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Implementing digital transformation

| By Scott Jenkins

The recently concluded 5th annual Connected Plant Conference (CPC;, held in Austin, Tex., illustrated both the real promise of Industry 4.0 digital tools to improve operational efficiency and safety at chemical process industries (CPI) facilities, as well as the very real challenges in implementing digital tools at scale. CPC provided a wealth of practical advice and perspectives on the use of digitalization technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), within the CPI.

Human involvement

CPC keynote speaker Lloyd Colgrove, consultant and former director of data analytics at Dow Chemical (, said that while AI can be extremely effective at identifying subtle signals that may indicate future problems, it is also very complicated to implement correctly and requires extensive domain knowledge surrounding the process environment and the underlying chemical and physical fundamentals.

Care must be taken when applying AI to data analysis because the data sets compiled at plants are often not complete enough to be able to rely on machine learning and deep learning algorithms to replace human decision-making.

Colgrove emphasized the need for increased data-science literacy across all aspects of the plant operations team, and in the wider society. He also noted that gaining acceptance for AI tools within the plant workforce is a critical aspect of any digital transformation.

“Rather than artificial intelligence, I like to refer to AI as augmented intelligence,” Colgrove said, “because it augments the ability of engineers to run plants well.” The best approach to applying AI to data analysis is to identify a problem first, before looking for a solution, and to treat AI as only one tool in the toolbox, rather than the only answer, Colgrove recommended. Colgrove said digital technologies “will take care of themselves. My interest is at the boundary where humans must interact with the data. It is there that we fail.”

Game changers

Acknowleding the need for human input and interaction, CPC organizers created the “Game-Changers” award program to recognize people who have championed digitalization at their facilities and companies. Among the award winners were the following*:

Fero Labs. A team from the machine-learning software startup Fero Labs earned a 2021 Game-Changers award for its successful optimization of processes at major industry sites. Fero’s automated ML software suite allows users to model processes without coding.

Colin Xander. The corporate turnaround manager for Chevron Phillips Chemical, Xander won for his detailed implementation of a connected workforce platform for turnarounds at CPChem.

Lorena Souza. Souza, a senior engineer at Process Systems Engineering Ltd., was recognized for her leadership in implementing a series of digital applications at a European petroleum refinery and a Middle East ethylene cracker.

Victor Ortega. As Covestro vice president of technical site management, Ortega received an award for effecting changes to work culture related to digitalization.

All CPC sessions were recorded for future viewing on the Swapcard app**.

Scott Jenkins, senior editor

*For a full list of Game Changers Award winners, visit the CPC website:

**If you were not able to attend CPC, you can access video content by subscribing to Chemical Engineering (