The Next Big Thing?

Industry 4.0 in the Process Industry

21.12.2015 An acid thinking about what it wants to be as it passes through a processing plant? Hardly imaginable. A scenario cited as what we can expect for classical parts manufacturing in the future world of Industry 4.0 demands a vivid imagination when applied to processes typical of the chemical, pharmaceutical, and food industries. Yet also for the process industry, there is more to this topic than the movers and shakers behind Germany’s Industry 4.0 platform are prepared to imagine.

Bild für Post 55888

Industry 4.0 or the Industrial Internet of Things is also an exciting prospect for process industries such as chemistry. Companies are hoping for competitive advantages in an ever more volatile market environment. Bild: Inok – Fotolia

Entirely new vistas – and even completely new business models – open up when everything in production is linked together in one huge network. Protagonists of Industry 4.0, which is supported by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research as well as by industry associations, talk of the fourth industrial revolution. In the USA, where last year saw the foundation of the Industrial Internet Consortium, people prefer to talk of the „Industrial Internet of Things“, of IIoT for short.

According to a study undertaken by Fraunhofer IAO and the German professional IT association Bitkom, networking of product development, production, logistics, and customers in the chemical industry between 2013 and 2025 could boost its value creation performance by 30 percent. And that‘s not small potatoes in view of an annual turnover of around €190bn. It is therefore hardly surprising that more and more chemical companies are striving to harvest the potential „fruits“ of Industry 4.0.

One of the most important of these is the avoidance of unplanned stoppages. Networked sensors in machines and equipment, systematic evaluation of machine data with special software, and utilisation of mathematical models should provide information, for example about the future failure of a process pump, far in advance of the actual event. And if not only the data for a single factory can be analysed but similar problems identified within a whole site, or better still at all sites in the whole world, then the learning effect is all the greater. IT specialists call this approach „Big Data“.

Big Data – The Secret Goal of the Process Industry
However, utilisation of big data has so much more to offer than just improved maintenance processes. If it proves possible to use existing data from production in mathematical models of the process, companies could seize new competitive advantages: Products could be manufactured exactly to customers‘ specifications, using precisely the stipulated amounts of raw materials and energy – no more and no less. Customary safety margins could dwindle – enabling the manufacturer to increase his profit margin or lower his price
And big data will also have an impact on plant engineering. While the visions of Industry 4.0 make the case for mass deployment of additional sensors, application of model-based process control in the process industries could have precisely the opposite effect: Once all the parameters of a process have been thoroughly measured and the process has been thoroughly understood and digitised, all that is required in subsequent operation is an analytical instrument which records changes in material properties and feeds them into the data-based plant model. The process is then run on the basis of the model. Thus, for example, in thermal separation processes such as distillation, hundreds of temperature sensors could be replaced by just a few NIR spectrometers. Replacement of the sensors certainly makes sense for producers: Not only do these devices require regular maintenance and calibration, but each individual sensor is a potential source of disturbance, which can have a detrimental effect on plant availability. In practice, plant operators may see several hundred to a thousand alarms in a single day. Failure of a component – such as a pump or a valve actuator – may trigger an alarm cascade if pressure sensors record a falling value or if measured values exceed or fall below the limits set in flow and level measuring devices. This can often make identification of a fault like the search for a needle in a haystack.

The Pyramid Is Dead – Long Live Chaos
Above all in Germany‘s chemical and pharmaceutical plants there is yet another factor driving digitisation in the sense of Industry 4.0: The current trend towards high value specialty chemicals and personalised medicine is lowering production volumes and necessitating frequent product changes. This requires flexible production, which in turn necessitates highly networked, adaptive, and self-configuring production processes. The classical automation pyramid with its strictly hierarchical division of tasks is no longer appropriate here. Automation systems and components have to communicate flexibly with one another.
The need to define the relevant technical prerequisites prompted the interest group Namur – an association of users of automation technology in process industries – to set up the working group „Enabling Industry 4.0“. In collaboration with various other working groups, its task is to coordinate the activities of process automation experts in the direction of Industry 4.0. The objective: Overall optimisation of production processes on the basis of existing data.

The vision extends beyond optimisation of raw material and energy consumption: Plant design, construction, commissioning, and operation should become a transparent and continuous overall process. And production should be sufficiently flexible to allow manufacturers the meet the challenges of volatile markets. Interdisciplinary networking of information should permit production planning and logistics to constantly adjust to each other‘s ongoing needs: For example, if a raw material delivery is delayed the relevant information should be available early enough for production planning to switch to working with the raw materials which are available. As an illustration: If three materials are available but a fourth one necessary for production is missing, then a search for an appropriate recipe based on the available reactants is automatically initiated – paying due attention to stock levels, customer enquiries, logistics capacities, and availability of the technology necessary for production.

Conclusion: Although it is, after all, not the acid which contemplates what it wants to be, the underlying idea also applies in the case of „Chemical Industry 4.0“. However, not least because the security requirements are very high in the sensitive environment of the process industry, and particularly since many aspects of cyber security still have to be addressed, Industry 4.0 will probably become a reality via an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary process. It is nevertheless clear that Industry 4.0 will be „the next big thing“ also for the process industry

Industrie 4.0 or Industrial
Internet of Things?

In Germany activities relating to the fourth industrial revolution have been pooled since 2013 in an initiative known as the Industry 4.0 Platform ( After reorganisation in April 2015, leadership of the initiative was assumed by two Federal German Ministries. In the USA, the Industrial Internet Consortium, a joint initiative of large IT and industrial companies (, is working to network industry. Founded by the industry giants AT&T, Cisco, GE, and IBM, the consortium meanwhile has about 140 members. IIC has set itself the goal of realising application scenarios and demonstration test fields connecting the physical and the digital world in industry. In contrast to the standardisation approach of the Industry 4.0 Platform, IIC intends to create networking standards on the basis of sheer market power.

Heftausgabe: Compendium of Industrial Parks Chemie/Pharma/Biotec 2015

About the author

Armin Scheuermann, Redaktion