Chemical Production to Meet Tomorrow’s Challenges

From Global Megatrends to Industry 4.0

30.12.2015 The European chemical and pharmaceutical industries are standing on the threshold of a radical transformation. An increasing focus on high-value products is raising the pressure to innovate. At the same time, there is growing demand for smaller quantities and customised products. This calls for flexible production processes. And biobased developments, IT, and “Industry 4.0” or the fourth industrial revolution will all play a crucial role.


Future gazing is always difficult and always beset with uncertainty. From a societal viewpoint, however, certain megatrends can be discerned, which also provide the basis for the European Commission‘s „Horizon 2020“ research program. A growing and ageing global population will require, among other things, provision of adequate health care, sustainable agricultural production, access to clean drinking water, as well as more efficient utilisation of resources and energy. And all this in an environment of modern, integration-promoting, and open-minded societies. For many of the contributions and solutions to the outlined chal-lenges offered by the chemical and pharmaceutical industries will require broad-based acceptance by these societies.

Today, the mission statements of numerous chemical and life-science companies already emphasise their commitment to finding responses to these global challenges. One such example is Bayer‘s mission statement „Science for a Better Life“: This expresses our desire to improve people‘s lives by applying an innovative approach to solving these challenges. Innovation as the key to competitiveness cannot merely mean improvement of value chains but must also entail development of new business models.

What does this mean for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries? In the past ten years, Chinese chemicals production has outstripped that of Europe, the USA, and other countries – with a three to four times higher growth rate compared to Europe. Yet are price and volume competition all that will matter in future chemical production? That may be the case in some areas, but the main growth will take place at interdisciplinary interfaces and across industries and will be driven by social trends and needs.

How, then, can we develop responses to the social and economic challenges? Here I would like to address just two important factors in greater detail: People and technologies.

Talent is crucial
People are undoubtedly one of the most important success factors. Education and commitment to science and engineering will play a crucial role here. The level of educational achievement in natural sciences, engineering, and mathematics is in need of improvement. At the same time, the proportion of young people in the population is shrinking – and consequently also the number of those who will pursue a career in science or technology.
If we are persuaded that the key to success lies in science and engineering then we should invest far more in education and employ many more scientists and engineers. Because young scientific and engineering talent is a prerequisite for growth and competitiveness – and a huge social effort will be necessary to nurture and multiply this talent.

Technology echnology transforms molecules into markets

In addition to all this, new technologies will have a dramatic impact on the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Undoubtedly, there will also be shifts in competitive positions and market shares. These technological trends include:

  • Novel production processes
  • Biological products
  • Renewable raw materials
  • Resource efficiency
  • Computational life sciences, and
  • Industry 4.0

As a general rule, only those technological trends will prevail which engender business success. The long pathway from a molecule produced in a laboratory to a production-ready product is underpinned by technical innovations, the success of which increases with the level of understanding of the biological and chemical mechanisms involved. A strong bridge is therefore nec-essary between molecules and markets – and this bridge can only be built by innovative technology.

Why do we need novel production processes? A glance at market demands in the fine chemicals and pharmaceutical industries yields the answer. We see that companies improve their market position by reducing time-to-market for their products, i.e. if they can significantly cut development times and all the associated costs. Another success factor is reduction of investment risk through use of less capital-intensive production plant. Greater flexibility permits companies to focus faster on new business opportunities.

This will require production concepts which are fast and flexible, and remain competitive into the future. That is the core con-cept of the EU-sponsored F³ Factory Project (flexible, fast, future): 26 partners from universities and industry have developed the factory of the future in a demonstration plant. As drivers of this European project, Bayer Technology Services and the Technical University of Dortmund have together founded the Invite Research Centre. Here the project partners have demonstrated in cases of real products that cuts of, for example, up to 40 percent in energy consumption, up to 30 percent in capital investment, and up to 50 percent in development times can be achieved when working across competitive boundaries.

These highly promising results have already borne commercial fruit. The main thrust of research is currently in innovative and resource-efficient processes with a clear focus on modular continuous production processes for fine chemicals and biologicals. This paradigm shift is accompanied, for example, by development of single use equipment or novel inline sensors.

New concepts for personalised medicine
Blockbuster products with relatively large production volumes nowadays dominate the pharmaceuticals market. Advances in personalised medicine will lead to a much broader product portfolio with significantly smaller product quantities. This will coin-cide with an increasing focus on local production. Moreover, flexible supply will also gain ground, forcing pharmaceuticals manu-facturers to react faster. Novel, flexible, and more cost-effective production concepts are thus required.

Pharmaceutical production plants are generally constructed of stainless steel and the equipment and pipework firmly attached to the building. These installations may cost several hundred million euros. In future, biopharmaceutical products will increas-ingly be built as flexible production units. They will be designed as a self-contained unit, frequently as single use systems, and no longer firmly attached to a building. Such plants can be constructed fairly rapidly and capital expenditure can be reduced by an order of magnitude.

The equipment and sensors used in future plants will necessarily also change. Vessels, pumps, mixers, or even complete filling units will be designed for single use. This will reduce the need for sterilisation and cleaning, flexibility will increase, and no costs will be incurred for cleaning validation. Biotechnological processes also have considerable potential in classical chemical production. Thus work is currently in progress on producing the very important industrial chemical phenol from biomass instead of crude oil – with the aid of genetically engi-neered bacteria. Carbon dioxide emission could be reduced to half the level of that emitted by classical phenol synthesis.

Recycling of carbon dioxide is another example of resource efficiency. In the „Dream Reactions“ project, carbon dioxide as a waste product of electricity generation has been utilised for the first time as a starting material for the production of polyurethane. Generations of chemists had worked for years to accomplish this dream reaction, but their efforts were thwarted by the chemical inertness of the highly stable greenhouse gas molecule. It was only with the aid of modern catalyst research that the activation energy could be sufficiently reduced by catalysis to make the reaction economically viable. It is now possible to incorporate up to 20 percent by weight of the greenhouse gas into polyether carbonate polyol, one of the two components of polyurethane. This example clearly illustrates how sustainability and resource efficiency can be significantly improved by closing the carbon cycle.

Computational life sciences
Computer methods have long been used in chemistry and process engineering. Today, flow simulation (Computational Fluid Dynamics; CFD), computational chemistry, 3D simulations of process engineering operations as well as process simulation have all become mainstays in research and production. In order that products, systems, sensors, and data management all function together seamlessly, experts from various disciplines have to cooperate closely and develop integrated solutions. To this end, biologists, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, and engineers make use of the constantly increasing volume of data to create a new vision of reality. Such translational learning and working also helps to attain a better understanding of biological systems and to apply this knowledge in targeted manner. Today, computational life sciences already make a significant contribution in the search for better products and more effective therapies for protection of humans, animals, and plants. Digital health and digital farming will offer new solutions for a better life in the years to come. In future, an integrated approach with a principal focus on data and modelling will be all-important in the development of active pharmaceutical ingredients. Components such as modelling of metabolic mechanisms, receptor identification, dosage recommendations, predictions of drug interactions, and translational learning will thus become parts of an integrated process.

We can expect similar developments in tomorrow‘s agriculture and food production. Thus innovations such as the treatment of plants on the basis of digital diagnoses and computer-aided online soil monitoring will lead to profound changes in the produc-tion of agrochemicals. The production of plant protection agents will be a flexible step in a holistic digitalised supply chain for tomorrow‘s farmer. Here too, production plants will undergo radical changes.
And then there is the „big data“ aspect to be considered: Only ten years have elapsed since the human genome was decoded. Today this procedure costs less that US$ 1000 and will open the door to individualised treatment of disease. Something similar applies to the plant world. For example, screening of planting trials is no longer a manual activity. Instead, automated image analysis systems monitor plant growth from sowing through to harvest, thus generating huge data volumes containing informa-tion which we are often unable to adequately interpret. Such interpretation requires algorithms capable of decoding the informa-tion locked up in these data. This will dramatically alter the innovation landscape.

For this reason, formerly disparate industrial sectors are now coming together. Companies such as Google and IBM are in a po-sition to successfully master big data. This is clearly apparent from the trend to permanently record lifestyle and health informa-tion and to intelligently combine these records with individualised preventative health care. On the other hand, the life-science industry is in possession of big data, above all in the areas of science, clinical practice, and biology. These separate strands will become ever more closely intertwined and we should all be prepared and ready to accompany this process proactively.

In this context we come across concepts such as „Industry 4.0“ and the „Internet of Things“. What does Industry 4.0 mean for the process industry? This covers, for example, IT-based systems with simply functioning interfaces as well as training simulators and predictive maintenance. Plant operation without unplanned downtimes and maximum availability are other examples of current developments which enable process innovation and enhance competitiveness.

However, the impact of Industry 4.0 on the chemical industry will go much further. This applies just as much to flexible, inte-grated production as to cross-company production structures in volatile markets.

Process automation is another example. Here a genuine paradigm shift is currently taking place: The classical, well-structured automation pyramid with its rigid hierarchy from the field level to the business systems has lost its validity. In its place, the „internet of things“ will lead to the „chemical industry of things“. And even if the new structure may appear a little chaotic at first glance, there will be neither any loss of function nor any greater difficulty in managing this world. Flexibility will be significantly enhanced.

The underlying paradigm will undoubtedly appear new and unfamiliar. Will the future of fine chemicals mean that we will be marketing system solutions instead of actual chemicals? And will chemical plants in future be remotely controlled by cus-tomer-supplier networks? All these possible trends in chemistry have been spawned by Industry 4.0. 

Heftausgabe: Compendium of Industrial Parks Chemie/Pharma/Biotec 2015
Dr. Dirk Van  Meirvenne is CEO of Bayer  Technology Services

About the author

Dr. Dirk Van Meirvenne is CEO of Bayer Technology Services

Dr. Dirk Van Meirvenne is CEO of Bayer Technology Services