Process Industry: Focus on skills for your digital journey

Ian Elsby, Head of Chemicals, Siemens UK, says that while the focus may be on industrial digital technologies that promise much around productivity enhancements, the chemical industry also needs to work hard to attract fresh talent and upskill existing workforces if the sector is to realise the true potential of digitalisation.

Siemens recently organised a well-attended event aimed at furthering the debate around our industry’s digital future.  Specifically targeting the chemical and pharmaceutical sectors, ‘Process Industries Made Smarter’ brought together leading sector businesses, trade associations, opinion formers and other stakeholders to discuss some of the key issues around digitalisation and share experiences of their digital journeys to date.

There was overall agreement on one thing:  digitalisation has to happen.  The Government-backed Made Smarter review chaired by Siemens CEO, Juergen Maier and published late last year articulates its importance.

The widespread adoption of industrial digital technologies is predicted to deliver a £455 billion boost for the UK’s manufacturing base, produce a net gain of 175,000 jobs and a reduction of CO2 emissions by 4.5%.  

These facts merely amplify the gains in national productivity and greater economic prosperity which would follow.

Interest is high in the myriad digital technologies that are fuelling digitalisation – the technology focus behind Industry 4.0.

Virtual/augmented reality, digital twins, cyber-physical systems, Big Data, the Internet of Things, advanced robotics, cloud technology, 3D printing and additive manufacturing are among the chief technology enablers supporting industry as it looks to reshape business models and prepare for an increasingly competitive industrial landscape in the years ahead.

The chemicals sector will benefit from a holistic approach to digital development across production, logistics and sales. However, there is still a need to focus on both funding and workforce development to deliver tangible business outcomes.

Digital funding

Best fit funding models are vital to ensure positive returns on investment, whilst motivating and developing experienced staff is paramount to driving success from within.

A point raised during our event suggested that ‘digital champions’ in the chemicals industry are still finding it difficult to raise funds for improvement projects. This is mainly due to a focus on traditional capital expenditure application models, where digital initiatives are not seen as a priority.  Additionally, recent research tells us that almost half of chemical companies expect to see any digital linked project return on investment of two years or less..

There is a need to address this challenge.  It can be overcome by use of smart financing models. Performance based (outcome) financing and financing total cost of ownership (TCO) are two possible solutions to consider. This moves the focus from up-front capital investment to ongoing operational payback.

Skills

With significant change on the horizon, chief among a number of concerns has to be an organisation’s ability to ensure its workforce is central to the digital journey.  This was a point referred to regularly throughout the ‘Process Industries Made Smarter’ event.

A business’ capability to realise the full potential of digitalisation will rest just as much on the shoulders of a skilled and empowered employee base as it will on innovative technologies and  financing.

The sector has the personnel to adopt a digital culture.  However, there must be the will from within to find the digital champions to drive the change. Training and personnel development being absolutely crucial for this to happen.

Attracting the next generation of chemical and process engineers is also a significant challenge.  ’Digital engineers’ will expect to use the latest technologies in their field of work, and if we fail to paint the picture of a technology-driven innovative industry, the sector will struggle to continue to retain top talent.

Indeed, Steve Elliott from the Chemical Industries Association (CIA) reiterated this point at our event.  With his members representing 70% of chemical and pharmaceutical production in the UK, he was clear that a real emphasis needs to be placed upon digital skills development across the sector as part of a wider cultural shift.

For the chemical sector in particular, the skills challenge falls into two primary areas: attracting new talent from outside the industry and retaining them, and, in parallel, working with and supporting existing employees so that they see for themselves the undoubted benefits and opportunities a digital future offers.

One of the event speakers, Marco del Seta, Head of Digital at BOC/Linde, is himself a good example of the need to bring in expertise and talent from other sectors to help inspire fresh thinking and new approaches.

With a background in Silicon Valley computing and mathematics, he is now leading a newly formed BOC digital team in the UK.  Part of his role is to think about the new skills the company requires and where to find them, as well as nurture staff as they acquire new skill sets and work in areas that are outside their comfort zone.

Ultimately, looking at how digitalisation can open pathways to new business models for his company, he is actively seeking out the answers to how technology and people together can drive transformation and change.

Look elsewhere for talent

Like Marco at BOC, other chemical companies should also be looking outside the traditional hunting grounds when it comes to recruiting talent.  Potential employees from other sectors, while they may not have direct experience of the chemical sector, will be able to contribute digital savvy, problem solving approaches which can only enhance the ambitions of chemical companies looking to make the most of digitalisation.

The chemicals industry needs to work hard to shed the perception it has in the minds of those who do not understand it.  Such a rebrand needs to focus upon the cutting edge, vibrant, well rewarded and innovative work the sector is responsible for, and use this to engage with the new and enquiring minds it wants to attract.

Likewise, businesses should be concentrating on the best way to bring their current workforce with them.  The sector has an ageing workforce with 40% over the age of 50, according to the CIA.  This together with a risk adverse outlook (with good reason given the hazardous nature of the sector), brings with it challenges. 

Offering staff a clear vision of a dynamic, digital-based future through employee engagement programmes has to be encouraged, as it will allow management to clearly articulate why the business is undertaking its digital journey, what it will do for the company and the career opportunities it will provide for all.

By bringing existing employees on board from an early stage, supporting them and proactively training them with the tools that open doors to industrial digital technology innovation, cultural change will occur within organisations.  With the development of a digitally engaged workforce, digital advocates will emerge who can also become proactive participants of a programme for change.

Hopefully, the ‘Process Industries Made Smarter’ event helped opened many minds and was well received according to the attendee feedback we obtained.  One consistent theme throughout the day was the strategic importance workforce digital skills development will have as the recommendations of the Made Smarter review turn from theory to reality.

The chemical sector can help lead the way in this regard.

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