Table of Contents
Traditional chemical process sectors have lagged behind others in innovation, such as transportation, aircraft, information technology, etc. The handling of highly complicated heterogeneous multiscale, multiphase, and reactive mixtures in such industrial facilities is the primary cause. Designing new technologies without substantial pilot-scale testing and empirical correlations for scaleup is challenging since the related conditions and variables change as equipment sizes increase. There are several ways to speed up the implementation of innovation to process industries, including modularization and establishing networking standards.
Many production sectors are involved in the “chemical industry” or “process industries,” including chemicals, energy, fuels, pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, food, advanced materials, metals, pulp, minerals, etc. The conversion of raw materials into valuable products happens in the chemical industry using a technique known as “Unit Operations,” which involves separation, mixing, conversion, etc. Such production facilities are safely designed, constructed, and run by chemical engineers at ever-increasing sizes and efficiency. The breadth and scope of the industrial activities can be seen by the US$ 3.9 trillion in sales and nearly 7 million persons employed by the worldwide chemical industry in 2019 .
A survey of the history of chemistry during the last 200 years found that by 2015, around 14,341,955 chemicals associated with 16,356,012 reactions had been identified . Of course, not all these compounds are widely used and do not require high production capacity. However, when high production criteria need to be met, the technological process should step up at all levels in developing the best flowsheets possible with the least negative environmental impact, the best catalysts possible, and improved unit operations equipment.
1 What Exactly Is Innovation in Chemical Industry Sector?
Manufacturing continues to be the primary driver of value generation in the chemical sector. For this reason, it seems logical that the first thing that comes to mind when the word innovation is stated is “product innovation,” which is defined traditionally as innovation to the physical product. However, the expanding service sector is equally crucial when thinking about innovation in the chemical industry. These services may be directly related to the tangible good (such as packaging choices) or a separate company that may offer them (e.g., distributors). Even the combination of a physical product and services may be regarded as a product. There are opportunities for innovation in product applications in addition to product innovation itself. It is already obvious that innovation extends well beyond simple research and development. Marketing and sales play a crucial role in innovation by providing market and consumer intelligence. Given this, marketing and sales may significantly drive product innovation. This includes the related transition from technological to market-driven thought.
Product innovation and manufacturing process innovation typically go hand in hand. Innovation in the production process might present a chance to boost productivity for items already on the market. Manufacturing process innovation can also be sparked by business-related issues, such as environmental protection laws or worker safety.
Efficiency improvement is an aim that extends beyond the industrial sector. Lean management, shorter time-to-market, and other factors propel innovation in all business operations. For instance, the urge for openness developed by the globalization of commerce has resulted in several improvements in company reporting. Another example of a non-technical innovation is enhancing human resource procedures to choose a superior workforce. Innovative improvements can also take place at a higher level and even result in transformation throughout the entire business. Business strategy always considers a company’s business and/or operational model. Traditional business structures have undergone revolutionary modifications in the chemical sector, such as creating chemical parks or particular distribution strategies, such as a distinct commodities business.
2 How can Innovation Contribute to Business Success?
It is possible to relate the business model (the product/service itself) and its contribution to the success of a business by analyzing the life cycle of a product/service (Figure 2).
The life cycle begins with the development of a new product. A product is often categorized as a specialty if it is exclusive to the chemical industry as a whole. A new manufacturing method may need to be developed to make this product. A distinct value proposition accepted by the market is necessary for expanding the company with this new product. Other factors demand careful consideration, such as price. When a product reaches maturity, it begins to become more commonplace. Alternatively, developing new applications or variations might allow the product life cycle to be restarted or extended.
On the other side, the emphasis on innovation for a mature product may switch to process innovation and efficiency improvement. This includes all essential business operations as well as the production process. These cost-cutting initiatives provide opportunities to delay the moment when revenues drop below the adjustable gross margin. This occurrence marks the beginning of the decline period. The commoditization of a tangible good or a service may lead to innovation in business procedures and business models. Additionally, cost pressure drives innovation in the production process at this point.
Innovation directly influences the bottom line and can affect the company, indirectly aiding sales success. Innovation is typically associated with optimistic views or hopes. As a result, being recognized as an innovative organization will help build reputation. This strong business reputation may be used to recruit top talent, increasing the organization’s capacity for innovation.
3 Innovation: A Business Case
In any industry, a business is at the risk of closing down if it cannot innovate quickly enough to serve customers better and stay one step ahead of the competition. In some cases, businesses that were once pillars of their industries have vanished due to putting too much emphasis on short-term goals and disregarding what made them successful in the first place.
Some analysts believe that the significant consolidation over the past 15 to 20 years in the chemical, petrochemical, and gas industries is partially a result of some participants’ inability to advance and provide timely innovations. For instance, the oil and gas sector appeared to have few opportunities for innovation a decade ago (at least to outsiders). Then, the fracking revolution – a procedure that fractures rock formations and extracts natural gas – made it possible to access reservoirs that were not previously reachable. The prospect of oil and gas shortages has been largely addressed owing to fracking. As a result, oil production in the United States is booming, and the global price of oil and natural gas has fallen.
4 Transition in Chemical Process Industry
Although it is recognized that chemical engineering emerged as a separate discipline more than a century ago , specialized expertise for producing wine, paper, and other products was developed much earlier in the history of humanity and included chemical engineering principles without being recognized as such. However, the large-scale implementation of such technologies across various process sectors has been made possible by distilling the common principles of chemical engineering and education that were prioritized in the previous century. A productive and adaptable workforce is now available in the rapidly growing process industries, such as the modern semiconductor, thin film-based roll manufacturing, energy storage sectors, etc. This is owing to the modernization of the chemical engineering curriculum. Chemical manufacturing facilities have primarily remained the same despite innovation accelerating in other manufacturing sectors (mechanical, aerospace, etc.). This is understandable given several factors, including the lengthy and expensive process of developing new technologies on a pilot scale. Besides ASPEN/HYSYS, advances in computational modeling tools can speed up the development of new technologies.
It is possible to wisely build and use resources like R&D expenditure allocation and advanced educational training by periodically evaluating past sector successes and projecting future innovation prospects. Such initiatives have been made in the past in a number of ways, including the edited collection “One Hundred Years of Chemical Engineering”  and the more recent article “Evolving Trends in Chemical Engineering Education.” The latter emphasizes the weak connection between industry and academia and the necessity of revitalizing “Core Chemical Engineering.”
An article by Westmoreland, “Opportunities and challenges for a Golden Age of chemical engineering,”  covers the effects of hydrocarbon availability, biological evolution, the pervasiveness of computer tools, systems approach, and process-oriented manufacturing.
At the linkage of mechanical engineering and chemistry, the field of chemical engineering began to develop more than a century ago. However, we must acknowledge that chemical processing techniques (involving separation, mixing, and reactions) have been used for thousands of years in different industries, including food processing, metal extraction, pulp production, textile and paper production, the development of dyes, as with other early human activities, the transformation of nature’s gifts into goods that improved human existence was primarily accomplished via trial and error and observation. Therefore, progress was made slowly.
A century ago, there were already chemical factories producing common chemicals like ammonia and sulfuric acid, but their construction and management were viewed as trade-specific skills that needed to be learned through apprenticeship training and were not inevitably transferable from one kind of production plant to another. Antwerpen explains that it is hard to specify when and in whose head a new field’s synthesizing concepts emerge . However, George E. Davis, who developed the first four-year chemical engineering program at MIT in England in the 1880s, frequently receives credit for the course. The concept of “Unit Operations” for synthetic processes developed over the following 20–30 years, and similarities between processes like heating, distillation, grinding, mixing, drying, leaching, and reaction were acknowledged as transferable skills.
Chemical engineers have always studied the history of the field. It has aided in further understanding the underlying physical, chemical, mathematical, and biological principles for the area’s future development while broadening its application to numerous manufacturing sectors involving process operations such as mixing, separations, reactions, etc. Numerous historical works [7-9] have charted the rationality of the field’s development. Even though they all read fascinating books, they eventually reach similar developmental milestones. Wankat [9,10] recognizes “Three Stages of Evolution in Chemical Engineering Education” in terms of curriculum development and pedagogy: the first stage is the synthesis of the concept of “Unit Operations,” the second stage is the “Engineering Science” revolution, and the third stage is “Engineering Criteria 2000.” The first one resulted in the notion of “Unit Operations,” an organizational approach based on commonalities across seemingly unrelated activities. The second one discovered an analogous organizational concept based on analogous mathematical models (between seemingly unrelated separation processes like absorption or distillation and transport operations like mass and heat transfer), which gave rise to the “Engineering Science” method. Modern process simulators like ASPEN/HYSYS were developed in the 1980s due to the digital computer revolution  [12,13]. Every chemical factory, refinery, pharmaceutical, sugar mill, etc., uses plant-wide computer simulation technologies. In these various processing facilities, the fundamental digital flow of information on mass and energy balances remains the same. These two organizational concepts of “Unit Operations” and the mathematical commonalities between these operations are evidenced by the development of process plant digital simulators.
Finding a higher degree of thought synthesis is not likely to provide transformational prospects but rather the following two areas that will broaden its sphere of influence: (i) obtaining a better understanding of mixing, reaction and separation processes at the molecular level, which made possible by high-resolution experimental probes (Raman spectroscopy), tools like molecular dynamics (MD) and density functional theory (DFT), and (ii) integrating this knowledge across multiple scales to influence contemporary, inventive, modular designs of processing equipment first in the digital sphere with less reliance on pricey pilot plants. Even in the chemical industry, where large-scale manufacturing is frequently required, standardization and modularization of process design elements together with process intensification and integration will enable speedy innovation.
The Amundson NRC paper reviews the “Frontiers in Chemical Engineering: Research Needs and Opportunities.” It goes into great depth on the various manufacturing industries related to chemical process engineering. Even though the report was written three decades ago, many fields of application, including (a) electronic, photonic, and recording materials and devices, (b) biomedicine and biotechnology, (c) ceramics, polymers, and composites, (d) environmental protection and hazardous waste management, (e) processing of energy and natural resources, (f) surfing, and (g) control engineering and computer aided process have been identified as amenable to innovation. This is allowed by fundamental breakthroughs in experimental synthesis, characterization of enhanced performance chemicals and materials, and advancements in simulation sciences and high-performance computing that permit process design innovations. The advanced manufacturing paradigm, which includes computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), and additive manufacturing, competently supports this. The speed of invention in every industry will only pick up due to the simultaneous developments in robots, sensors and controls, and artificial intelligence (AI).
Some of today’s most pressing issues, such as providing food, drinking water, commodities, and energy to a rising population, may be solved by chemical engineers . Conventional techniques would not be able to meet these demands, and doing so may be extremely harmful to the environment. Crop production and yield need to be increased, and environmental pollution must be reduced, energy and water stewardship need to be improved, among other things.
In general, the electronics, communications, and technology industries are more inventive than the chemical and manufacturing industries. Fortunately, this is being innovated in areas like the industrial internet of things (IIoT), big data analytics (which enables quicker and smarter decision-making), wider connection through the cloud, enhanced robotics and increased machine-to-machine interactions because of Industry 4.0.
Some examples of chemical engineering solutions that have the potential for the widespread use and opportunities for innovation are as follows:
- Process acceleration, or any advancement in chemical engineering that results in a significantly smaller technology, cleaner, and more energy-efficient ;
- Clean and alternative energy sources;
- Different methods of manufacturing and chemical reactions can produce goods with higher yields or with greater energy efficiency while using less water, fewer hazardous chemicals, and less waste;
- Automated systems that can improve output and quality while cutting costs;
- Nanomaterials and nanotechnology;
- Advanced medications;
- More environmentally friendly building and construction supplies;
- The use of drones and robots to reduce or eliminate the dangers of handling toxic substances and performing work in restricted areas or high places for people (e.g., for flare inspections).
5 Challenges and Misconceptions
The propensity of certain corporations and business executives to play not to lose rather than play to win is a significant impediment to innovation. Corporate cultures are often hierarchical and risk-averse, which stifles innovation. Personnel may feel intimidated or reluctant to bring up issues or chances for change in this setting.
Getting solid outcomes from month to month while also investing in a robust innovation pipeline to support results over the long term is a significant problem for organizations. Companies may concentrate on the short-term financial outcomes to appease some shareholders since globalization has led to intense competition in all industries. But creativity is the only way to stand out from the crowd in hostile situations. From an investors’ perspective, businesses with a strong culture and an innovative pipeline present a more robust investment opportunity.
Collaboration with universities, entrepreneurs, new businesses, and facilitators may frequently be used to foster innovation. Instead of restricting the discourse to those from the same organization, the goal is to enhance the diversity of thought. In the pharmaceutical sector, open collaboration is rather widespread and extremely fruitful. However, in addition to legitimate intellectual property problems, cultural barriers sometimes prevent open collaboration: individuals inside one firm could reject ideas from another merely because of their origin. Such a mindset frequently hinders creativity and is ineffective .
Gathering and developing ideas from many sources is a common step in the creative process. An idea may be developed by iterating through these processes until it is completely formed. These steps involve discussion to enhance and broaden the concept, evaluation of different uses, and development of alternative and complementary ideas. There are several methods and instruments for coming up with and refining ideas, including tried-and-true methods like brainstorming sessions.
Companies must, however, avoid falling into the trap of using too many tools one techniques. Forcing employees to adhere to one experimented process might restrict creativity.
The creative process necessitates logical thinking almost by definition. Particularly, procedures that demand passing several checkpoints, completing numerous forms or spreadsheets, or collecting excessive data can be too complex and impede innovation initiatives .
6 Moving Toward Innovation
Keeping the eyes and thoughts open may be the most effective approach to being inventive on a personal level. Of course, it is frequently simpler to say than to accomplish. Conformism, the propensity to accept and perpetuate the status quo without attempting to change things, is the most significant threat to innovation.
A desire to adapt and the confidence to choose what to change and what not to change are prerequisites for innovation. Henry Ford stated, “If I had asked the market what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse” .
The critical issue is still how to encourage businesses to adopt an innovative attitude, even though innovation has become a term. Several businesses have established high-level roles and appointed a Chief Innovation Officer to improve their capacity for innovation . Numerous businesses have also hired innovation gurus and implemented various innovative initiatives. Additional paths to the invention include:
- Encouraging a diverse opinion;
- Permitting a little experimenting;
- Increasing one’s tolerance for failure;
- Expanding the performance evaluation criteria to include innovation;
- Fostering an environment that encourages the creation of ideas and swiftly acts on those ideas.
Businesses must involve everyone if they want to spur innovation. Although it is simple to say, it is challenging to do. Everyone includes operators, maintenance workers, plant managers, engineers, and other professionals as well.
Too frequently, employees performing important but repetitious jobs are discouraged from thinking creatively. Disengaged employees are typically less inclined to provide ideas that might assist resolve ongoing challenges or problems at work. There is little room for innovation if viewpoints like “it’s not my problem” or “it has been like that for 20 years” are prevalent. The likelihood that an employee will provide value to their company is higher when they have the correct attitude and drive.
7 Developing and Capturing Digital Value using Advanced Material Systems
In past, innovation and development in the chemical business have been concentrated on the discovery of molecules or the development of applications, all to sell a solid or liquid. Chemical businesses should reconsider their conventional innovation strategies emphasizing molecules if they want to break the mold and go toward solutions. Innovation should shift from being molecule/applications oriented to focusing on end-market concerns and driving the solution holistically through efficient ecosystem-wide cooperation.
The following are essential processes for developing an innovative material system that can support solutions business:
- Defining in detail the functional requirements necessary to address market demands and decomposing those requirements into specific engineering- and business-model-related issues;
- Understanding and developing an ecosystem of capabilities is crucial since it is unlikely that any one organization will have all the necessary capabilities on hand;
- Establishing a successful collaborative paradigm to address each of the ecosystem’s distinct issues;
- Controlling the overall solution design and overseeing the integration of different component solutions.
Using a variety of capabilities throughout the ecosystem may seem simple and practical in theory, but managing change to do so is challenging given the chemical industry’s lengthy history of innovation. Shortening the product innovation life cycle can be essential to the success of a solutions firm. However, not all organizations will select this route.
Although they do not alone provide most of the value, materials and process technologies can be innovation facilitators. It is frequently crucial to include materials into a functional solution to address a particular set of unmet client demands in the market. Industries that supply systems integrating cutting-edge digital technologies with materials will probably dominate in value creation relative to those that only focus on materials, as chemical companies search for a new approach to innovation and profitable growth.
Market demands should drive the opportunities which will be satisfied by material innovation. It often begins by initially taking a broad view of the megatrends impacting the industry, which is then narrowed down to discovering new applications that may be able to address unmet consumer demands. Functional needs that support the creative solution—integrating materials, systems, and processes—can result from this. The business could get more value from an innovative solution if it can introduce it and include supporting technologies and materials while meeting unmet market demands by megatrends (Figure 4).
The best materials, systems, and processes may be integrated with digital technology, which can also assist in uncovering market opportunities and functional needs. Digital technology, for instance, can enable automated trend detection and social media scanning to find more general industry trends and client needs. This can enhance the size and scope of R&D initiatives. Massive volumes of internal and external data are currently being compiled utilizing a platform-based, data-centric methodology. Data on the evolution of materials are also expensive and scarce. By fusing the subject expertise of chemical businesses with graphical models that can capture well-known correlations and analytical formulae, artificial intelligence (AI) can increase the productivity and cost-effectiveness of their current knowledge.
8 Innovation and Sustainability
Manufacturing and heavy industry are concerned most about sustainability because they need to keep their reputation and bottom line. Further, sustainable practices are regarded as new innovative opportunities to get an edge in the market regarding reputation and profit margin. The chemical industry is under great pressure because it is the foundation of many other industries, like fertilizers, pharma, agriculture, plastics, etc.
The effects of human-caused climate change cannot be disregarded, and the chemical industry should accept responsibility for its actions. Due to the use of fossil fuels, the discharge of flue gases, and gas flaring practices, the sector has a bad track record for emissions and pollution. Chemical plants have the potential to seriously damage ecosystems and wipe out plant and animal life by releasing large amounts of pollutants into the local environment, air, and rivers.
Additionally, these pollutants contribute to poor human health. Chemical exposure contributes 5.7% of all diseases and 8.3% of all fatalities globally. The chemicals industry is the third-largest generator of CO2, accounting for 18% of industrial CO2 emissions, and the second-largest sulfur dioxide (SO2) emitter, which harms human respiratory systems.
Chemical businesses now recognize the financial benefits of sustainable operations. A strong reputation for sustainability gives an organization a competitive edge that boosts sales and raises its attraction to top talent.
Reducing waste also has the additional benefit of lowering costs and boosting profit margins. Process Plants also adhere to industry and governmental requirements to avoid penalties and expensive audits.
The primary concerns with sustainability include:
- Reducing waste in all plant areas;
- Reducing emissions, pollutants, and dangerous leaks;
- Reducing environmental effects;
- Increasing worker health and safety;
- Reducing the use of fossil fuels and energy;
- Expanded diversity in hiring;
- Improving openness and anti-corruption policies.
Through R&D, chemical businesses primarily enhance their sustainability profiles by providing cutting-edge new technology, including biotechnologies, artificial intelligence (AI), and/or automation.
Big data and artificial intelligence are two more technical advancements. To monitor tank levels, temperature, and other parameters without endangering human workers’ safety, new IIoT sensors and smart devices gather data. Predictive analytics is made possible by AI and machine learning (ML), which enables the detection of anomalies that may point to human error, component depreciation (such as fouling, which lowers heat exchange efficiency), or low lubricant levels (which require more energy, water, and/or raw materials). Additionally, it allows for factory automation, reducing the possibility of chemical mixing mistakes due to human error.
With smart gadgets like drones and digital twins that utilize IIoT data with ML and augmented reality (AR), some plants are pushing technology to new heights. These provide quicker and more precise root cause investigation, enabling faster solutions that reduce harm. Digital twins frequently enable staff to change settings remotely, eliminating the need to physically enter a dangerous situation for a fix and reducing waste.
The chemicals sector confronts several sustainability challenges, from the complexities of a complicated supply chain to incomplete digital transitions. Decarbonization, pollution, and energy management are now the industry’s top sustainability priorities. However, plants are utilizing various strategies to make the industry cleaner, greener, and ultimately more effective since they fully understand the financial, regulatory, and ethical necessity to overcome them.
9 Industry 4.0 and Chemical Process Industry
Many advances in technical transitions and commercialization are made possible by Industry 4.0 technology. With intelligent processes and methods, Industry 4.0 seeks to produce intelligent things.
Businesses that are driven by business procedures may use Industry 4.0 technology purely to boost productivity while lowering risk, whereas businesses that are developing new products or services can apply Industry 4.0 concepts to generate more revenue.
Industry 4.0 has recently been a hot topic in global economic discussions. Significant changes have been made to human demands, commodities, operations, technical procedures, and business methods. Chemical 4.0 or Chemistry 4.0 (a broader area) has altered chemical processes and procedures. It has sped up the sector’s development and propelled it to a high level of production and digitalization.
Companies can use industry 4.0 technologies to improve business operations by digitizing, optimizing production processes, raw material and energy flow, strengthening their position in the market by designing and marketing intelligent systems, IoT strategic implementation, introducing collaborative skillsets, discovering novel ways to grow businesses, value chain partnership, new service capabilities, and smart chemicals among other things.
Chemical companies may improve process controls, take risks with knowledge and resource management, and reduce manufacturing cycles due to Industry 4.0. It eventually increases production and efficiency inside the company. While preserving optimal resource consumption lowers overall quality expenditures.
Industry 4.0 also includes advanced analytics capabilities, which help chemical companies analyze trends and promote creative quality control methods that reduce outages and non-conformances. You may accomplish high-quality manufacturing in batch or continuous processing using sophisticated detection techniques made possible by the IIoT.
Industry 4.0 technologies are also developing for improved process management, providing operators more freedom to watch instrument data and facility actions. This makes it simpler for the asset-intensive chemical industry to continuously monitor essential machinery like rotors, compressors, and extruders to identify and anticipate any malfunctions. To put it simply, Industry 4.0 obliges chemical manufacturers to switch from reactive to predictive maintenance as soon as possible.
It has shown to be technically challenging to model and transcribe intricate chemical industrial processes and couple contemporary monitoring and information systems. The limits of Industry 4.0 include the robustness and privacy of digital IoT systems, anticipating the properties of chemical mixtures, and conceptual frameworks for modeling flexible and dynamic chemical processes with quickly shifting stoichiometric parameters.
9.1 Top Chemical Industries and Industry 4.0
According to an article published on the IEEE forum , most of the top 50 chemical industrial businesses worldwide have adopted Industry 4.0. The research found that significant firms in North America, Europe, and Japan were at the forefront of developing cutting-edge chemicals, materials, and solutions as part of the Chemicals 4.0 concept.
At the same time, the majority of chemical companies throughout the world made improvements to existing systems rather than developing novel technologies. Chemicals 4.0 has identified five product development areas that the chemical industry is actively investigating. These include biotechnology, 3D printing, smart automobiles, precision agriculture, and sophisticated materials.
Innovation is important for the success of a chemical company and for building a long-term competitive edge, especially when times are tough. Many businesses will probably prioritize survival as the chemical sector prepares for a possible downturn rather than commercializing new goods or technology to reach growing markets. It might be challenging to innovate during difficult times since most industrial resources are devoted to other business areas that require urgent attention. Chemical businesses may plan to build long-term value by looking at the wider picture, even while fighting fires. Innovation should not be about how much money is spent on R&D but how it is used effectively and efficiently. Chemical firms can acquire, combine, and nurture the ideal set of systems, products, and processes even in tough circumstances due to various affordable digital R&D technologies. And for this to occur, businesses can think about using cutting-edge strategies that fit their corporate cultures and business structures. Chemical businesses that rethink innovation by investing in digital capabilities, emphasizing teamwork, and collaborating with ecosystem partners might successfully lower overall costs, swiftly develop new products that consumers want, and ultimately produce long-term value.
Although implementing Industry 4.0 offers many advantages, there are also many difficulties and restrictions. Resources and mentorship requirements, cyber security concerns, physical features of manufacturing processes, and software interface standards are the four basic categories into which Industry 4.0 technology implementation obstacles may be separated.
A complex supply chain and incomplete digital transformations are only two of the many obstacles to sustainability in the chemical industry. Therefore, the industry’s sustainability initiatives focus on reducing pollutants, carbon emissions, and energy use. Process facilities are making efforts to clean up, become green, and eventually increase the industry’s productivity while being aware of the financial, legal, and ethical necessity to address these issues.
Although innovation is a key business driver, R&D should not be the main area of emphasis. Innovation should be seen from a wider viewpoint since it is not only limited to product advances. It is believed that innovation still has a great deal of untapped potential.
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