BASF Unlocks Productivity with Digitalization

By Sharada Prahladrao

  Summary

At the three-day online annual ARC Industry Forum Asia titled Accelerating Industrial Digital Transformation and Sustainability, SUPCON participated as a Silver Sponsor. The Forum, hosted from July 12-14, 2022, had 1,600+ registered attendees for the Productivity with DigitalizationJapanese and English language tracks and featured 70+ executive speakers from several industries to share their experiences in digital transformation, future automation architectures, sustainability initiatives, industrial cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and asset performance management.

In the Forum session on Digital Transformation Initiatives, BASF, a valued customer of SUPCON, spoke about digital operations to unlock the new battery materials plant’s productivity. Later, SUPCON’s Kim Hock Teo, Vice President International Business, joined the lively panel discussion and explained the company’s role in BASF’s digital transformation journey.

The presentation by BASF’s Dai Yuanshen, Head of Operations Integration, Global Battery Materials, and the insightful inputs by Mr. Teo reveal that:

  • The global battery materials plant is new, so it’s been a learning process both for BASF and SUPCON.
  • Digitalization helps overcome operational challenges.
  • Collaboration on the digital transformation journey is essential for process optimization.

Digitalization at BASF’s Global Battery Materials Plant

Mr. Yuanshen’s presentation was in three succinct sections:

  • Challenges faced by the global battery materials industry.
  • Digital roadmap of battery material operations.
  • Digital operation best practices of battery material operations.

Challenges of the Battery Materials Industry

The three main challenges are: it’s a new industry so the technology maturity is not so high; requires a cross-disciplinary approach (e.g., physics + chemistry, continuous + discrete); and the market is volatile, hence technology support for operations is crucial. New generations of products are introduced every 2-3 years, so very quick iterations of operations are needed; and quality control for performance and safety is also particularly important for BASF’s electric vehicle customers, added Mr. Yuanshen. These challenges have been turned into opportunities at BASF through digitalization.

Digital Roadmap of Battery Materials Operations

Data is king and speaks for itself – if there’s no data there can be no operational excellence. Everything is linked to data, explained Mr. Yuanshen. Data leads to smarter decisions. Data visualization enhances business transparency. Digital models empower business management. Predictive algorithms facilitate planning and strategy. In the implementation stage there is human-machine synergy. Each step was explained with appropriate examples.

Productivity with Digitalization

Data: The traditional chemical industry operates via different layers. BASF brings the material architecture through IT/OT into the battery materials. This data can be put into the PLC/DCS to support predictive maintenance and track and trace; ultimately, the pics and videos support data mining.

In this context, Mr. Yuanshen spoke about the round-trip robot, highlighting the use cases in mature industries. These features help to reduce the operators’ working load and increase efficiency, accuracy, and operational safety.

Dashboard: Once you have the data, it must be leveraged. Giving an example, Mr. Yuanshen explained data transparency using the EHS platform model. This helps to record, optimize maintenance planning, and improve processes.

Modeling: Finished process modeling (material, storage etc.) and business process modeling from the shopfloor level (to increase efficiency and transparency). Another type of modeling is cross-disciplinary for which data mining technology can be used to find the correlation between different operational parameters.

Prediction: When the data is available, the next step is prediction. Here, he gave an example of how to predict production quality with the available production data. Production quality is critical; usually a sample analysis is done every few hours and the results are awaited before production continues. But when you use a data mining time series algorithm, it has over 95 percent accuracy and is faster than the operation in real time. This provides early warning of quality fluctuations and ensures high quality.

A lively panel discussion followed at the end of this session. Summarized below are some of the well-articulated responses of SUPCON’s Kim Hock Teo.

Viewpoints

What is the level of support given to BASF for digital transformation and SUPCON’s offerings?

“They know exactly what they want, and we are deploying the technologies to support them. BASF is more like a partner and coach, and they have a very clear understanding on what they want to achieve. For example, they have multiple blocks and SUPCON Productivity with Digitalizationprovides some of the key modules, like for data mining the AI platform is provided. For data mining it is more generic where it is applied and implemented to the kind of diagnostic for predictive work as batteries are relatively new to both BASF and SUPCON.”

“With the rapid evolution of the batteries industry, the approach and applications are more cross-disciplinary. Most of the processes are not those encountered in refineries or the petrochemical industry. The technologies are there but need to be customized to fit the battery application.”

Did digital transformation help your business to grow?

“Digital transformation is the highest growth area. Although we still rely heavily on level 1 and level 2 automation solutions, digital solutions have grown exponentially, especially in the non-established OT area. A lot of OT areas like APC are mature and already deployed, it is always the manual workflows, the logistic areas, terminals, etc. that need to be automated. SUPCON’s customers request help to remotely supervise and monitor operators’ performance when they are sent for maintenance work (when the work order was received, how many site visits were made and so on). This is the area that SUPCON is trying to improve and has been the highest growth area.”

What is the level of adoption of digital transformation in the process industry?

“Process industry is a mixed bag. The high-end refineries and petrochemical sector are fully automated and have highly integrated operations. It’s a wide spectrum and industries differ in automation deployment.”

“With dramatic reduction in automation costs and advancements in wireless that reduce the CapEx, the lower tier industries can benefit a lot more from digitalization where they can jump from a few centric operations to digitalized operations. They can skip a generation, for e.g., when China wanted to provide phone connections to remote villages, the cost was reduced by deploying wireless technology. Industries that are lagging in automation can take full advantage of the digitalization trend to achieve the same level of automation at a reduced cost.”

Views on digitalization

“We don’t see it as an end game – there isn’t an end in the digitalization concept. A machine making machines (make plants that will create plants) would be the ultimate of AI. We don’t see that as happening, and that is not defined as the end game either.”

Any specific robot or custom robot for the battery management workflow and is the robot connected to data resources?

“We didn’t use any generic robot that automatically picks up data, which is still not available as yet. At the moment, the data mining, data analytics, and displaying the information into the dashboard is still through the manual analytics.”

How is AI contributing to digital transformation in process industries?

“Artificial intelligence is one of the widest areas of deployment that range from very simple tasks, such as instead of manually entering figures we can take pictures and upload to AI to translate. We can use AI to identify a bad key signature or behavior to ensure that helmet/safety shoes are being used or a drilling activity is done with goggles. AI has been deployed in the safety surveillance area and also to observe the conveyor belts. Flow of materials and distribution are identified via videos.”

Comments on Open Source

“We see open source as one of the key areas that is pushing the frontiers of digitalization. A lot of the fundamental technologies that we deploy today are all coming from the Open Source.”

About Maintenance and Operations (M&O)

“You cannot look at it as a percentage because if you look at the traditional IO that is hardwired to a controller, a lot of them are not for critical control. For instance, equipment monitoring can be done using wireless technology at a fraction of the cost. Automation is just part of the whole process - there is the licensing to be done, the EPCs – and they typically don’t want to redesign the cable trays, etc. But if you break down the control loop, identify the critical control then allocate funds to M&O, you can see the reduced total CapEx.”

Conclusion

BASF’s presentation at the ARC Industry Forum Asia generated a lot of audience interest. When the customer speaks it adds credibility to the supplier’s offerings. The plant for battery materials is at a nascent stage, so for both - BASF (the customer) and SUPCON (technology provider) it’s a journey of collaborative learning. Summing up in Mr. Teo’s words, “It is a journey, and everybody needs to have intermediate goals as the plant gets smarter and smarter.”

The BASF video presentation and the panel discussion will be available on the vfairs platform ARC Asia Forum 2022 (arcweb.com) till August 13th. However, if you’d like to view it at a later date, the BASF video presentation will be available here.

 

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Keywords: ARC Industry Forum Asia, BASF, SUPCON, Battery Materials, Digital Transformation, Digitalization, Artificial Intelligence (AI), ARC Advisory Group.

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