The four traditional industries that have been at the forefront since the last Industrial Revolution were – Electricity, gas, oil, and chemical compositions. Since then, the previous Third Industrial revolution, which began in the early 1970s, consisted of electronics and telecommunications infrastructure. Today, we stand at the forefront of Industry 4.0 – a term coined at the World Economic Forum's Davos conference. The fourth industrial revolution began with the Internet and has led to the development of big data analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, quantum computing, to name a few.
The two technologies that are predominantly going to have far-reaching effects in the Chemical industry are artificial intelligence and blockchain technology. Areas such as pharmaceuticals, plastics, and consumer electronics have been at the forward center players in innovation. While earlier, they played the role of facilitators and a gateway for digital technology in the traditional Heavy industries, the entire chemical industry itself is being transformed and revolutionized by the digital world. The digital world not only provides a platform to test out the various simulations in different design scenarios, but it has also made the Kaizen dream of zero-loss supply chain efficiency a reality.
The Digital Transformation Initiative, a report released by World Economic Forum in 2016, covers seven industries, including Advanced Materials and Chemistry, and two novel cross-industry themes (the platform economy, policy imperatives, and societal value).
The major findings from the analysis of the Chemistry and Advanced Materials industry include:
– Across value addition and migration to the industry, the approximate aggregate economic value ranging from 2016 to 2025 is around USD 310 Billion to USD 550 billion.
– In terms of non-economic benefits, digitalization has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by 60-100 million tonnes, save 20 to 30 lives and avoid 2,000 to 3,000 injuries over the next decade.
Even in the contemporary scenarios, big chemical giants have not failed to grab the golden opportunity to win the chemical race by grabbing a head start in the digital race. BASF has been investing aggressively in the AI space. BASF has announced the membership of MIT lead AI research – Systems that learn. BASF has also automated pretty much all of its payment processing with SAP systems and announced a collaboration with Hewlett Packard to develop the world's largest supercomputer.
DowDuPont chemicals have also jumped the wagon and are collaborating with Canada based machine learning company 1Qbit. Tesla has joined hands with Dow chemicals to venture further into biomanufacturing and automation in Agro-technology. Bayer crop science is also looking into digital farming solutions.
Companies are starting to utilize material informatics to drive faster innovation and entry into growing application segments. Solvay has partnered with The Boeing Company to produce face shields for airline passengers.
Chatbots and virtual assistants are commonplace on all the websites. Shell has also launched its virtual assistant that talks in various local languages and operating across 151 countries. At least 15% of Fortune 1000 companies use a virtual assistant (Banking/Retail); 60% of customers use a company's website as the first method for resolving their issues – out of these, almost 98% of users found the answers up to their expectations.
3D printing technology is the solution to resource constraints. The polymers and chemicals used in 3D printing are increasing every year at 30% and creating a $2.5 billion market for chemical manufactures.
While there has been a short-term negative impact of COVID-19 at pretty much every industrial level, some outliers like the Pharma sector- special focus on Vit C, zinc, nutraceuticals, and immunity boosters, etc. Chemical industries focused on isopropyl alcohol, disinfectants, sanitizers also have seen the greatest upsurge in recent times. In the near future, the pharma sector will continue to rise with the release of vaccines, after which there might be flattening of the growth curve.
There has been a decrease in demand and the prices of Petrochemical oil across global economic markets as the world is investing more and more in renewable energy markets and cleantech. It is improbable that the market scenario will reach the pre-COVID era's highs for the petrochemical oil industry. A similar trend can be spotted for Ethylene and its sub-products. With major economies like the EU pledging to be a plastic-free economy in the future, newer substitutes are bound to replace the existing demand. The majority consumer of ethylene products has been the packaging industry, which has also suffered a downturn due to the closing of borders and halting supply chains across different countries. As the borders slowly begin to open up, there might be a mid-term increase in ethylene demand until a new feasible and eco-friendly solution disrupts the market in the future. To conclude, pharmaceuticals, nutrition, and hygiene industries trend upward, while the automotive, construction, and consumer industries will likely trend downward during the next six months.
While we stand at the watershed moment in history in the post-COVID-19 scenario, it is not only imperative but an essential need of the industry to invest in digital discoveries. While millions of users are clicking away on their keyboards across the world, terabytes of data are being flooded every minute on different servers. To segregate this data from the useless noise to formulate an industry-specific report, to understand the diverse insights from the multiple data points, to contemplate the industry trends in the future, to recognize the drivers for growth, the tech of Big Data analytics is going to play the role of kingmaker in not this but all the industries.
European Chemical Industry Council has recently released the Mid-Century Vision document 'Molecule Managers, ' which predicts that data will have replaced oil as the most valuable commodity by 2050. A digitally-driven economy is a dedicated director that will help achieve a completely circular economy. The term AI is a blanket definition for several systems that use machine learning, data processing to reason and formulate complex algorithms, natural language processing – making systems smarter, more intelligent, and market disruptors. Combining AI with IOT devices may lead to the loss of several blue-collar jobs, and several supply chain systems will take a turn to join the automation road. Simultaneously, Specific AI solutions for Process Industry companies will create a greater demand for highly
digitally skilled human operators who will develop, monitor, and manage AI-based operations. If the workforce wants to continue to survive in the digital age, a serious focus on skill upgradation is necessary at all management levels.
The areas of Focus while planning a digital roadmap in the digital scenario are primarily the impact of digitization in
- Research and Development- predictive analytics, faster innovation cycles, availability of entire lifecycle data, customizable good.
- The benefits of digitization in supply chain management – Digital passports for materials – origin and carbon footprint involved, predictive sales, efficient and zero-loss systems.
- The drivers of infrastructure growth through digital innovation and supplementing the workforce with digital tools are dispersed.
With the correct direction and driven by the right tools, even the SMEs can turn into long term sustainable businesses. The global economic order is shifting towards hyper-glocalization to localization. Governments across the world are moving towards protectionists measures to boost the growth of the local industries. While this means a boost to the local economies & SME industries, major market players with global supply chains will face disruption in their materials procurement.
To summarize, the world is moving towards privatization; companies are looking for alternative supply chains with special emphasis on regional suppliers and multi-source supply tactics that are not dependent on a single country or a market player anymore. Companies are adapting to the latest technologies to hedge themselves from future disruptions. More emphasis will be given towards improving the supply chains' transparency and efficiency in the chemical industry by leveraging big data and AI. As a wise man once said, It is better to prevent and prepare rather than repent and repair.
In-depth report on global bulk chemicals market by Straits Research:
About the Author: Saif Mulla has considerable experience of around two years in the market research industry. His expertise lies in the market estimation, forecasting, and impact analysis. He is a Mechanical Engineer with a penchant for studying machinery and chemicals industry trends and the latest technological developments closely.