The changing role of process optimisation

31 March 2011

John Taylor, Vice President, Sales Operations and Business Consulting EMEA at AspenTech, discusses the changing role of process optimisation software and services over the years and its growing importance in meeting strategic challenges.

The Advanced System for Process Engineering (ASPEN) Project, funded by the US Department of Energy and more than 50 industrial participants between 1976 to 1981, was primarily conducted in laboratories in the chemical engineering department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In 1981 AspenTech was founded at MIT to commercialise technology being developed from the project. At the time, AspenTech solutions principally enabled companies to improve the design, operation and management of process production. Today, it is one of only a handful of software companies to reach the 30th year milestone. Over that time, the company has built and sustained its market leadership and remains focused on optimising the process industries.

The broader process optimisation industry has seen some significant changes since 1981. Back in the early 1980s, the key focus was on simulation and solving related problems. Today, this has evolved into a strong emphasis on engineering workflows, which process engineers tackle on a daily basis. Conceptual design has, historically, been the area where simulation is primarily used. However, over the past few years there has been a growing focus on engineering workflows and the provision of solutions that go beyond conceptual engineering. This includes areas of equipment design and basic engineering through to plant operations and manufacturing support.

In general terms, the concentration of the process optimisation sector has evolved from point products focusing on specific workflow parts to providing a more integrated workflow capable of managing and handling the engineering challenges of the complete manufacturing supply chain.

Skills shortages
The ability to provide a more fully integrated and automated engineering workflow has been particularly crucial in light of a growing problem that has increasingly affecting the process industry – the issue of skills shortages.

Over the past 30 years, the focus on process engineering in universities has moved away from an emphasis on traditional teaching techniques to a stronger concentration on fashionable and, even in some cases, peripheral concepts and ideas. To use chemical engineering as an example, there has been a migration from tried and tested areas such as grid operations, reaction kinetics and thermodynamics to less fundamental areas like biological processes and materials engineering. Fewer chemical engineering departments are tackling the fundamentals of the subject and, therefore, fewer graduates have the background and skills that is, inevitably, needed when they make the transition from the academic world to the professional engineering arena.

This has compounded the growing knowledge gap in the oil, gas and chemicals sectors. According to The Society of Petroleum Engineers, the average age of a petroleum worker is now 51. Nearly 60% are 45 or older. This represents a peak in the profile of existing workers and suggests that approximately 40% of the workforce will be lost over the next 10 years.
Therefore, the skills of veterans need to be complemented with easier-to-use software tools and processes, tighter integration of product sets, globalisation of solutions and effective knowledge capture and transfer, to enable this new breed of engineers to obtain sorted and classified data in advance, making the task easier to find information and give engineers confidence to interpret situations correctly.

Driving efficiencies
In the early 1980s, the emphasis was squarely on solving technical problems. Today’s best-of-breed process optimisation tools have technically developed by being able to drive business efficiencies from equipment design and basic engineering through to plant operations manufacturing support and knowledge transfer applications.

With the process optimisation market far more mature than it was 30 years ago, the best of these solutions are now capable of solving a range of strategic challenges. For many businesses, they are fundamental in helping to successfully navigate an uncertain global business environment.

Companies in the process industry are facing many challenges, ranging from rising energy and operational costs to more stringent safety and environmental standards. To respond to these challenges, companies need the best engineering design and plant operation solutions to meet their needs, while maximising agility to react quickly to market changes.

Investing in the right software solutions for the process industry is vital to allow companies to capitalise on the opportunities that exist in the market today.

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