hand sanitizer to confirm it can create one with the properties to kill bacteria and viruses.
Connected logistics. The COVID-19 crisis has underscored just how critical digitally connected logistics are to a manufacturer’s responsiveness and contingency planning. With the ability to monitor and manage inventory levels and location, as well as connected transportation and distribution assets, in real time, a manufacturer could respond in short order to supply and demand signals, then act in concert with its supply chain partners, government entities and healthcare providers to coordinate a timely response and cooperatively manage logistics so products could get where they needed to be expeditiously. It’s how Eastman was able to deliver acetate sheet to Tennessee in a pinch.
As the COVID-19 pandemic holds the world in its grip, these kinds of advanced digital capabilities are enabling chemical manufacturers to pivot their production assets, their operations and their supply chains to meet the highly fluid and urgent needs of communities in crisis, and do so in ways they likely never imagined just a few weeks ago.
David Dunn has a degree in chemical engineering and has spent his 35-year career in and around the chemical industry. He has held numerous positions in the industry and developed a strong background in manufacturing, operations and product development. He joined SAP in 2007 as an industry principal for Chemicals and after a short time with SAP partners, he has rejoined SAP in 2020 as global industry marketing lead for Chemicals..
Main photo: A MakerBot producing face shields at Austin Peay State University.