The petrochemical industry is the last process that hydrocarbons face before becoming raw material. After applying different processes and treatments to hydrocarbon products, elements that are essential for the development of several industries are obtained.
Therefore, it occupies a crucial place for the development of the world economy, since industrial chains such as textiles, health, automotive, electronics, food packaging, food and even entertainment, among others, depend closely on all processes derived from petrochemical activities.
Knowing this, it is necessary to continue petrochemical activities that can affect the mass manufacture of products of vital importance for daily life. For this reason, stopping is never an option.
By the end of the year 2018, the petrochemical industry acquired a value of $539 billion, and this continued growth was expected to reach the significant figure of $651.1 trillion for 2027, according to Statista.
At the beginning of the pandemic in late 2019, a dark scenario was looming for the world economy. Although some industries did not shut down, due to their importance in combatting the pandemic, many others did. In this part of the equation, the petrochemical industry suffered from an important cessation of its activities around the planet.
The most important environments where products from petrochemical processes play a huge role are the automotive or textile industry. Despite the fact that they stopped abruptly at the beginning of the pandemic, some others took the lead. The companies related to food packaging, sanitary and medical related products raised their demand almost as abruptly as mentioned before, but in the opposite direction. This implied an unexpected boost for these industries.
The strong demand for medical, food preservation supplies and elements for sanitary use grew at the beginning of the pandemic and they have not stopped. It indicates that, despite the industry-wide recession that began in 2019, and even nowadays this condition is maintained, a significant push is expected for later years, considering that the pandemic is a variant that will remain for a longer time than expected.
Despite this, the challenge facing the industry is not only in economic matters, but also in the labor sector. Safety policies have changed worldwide in all economic activities. The petrochemical industry is a continuous system that does not suffer from stoppage of activities due to staff turnover – quite the opposite. These facilities are designed to maintain 24/7 operations, where there are shifts and a minimum number of 40 percent of personnel is always in place.
But the pandemic and the isolation orders that were issued forced countries to change the rules of the game. The petrochemical industry was affected in the cessation of its normal activities and, in this way, it began to prioritize the market needs and to manufacture raw materials for the areas with the highest demand.
Despite minimizing operations, keeping staff in-house became a challenge, so the industry began to use new tools that in the past were thought to be useless.
In the ‘70s, the oil industry – the sister industry of petrochemicals – decided to invest in automation systems. This is currently a very popular software known as Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA), which was based on the continuous sensors supervision, actuators, and control systems that allowed processes monitoring and fundamental parameters for the full operation of oil and gas activities.
It turned out to be a powerful ally, but expensive to acquire for the first time and to continue developing over time. Nevertheless, considering the needs presented by the global pandemic, the petrochemical industry decided to open its doors even more to a helping hand given by digital transformation.
The petrochemical industry is known for operating like a Swiss watch. This has a lot to do with the ability to make immediate decisions in the midst of vicissitudes. Because of the extraordinarily difficult conditions surrounding COVID-19, fatigue started to surround decision making and one of the reasons is the impossibility of seeing the data that is needed for a correct solution.
In this area, the use of data on-cloud becomes a fierce and reliable source.
Being able to count on efficient data processing, along with mobile access, brings the optimization of this industry back to life. It is known that many petrochemical facilities worldwide are using it, but a lot of them didn’t take full advantage of it until it was absolutely necessary.
The article “Refining the Oil and Gas Industry with IoT” written by Naveen Joshi for Forbes, talks about the value and functionality that the Internet of Things adds to the oil industry, and even more specifically to the petrochemical industry.
The IoT increases the ease of real-time monitoring that not only allows work to be evaluated every second but, as Naveen Joshi mentions, refineries are capable of improving their production from six percent to eight percent.
Taking into account the reduction of people in the workforce, as well as the working hours as a consequence of the global pandemic, the processes begin to lose their effectiveness due to lack of constant review. For example, the correct temperature and pressure of a quarry that treats hydrocarbon material to bring it to base plastic needs close attention, so that it generates the desired product. In this case, a careful eye is necessary.
The application of new work methods brought new requirements, which are work optimization and product improvement. The IoT is not just a solution to a problem, it is a complete improvement; therefore, a bright future is awaiting this discipline inside the petrochemical industry.
On the other hand, there is artificial intelligence (AI), which is not a new discipline for the petrochemical sector, but it is enhancing operations at facilities. Working as a silent ally, AI uses the optimization of resources and processes through automatic and continuous learning of daily operations.
Every person is in a state of physical health or emotional vulnerability these days. That is why having a focused collaborator that analyzes each process and can provide the best decision for the resource’s optimization is a crucial tool to keep afloat an industry hit by economic and labor crises.
Another important perk that AI adds to petrochemical processes is the increase in safety, since it is capable of predicting future accidents or equipment malfunctions, based on operating patterns when they begin to vary by milliseconds. Also, when they present minimal variations imperceptible to the human eye, AI can see it, analyze it and also set an alert on accidents or imminent stoppages in equipment.
The petrochemical industry is essential for the development of humanity and, in the global crisis we are experiencing, it has proven to be key in effectively facing the storm. Processes cannot stop and from here we see the importance of using previously unexplored assets to optimize safety, decision-making and even continuous supervision of processes.
These are tools that were promoted in the COVID-19 context, but they’ll surely remain after this age and continue to grow and offer new solutions to daily issues.
Raul Palencia is an engineer and researcher with more than 10 years of experience as a geologist. He graduated from the prestigious University of Andes (ULA), later he received a master’s degree in reservoir engineering at the Venezuela Hydrocarbons University. During his career development, he worked for oil companies in positions such as: field geologist, reservoir engineer and reservoir simulation. He has worked in Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico and Venezuela. He currently resides in Texas.
Oil and gas operations are commonly found in remote locations far from company headquarters. Now, it's possible to monitor pump operations, collate and analyze seismic data, and track employees around the world from almost anywhere. Whether employees are in the office or in the field, the internet and related applications enable a greater multidirectional flow of information – and control – than ever before.