By Luc Chantepy, Regional Sales Vice President, MENA, AspenTech 

The prize for operational excellence in ethylene production is best in class performance and greater profitability. The paradigm shift from West to East marks a new competitive era in the petrochemicals industry. For Middle East manufacturers this raises challenges, but it also presents opportunities. To be a market leader, companies in the region must be operationally efficient through the full lifecycle of plant design, manufacturing and supply chain execution. Adopting a model-based business culture, improving processes and empowering the workforce with advanced technology will differentiate their businesses as global production centres of excellence. 

Being lean in ethylene requires flexibility and integrated end-to-end solutions to optimise plant assets, which deliver vital benefits including yield improvement, production efficiencies and energy intensity reduction. Ethylene plants have evolved into highly complex processing systems that can adapt to changing raw material availability and market demands for olefins products. Therefore, integrated design and operations control technologies used in plants greatly improve products quality, plant performance and result in a significant fast payback of capital investment.

The competitive landscape

Ten years ago the Middle East enjoyed a production cost for ethylene of less than half of its nearest competitor. Today, that commercial advantage has narrowed significantly. The competitive position of Middle East ethylene production is under pressure due to global market factors altering the supply and demand landscape and challenging the export competitiveness of the region. Significant North American capacity based on cheap shale gas and China’s investment in coal-to-chemicals capacity means that the feedstock advantage that the Middle East historically enjoyed is diminishing. With many new Middle East chemical projects being constructed and coming online, this presents ‘growing pains’ to regional operators. Producers are also challenged to both comply with Environmental, Health, and Safety (EH&S) regulation and safety standards. Starting up and operating highly complex, world scale facilities in a safe and reliable manner is a high priority, which poses operational challenges and stretches workforce capabilities. With new and less experienced indigenous engineers to support major expansions, expediting training and intuitive technologies is essential to be competitive.

Achieving operational excellence

Safety is paramount. Reliability is absolutely essential to best in class ethylene operations, as there is no room for unscheduled downtime or production loss in business today. Flexibility and agility are critical success factors that allow companies to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. Whilst variability is an everyday occurrence that businesses need to mitigate, striving for consistency in operating conditions, quality standards and customer service separates leaders from the laggards.

The notion of optimisation has been viewed as an option in the past. Today it is a commercial necessity. To be best in class, companies must deploy optimisation initiatives across all aspects of the business and build a sustainable programme of measures that will drive down costs, streamline processes and maximise performance to increase margins to become globally competitive.   

At the plant design phase or revamping an existing asset, robust engineering tools help engineers to accurately model capital costs, energy usage and equipment design. With plant operations, utilising innovative techniques, such as advanced process control and performance management solutions, can have an enormous impact on reducing energy costs and improving overall throughput and product quality. In optimising the supply chain, creating demand-driven strategies with cutting-edge integrated planning and scheduling improves feedstock selection, customer service and increases satisfaction levels.

Operational excellence requires having the best facilities. The use of superior design engineering, planning & scheduling, control and execution techniques can be used effectively during the initial construction phase or modifications and to help establish a system of success to achieve business objectives. Enabling staff with innovative and integrated tools and standardising across a system of integrated capabilities allows key stakeholders to drive operational excellence throughout the enterprise. Better design, analysis and data visualisation will give staff the opportunity to make better decisions at all stages of the design through production lifecycle. Best in class capabilities require companies to:

  • Automate best practices and adopt a model-based business culture
  • Enable the new generation of engineers to address challenging tasks
  • Solve complex problems with intuitive, integrated advanced tools
  • Provide insights using powerful analytics to make better decisions
  • Standardise on innovative technology and streamlined processes

Asset utilisation needs to be maximised at all times in synchronisation with the business objectives and constraints of the plant. All units need to be optimised at every available time horizon:  every month in the planning cycle, every week in the operational scheduling and every minute in the plant operation. There are five main disciplines that form the foundation for driving operational excellence in ethylene:

  • Process simulation – Modelling the process with integrated simulators brings broad benefits with respect to yield, quality, energy use, operational costs and process flexibility. The tools help performance tracking of quality critical plant equipment, perform ‘what-if’ scenarios, as well as analysis to quickly troubleshoot and resolve issues fast and identify process improvement potential to increase quality via operational changes. In addition, by considering total energy and utility systems, leading energy management software tools helps from design through operation and improves profit margins. 
  • Safety design – steady state and dynamic modelling helps to validate safety systems and evaluate safety performance. Highly efficient safety analysis means engineers can improve workflows and reduce overall project cycle time. Gaining a more accurate view of plant behaviour significantly helps engineers to cope under pressure and produce optimal plant safety designs whilst remaining compliant. Dynamic simulation helps create Operator Training Simulator applications that integrate with actual or emulated DCS hardware and control systems. Companies use the models to train control room operators and plant engineers in the process of plant control behaviour.
  • Advanced process control – Innovations in plant control software make APC more intuitive to save energy, improve product quality and to shorten the design through maintenance cycle. From the easier model-build phase, improving model quality and rationalising data into clear visual context, APC today is significantly less disruptive to operations and less reliant on specialist expertise.
  • Performance monitoring – “You can’t improve what you can’t measure”. Performance monitoring is key to driving operational excellence. An effective MES system visualises processes, event and alarm data in a consolidated view, so each user can share data from their production operations. Contextual data can now be viewed alongside process data to provide production teams with the required information to maximise production assets.
  • Production Planning and Scheduling – Fluctuating feedstock and production costs make it difficult to predict profit margins. To remain competitive, companies need to equip both the experienced and new generation of planners with intuitive, dynamic solutions that integrates and optimises planning and scheduling across the entire supply chain. Economic analysis of product quality during feedstock planning and scheduling of multi-product plants to minimise quality issues is a high priority. By running more scenarios faster than ever, planners can leverage advanced software to evaluate multiple scenarios simultaneously in a fraction of the time used by traditional methods. In addition, an intuitive scheduling tool simplifies the user experience and streamlines workflows to provide easy access to vital plant data, which schedulers need to achieve process manufacturers’ plans.

Integrated software for chemicals supports cross-functional collaboration through the use of consistent models and data. Using AspenTech’s integrated aspenONE suite of tools, the process engineer can build a model of the unit and validate it against plant data from the production engineer and the plant data historian. The model is then used to identify alternate operating conditions. Many ethylene producers have applied AspenTech solutions to achieve operational excellence. For example, a major global chemical company implemented Aspen’s Advanced Process Control and Real-Time Optimisation solution on all of their ethylene plants globally, which the combined technologies increased their production capacity by 3% – 5% and reduced their energy consumption by 4% – 6%. The benefits generated by this programme to date are in excess of $1B dollars.

Market differentiation

For chemical companies in the Middle East, the opportunity today is to focus on best practice and adopt advanced technology that will help the workforce to overcome daily challenges across the enterprise and strengthen their position as global leaders in the face of strong competition. The immediate prize for being lean in ethylene is exemplary production efficiency. The long-term reward for operational excellence is market differentiation and sustainable profitability.