Along with steel and mining, the other behemoth and pillar of international heavy industry is the chemical industry. The sheer logistics and nature of sourcing, producing and trading the output of this sector has created a massive, complex, and interdependent network of large-scale suppliers. Globalization and commodification, however, has been forcing established firms to look to technology to reinvent a business that has more or less remained true to its mechanical engineering and analog roots. Digitalization now offers huge opportunities for a traditionally conservative industry, grappling with ever-tighter margins, to take its place in this new industrial revolution.
Lanxess, an established player in the chemical industry with roots reaching back to 1863, decided to take this next step with a view to increasing the profitability and efficiency of its operations. The company came to relayr with some ideas and both partners quickly saw the opportunity to work together to identify and enhance business outcomes from existing brownfield systems.
The company’s plastics plant in Antwerp was chosen as the pilot-site for Lanxess’ dive into the digital world. Every year, Lanxess produces millions of tons of caprolactam, one of the main elements used to make nylon. The production process has one important by-product – Ammonium sulfate – that can be resold to the fertilizer industry. The ammonium sulfate crystals that are produced, however, are generally of varying sizes and quality. The larger the crystals, the more valuable they become, as they can be better mixed with other products.
The main goal of the project was to increase the percentage of crystals to the optimal size for resale. When the project started, nearly half of the crystals were this size. Lanxess had been monitoring over one hundred processes in the production of resaleable ammonium sulfate, but only a small number of these were adjustable during operation. Relayr pored over the entire system and identified many more adjustable parameter values from these processes. This increased control over the system, easily monitored from dashboards, meant that the crystals could now be kept at a predictable size. It also gave the operators the kind of system stability that would allow them to identify possible irregularities early on.
The system is now monitored using web-based dashboards that relayr integrated into the existing software systems at the plant. Relayr makes recommendations on the parameters which Lanxess can make adjustments to at the touch of a button.
What began as a modest proposal to create consistency in a production line has become a profitable partnership in which digitalization and IIoT know-how can be combined with established heavy industry to enhance the profitability of existing systems and machinery without excessive investment or risk. Initially a three-year shared benefits partnership, Lanxess are looking to expand their winning relationship with relayr to other plants and projects around the globe.
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