24 May 2018

What are some of the challenges governing the U.S. chemical industry? – Part 1

Typically, the chemical industry is considered part of the downstream oil and gas segment where products are refined and processed by means of very high temperatures and pressures. A further segmentation splits the industry into basic chemicals and specialty chemicals (see Graphic A). Basic chemicals are manufactured in a continuous process so that low cost and a repeatable process is key in this segment. Many basic chemicals are used as feedstock for specialty chemicals, which are typically made in smaller batches and to specific customer specifications.

How does this impact the U.S. chemical industry?

This has an impact on how the manufacturing equipment is designed as it needs to be able to produce various recipes with minimal downtime in between. No matter what segment a chemical company belongs to, the challenges that govern their business are fairly similar.

What are the top challenges that govern the chemical industry?

The most important aspect is safety. The chemical industry refines and processes many flammable, toxic and harsh substances that can be dangerous if not handled properly. From a process instrumentation point-of-view, products need to carry the proper approvals such as Ex and functional safety integrated level (SIL) to play their part in making chemical plants a safe place to work.

What is the most efficient way to minimizing unplanned downtime?

The second-most important challenge is to ensure minimal unplanned downtime. All processing plants have scheduled downtime to allow time to upgrade, improve and replace equipment so the plant can run uninterrupted until the next planned shutdown. Such shutdowns, however, are carefully planned to ensure that there is enough output across all plants to satisfy demand. If an unplanned shutdown does happen, all other work is immediately put on hold to get the plant up and running again.

In some processes, a very small window of opportunity is available to get the problem fixed and if it doesn’t happen within that time frame, the entire plant needs to be shut down. Getting it up and running again could take days and the cost impact is counted in hundreds of thousands of dollars per day.

Looking at it from a pressure or temperature transmitter point-of view, for example, the instruments just need to work, period. They need to be tried and tested and reliable – and more often than not, manufacturers are asked to prove their reliability statements. Given the potential cost of an unplanned shutdown, learning how to prevent these shutdowns from happening can be very beneficial.

In addition to safety and unplanned downtime, the U.S. chemical industry is facing another couple of big challenges, such as globalization and an increasing focus on saving energy. I will be discussing those in part two of this blog.

Caption Graphic A: This graphic shows the three main chemical segments and some of products that are manufactured in each of them.

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