Keywords: AspenTech, Optimize, Manufacturing, Advanced Process Control, Supply Chain, Process Engineering.
At the recent 2013 AspenTech OPTIMIZE conference in Boston, Massachusetts, more than 700 attendees from 44 countries learned about the latest process and technology improvements in more than 60 sessions. ARC Advisory Group analysts had the opportunity to attend many of these sessions and speak directly with many of AspenTech's customers.
This year's event focused largely on demonstrating AspenTech's commitment to developing solutions for industry and creating products that are easy to implement and use. The company demonstrated many featured products and solutions on tablet PCs and mobile devices.
In addition to its technology solutions, the company put much emphasis on its R&D activities and its efforts to recruit recent university graduates. The company has increased its staff by 4 percent and now has 30 offices worldwide with 1,320 employees. Mark Fusco, President and CEO, spoke about going "back to the future," by which he meant re-aligning the company back to its roots in scientific research and the academic community of MIT.
Key takeaways from the conference include that the company is:
Committed to simplify the use of its technology on all user interfaces (UIs) including many mobile devices or tablet PCs
Striving for data integration across engineering, manufacturing, and supply chain
Evolving applications from worksheet to workflow and enhancements to the user interfaces and visualization
Re-igniting its roots in academia, partly by forming a corporate advisory board with universities
Formation of the AspenTech Academy
Over 30 years ago, AspenTech as a commercial entity emerged from the MIT laboratory work known as the "ASPEN (Advanced Systems for Process Engineering) Project." This led to the introduction of Aspen Plus back in 1981. Over the years, the company moved away from its initial close ties with academia. The company's recent formation of the "AspenTech Academy" represents a major move back to its roots in academia and scientific research. Initially working in collaboration with six universities (Purdue University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Delaware, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and RWTH Aachen University), the objective of Aspen Academy is to support technology research at the universities to help foster advances in engineering principles such as those driven by the original ASPEN Project.
Dr. George Stephanopoulous explained that the goals for collaborating with the universities include reinventing optimization in process manufacturing and to further address the new worker generation. The Academy will play a role in conceiving new technology and provide scientific and technology advice. Future plans include discovering ways to increase usage of applications and enhancing accessibility. Emerging technologies like cloud computing, advanced deployment, virtualization and business intelligence will be fundamental.
Changing the Way People Use Technology
As we learned at the event, the company's vision is to provide solutions that are more integrated across engineering, manufacturing and supply chain; with enhanced usability and easier "install-ability." With updates and new innovations being added every 90 days, the company is continually integrating, merging, enhancing and adding new products.
To meet some of the needs of today's tech-savvy younger generation, the company is improving its user interface and visualization tools and working to decrease the learning curve for new users. According to a company executive, thanks to recent enhancements, "If you know how to use one product, the skills are transferable to other products."
The company's core engineering simulation tools – Aspen HYSYS and Aspen Plus -- now have a consistent and more intuitive user interface (UI) that "feels" more like a work flow than a worksheet. Part of the new UI experience includes browser and tablet support through HTML5. This means that these engineering tools can now take advantage of many of the modern features that touch screens and tablets have brought to mobile computing.
Mr. Manolis Kotzabasakis, Executive Vice President, Products, referred to the new aspenONE web-based user interface as one example of the company's transformation. This UI allows users to work with the software anytime, anywhere using a web-based or mobile device. According to Mr. Kotzabasakis, enterprises can use aspenONE products without specialized product training or desktop installation. As one example, Aspen's new web and mobile product allows companies to use a chemical process simulator or optimize an oil and gas process and visualize with trends and graphics from any iOS or Android device.
Adaptive Process Control
AspenTech acknowledged what many practitioners already know; over 60 percent of multivariable controllers operating in the world are out of tune and thus are not effectively reducing process variability. While efforts have been made in the past to provide corrective tools, most have required the time and effort of process control engineers and disturb process operations while the model is being rebuilt. New Adaptive Process Control functionality can be enabled to run automatically to adjust the models through slight step changes of the process and automatically enable the improved models.
Valero's Sriram Ramaganesan, Director of APC technology, has been successfully using Aspen's Adaptive Process Control since last February in beta test, and the company now uses the technology on a large scale. This enables a single Valero control engineer to support several applications, improving engineering productivity.
AspenTech recognizes that the nature of collaboration is changing. Today's successful process engineers must be able to source information from third-party experts that have deep understanding of specific equipment or other assets. To encourage and support collaboration "beyond the plant walls," the company created the aspenONE Exchange to deliver appropriate asset information to the process simulation environment from a secure cloud.
With the company's products moving toward a more modern and mobile browser-based environment, third parties can now offer applications that plug and play with the AspenTech products. The company introduced aspenONE Exchange to provide the marketplace to support this. The company used Pump-Flo as an example of how engineers can now download detailed pump information through the aspenONE Exchange to use in the Aspen Plus engineering simulation product.
Enabling Cross-Discipline Collaboration
Several presentations focused on how customers' organizations could benefit through cross-functional collaboration. For example, refinery planners/schedulers often do not communicate with the process control engineers responsible for maintaining the installed APC models. Discussions showed that there can be significant business benefits for these two groups to regularly exchange information on how well their advanced tools are working to improve refinery profitability. According to the company, advances in their tools for engineering design, planning and scheduling, and on-line optimization have come a long way toward encouraging this type of cross-discipline collaboration in customer plants.
Manufacturing Execution and Supply Chain Management
AspenTech's MES (manufacturing execution systems) offering consists of an integrated suite of data management, production execution, and performance management tools for the process industries. Many clients described how they use Aspen's IP.21 product to enforce workflows, view data better, and access information globally using the new web-based and mobile technologies.
Clients are using AspenTech's software to help improve production execution and enhance performance, and to view the information using new features and visualization functionality globally across the enterprise. The software enhancements allow them to zoom in and drill down and even use gestures and multi-point touch capabilities via tablets, laptops, or desktop computers. The enhanced user interface allows users to analyze data better and make more informed decisions.
The company demonstrated how Aspen Web Plots uses Google Chrome to enable users to view tags and move trends using gestures. The company also demonstrated the ability to search globally for information quickly and the ability to easily import and export to and from Excel spreadsheets. Windows 8 now supports improved multitasking. According to Aspen, its customers are seeing a 30 percent improvement in performance using the new technology and search functionality.
ARC believes that AspenTech's stated intention to draw on its academic affiliations as part of R&D strategy represents a very promising strategic play by the company. However, it was not clear how university-based research and development will directly influence product direction and innovation. Dr. George Stephanopoulous, director of the AspenTech Academy, did caution that the university-based corporate advisory board's guidance to AspenTech would be sensitive to the pace of change in the industry, ensuring that new product developments remain connected to real-world needs and technology acceptance.
The company has made progress on its new, simplified user interface and is clearly listening to its customers, addressing specific customer requirements today, while also innovating to anticipate future needs.
ARC analysts learned that most AspenTech customers have adopted the company's new commercial model for licensing technology. However, some customers indicated it was not yet clear to them how to manage the license tokens internally and what the impact is on their total lifecycle cost. The key benefit of AspenTech's commercial model is that customers have an easy way to explore all the integration and synergies across AspenTech products and to take advantage of AspenTech's quarterly product releases. Customers should explore best practices from peer companies, such as Dow and DuPont, who have assigned alliance managers who are responsible for working with AspenTech to define software needs and ensure that their companies maximize their token allocations.
ARC agrees with Mark Fusco's statement that AspenTech will need to continue to earn the trust and respect of its customers through their positive experiences with the company's products, including as a trusted partner to help navigate the rapid pace of technology change. The enhancements presented at the conference should make a positive step in this direction. ARC recommends that the company make efforts to connect software use – and optimization – with cost savings, ROI, and profitability, and use these measures to inform customers' future plans and investments in new solutions.
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