July 2020


Digitally enabled sustainability in process manufacturing

Demands for sustainability are pervasive and are mandated, legislated or strongly encouraged in different social, industrial and political segments.

Krishnan, V., IBM Corp.

Demands for sustainability are pervasive and are mandated, legislated or strongly encouraged in different social, industrial and political segments. This was an imperative even before the “new normal” was defined by the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, sustainability has received increased emphasis across industries. Beyond being a good corporate citizen, emerging opportunities exist in the pursuit of sustainability that deliver economic gains to the enterprise.

This article discusses how process manufacturing can impact sustainability within the current operations landscape, market demands, and disruptive technology capabilities.

Relevance and prioritization of sustainability goals

Sustainability has been a salient topic for some time, but now it is rapidly moving from being a factor recognized for global good citizenship to something essential for all walks of life. Some would argue that the transition is at its peak, and that it is something to be intricately woven into every aspect of life today. Multiple domains and targets have been established by global organizations1 to mitigate the threat of uncontrolled industrialization and social dynamics, such as consumption patterns. The biggest recipient of this scrutiny is on the planet’s dependence on the hydrocarbon value chain.

From a manufacturing perspective, the hydrocarbon value chain—and, to a lesser extent, the inorganics segment—has a profound impact on our global sustainability. While many of the sustainability goals can be traced back to an influence from process manufacturing, only a few can be materially and directly impacted (FIG. 1).

FIG. 1. Several sustainability goals are impacted directly by process manufacturing.

Usage of fossil fuels in some form or another poses a macro-level challenge that is being mitigated by investments in alternative energies and advocacy of the more prudent use of natural resources. From a process manufacturing perspective, energy management is a critical component, particularly in operations where energy is both consumed and generated. Optimal plant operations with energy costs as an objective function is becoming more of a common practice. This is likely to include frequent trade-offs and compromises when it comes to plant objectives that are strictly economic in nature.

Increased usage of water sources in manufacturing—examples being chlorine, cement, upstream petroleum or fertilizer production—offers opportunities for the plant(s) to supply the nearby community with desalinated potable water while also addressing the needs within the process units. In particular, multiple greenfield complexes are deploying and leveraging incremental investments in technologies like membrane separation units to ensure supplies of potable water for local communities.

Achieving speed to market and pressure on realizing increased returns from research and development (R&D) investment have been the driving factors for intermediate and specialty chemicals manufacturers. To address sustainability goals, they also are refocusing on new processes, improved feedstocks, catalysts with improved activation/life and process unit designs that deviate from the traditional approach. Some are market-driven (crude-to-chemicals, for example), and others are sustainability-driven.

The realization has arrived that innovation in this field extends beyond materials research and into product end-usage applications. Understanding and addressing the demands of the market and the product’s or application’s end usage is critical for the enterprises, not only to be cognizant of the regulations but also to be relevant and competitive.

From operational excellence to sustainability

Process manufacturing operations typically function under the targeted guidelines of production capacity, yield and quality management, while remaining under the constraints of safety and stability. Multiple processes, technologies, integrated systems, optimization tools and visualization enable the workflows.

Techniques such as advanced control, integrated planning, unit optimization and supply chain integration have made it possible for operations to stay on target and achieve the prescribed goals. Some of the more recent efforts broaden this approach to cover the extended supply chain, as well, while newer and disruptive technologies make these workflows largely cognitive and automated.

Meanwhile, the information required from operations that is related to sustainability comes from various existing sources, some of them traditional and others new. As an example, the environment, health and safety (EHS) metrics come from field assets, event records and external information such as audits. The nature of remote expertise support, social distancing in field operations and continuous health monitoring are essential for the return to work after the Covid-19 pandemic. In the case of EHS, this information relates to all personnel involved in the operations, from field operators to contractors (FIG. 2).

FIG. 2. Environment, health and safety metrics relate to all operational personnel, processes and systems.

Examples include vehicle telematics, drone-enabled inspections, visual and acoustic insights, flare monitoring, unstructured data such as regulatory requirements, and many more. Such new data from the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and cognitive tools enable the associated workflows, making these processes “intelligent” and optimizing the key sustainability metrics within the manufacturing operations environment (FIG. 3).

FIG. 3. Data from the IIoT and cognitive tools help optimize key sustainability metrics within the manufacturing operations environment.

Apart from process and personnel safety, another operational element that relates to sustainability is energy. Production optimization is typically based on appropriately weighted cost functions that are dictated by the economics and planning group. The sustainability aspect comes from the inclusion of energy as a key component in the cost function. While many plants, particularly the greenfield operations, measure energy for monitoring purposes, very few use it in optimization. Balancing energy production against consumption of utilities, as well as exchange with a public grid, is not only the right thing to do—it also offers significant monetary gains.

Many of the energy balance and optimization exercises fail due to various reasons:

  • Lack of dynamic information. Frequently, one finds that the energy pricing information is hard-coded or static in the calculation of the key indices. Tiered pricing and an associated lack of visibility compound this challenge.
  • Lack of incorporation of energy in the optimization and control loops. This requires an alignment with overall economic goals and might require a compromise in the way the units are run.
  • Lack of energy stewardship. This is often the case when someone is tasked with energy tracking as an additional responsibility, as opposed to a cross-functional steward who interacts with operations, maintenance and engineering
    to identify and execute improvement opportunities.

Addressing these factors within the operational environment in a systemic way for an energy improvement program would not only improve the sustainability indices, but also identify potential monetary gains (e.g. the traditional pinch analysis for a heat exchanger).

Sustainability: Beyond operational excellence

Operational excellence, by itself, is not sufficient to address the sustainability impacts from production processes, the products and their end usage. The goals of the enterprise are to deliver the desired customer experiences and expectations from the products—whether they are fuel products, commodity chemicals, specialty chemicals, fertilizers or any other part of the value chain (FIG. 4).

FIG. 4. Sustainability in process manufacturing includes operational excellence.

Any variation to that experience—regulatory, environmental, specifications-related or process improvement—will need to be predicted or, at the minimum, responsively addressed with speed for the operations to be relevant to the customer. This is significant from a sustainability angle, as all members of the value chain are striving to identify improved processes, products and applications that alleviate the problems we pose to the environment.

With the advent of transparency through technologies such as blockchain, products can be traced2 all the way to their end use and provide the essential information for each constituent to tweak/adjust their influence.

For example, the impact of plastics3 in circular economy is being addressed all the way from materials research, production, usage and repurpose. This is even more powerful, as it has a top-down mandate and is a multi-organizational collaborative effort. Process manufacturing features as one of the key levers of implementation of such an ambitious initiative. Similarly, a shining example of corporate responsibility is demonstrated in the way a refiner extends into the value chain by partnering with an airline client, as is the case4 with Neste and Finnair.

A relevant approach toward sustainability

Any initiative or transformational program requires consistency in messaging, target-setting and execution enablement. Depending on the nature of the task at hand, these could follow the traditional stage-gate approach that has been in place over many decades, or the agile approach that focuses on ease of ideation and adoption. A singular, one-size-fits-all approach is unwise in this case, as the specific initiatives and projects would cover varying domains and invoke contributions from different ecosystem participants. Nevertheless, common guiding elements are essential for a successful change toward sustainability (FIG. 5), as explained in the following subsections.

FIG. 5. The common guiding elements of gaining mindshare, taking action, and sustaining and improving are essential for a successful change toward sustainability.

Gain mindshare: Operational excellence and supply chain integration have economic goals that are easier to communicate and empower. Sustainability metrics sometimes require trade-offs and compromises with overall economic objectives. Safety, for example, can never be articulated with a business value in mind. More than any other domain, this requires a significant top-down mandate for adoption and ease of change management.

Take action: Proliferation of key performance indicators (KPIs), operational or otherwise, is a sure way to get “lost in the weeds” and eventually end up as another wasted opportunity. Identifying the right metrics, the correct calculation basis and the actionable outcomes are the essential parts of any sustainability program. To that effect, it makes much more sense to follow a set of standards when defining the metrics. Standard sustainability metrics that are relevant to process manufacturing are shown in FIG. 6.

FIG. 6. Standard sustainability metrics are relevant to process manufacturing.

Sustain and improve: Effectively executing such a transformational initiative will require change management that is cognizant of the traditional focus around operational excellence. Incentivization and empowerment are key to sustaining this initiative and incorporating a continuous improvement program. Leveraging the right technology—IIoT (for additional/new information), blockchain (for traceability of products to batch lots, etc.) and hybrid cloud options (for enterprise platforms)—is the primary enabler of such a program.

Leveraging technology for sustainability

Technology disruptors, such as IIoT, blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, are being adopted in process manufacturing5 at an unusually fast rate, particularly for an industry that is known to be lukewarm toward risk-reward propositions.

Technology continues to be adopted in such a way as to augment existing information, enable predictive capabilities, optimize processes and deliver timely visualization with actionable insights (FIG. 7). Different, equally viable and advantaged approaches are available to accomplish these goals. Organizations adopt a myriad of options for data ingestion, integration, staging and analytics. Options such as data lakes, data warehouses, traditional middleware-based integration or contemporary hybrid-cloud enterprise platforms provide viable paths to efficient information management. Delivering context to the data that can be leveraged by advanced analytics is a key critical success factor to all of these data-management approaches (FIG. 8).

FIG. 7. Technology helps augment existing information, enable predictive capabilities, optimize processes and deliver visualization with actionable insights.
FIG. 8. Different, equally viable and advantaged approaches are available to accomplish a number of operational goals.

From an adoption perspective, it is easy to get lost in trying to prove a technology or a piece of new hardware, such that the business capability focus is overshadowed. For example, if the traceability of a product is the goal from a sustainability perspective, then the objective should not deteriorate to a proof-point of blockchain. This will result in a short-sighted and simplistic, even if agile, pursuit that keeps everyone busy spinning wheels without much progress or measurable attainment. Sooner or later, this disconnect results in successful technologies not seeing the light of day due to poor application.

Instead, the choice of use cases should be accompanied by aspects such as:

  • Use-case definition based on completeness of sustainability impact articulation
  • Prioritization of measurable outcomes, organizational readiness and ease of adoption
  • De-prioritization of technology validation across multiple domains
  • Technology adoption strategy following the success of use case.

The desired business capability, end-to-end as much as feasible, should be designed, tested and delivered by whichever combination of technologies and processes within financial reason. This also establishes trust, agility and relevance in the IT delivery arm of the enterprise.


The hydrocarbon value chain is in the crosshairs of every discussion surrounding sustainability. Apart from end usage, process manufacturing is the next-highest significant contributor. The desired changes and corresponding impacts would take effort in terms of economic compromises, innovation and adjustments to social consumption patterns, with acceleration being necessary in all these areas. Nonetheless, it is clear that immediate impacts can be positively delivered by integrating existing technologies, merging operational excellence with the extended value chain, and adopting a leadership-sponsored approach. HP


  1. United Nations Development Programme, “Sustainable development goals,” online: https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals.html
  2. Hyperledger, “How Walmart brought unprecedented transparency to the food supply chain with Hyperledger Fabric,” 2019, online: https://www.hyperledger.org/resources/publications/walmart-case-study
  3. Alliance to end plastic waste, online: https://endplasticwaste.org/
  4. Neste, “Neste and Finnair partner to reduce CO2 footprint of flying with sustainable aviation fuels,” Press Release, March 5, 2020, online: https://www.neste.com/releases-and-news/renewable-solutions/neste-and-finnair-partner-reduce-co2-footprint-flying-sustainable-aviation-fuels
  5. Krishnan, V., “Business trends: Advent of cognitive applications and the IoT in process manufacturing,” Hydrocarbon Processing, June 2018.

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