For the second successive year, it’s been one of the stories of the last 12 months for the gases industry: the increasing digitisation of operations and cultures.
Digitisation is in progress across the industry, across the supply chain, and across the world.
Among the leaders in this step-change is Air Liquide. The company has been embracing a digital mindset for years and is actively rolling out such technologies across various parts of the world.
January 2018 saw the company inaugurate its Smart Innovative Operations (SIO) Centre for the Southeast Asia Pacific region, located in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The SIO Centre integrates, optimises and remotely controls the operations of Air Liquide’s production units, leveraging predictive analytics and digital technologies. These capabilities allow Air Liqude to better predict and accommodate changing customer needs across the region, especially regarding the supply of oxygen, nitrogen, argon and hydrogen.
Through big data combined with human intelligence, the workflow of each Air Liquide production unit linked to the SIO Centre is adapted in real time to the needs of each customer. The SIO Centre enables 24/7 responsiveness to customer demand, improves production-unit energy efficiency, and leverages predictive maintenance to ensure continuous facility run-time.
Bernard Dhainaut is Vice-President for Southeast Asia and Pacific region at Air Liquide and discussed the digitisation of the company’s operations, as well as the SIO platform in particular, at gasworld’s Asia-Pacific Industrial Gas Conference 2018 in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month.
“SIO leverages on a reinforced real time optimisation, a high competency of remote operations, predictive maintenance, big data and analytics to improve the level of operational excellence and the customer experience,” he explained.
Dhainaut also showcased how SIO has been deployed across Southeast Asia, with the new site in Malaysia acting as ‘the nerve centre’ for SIO in the region.
With 2018 drawing to a close and digitisation appearing set to be one of the stories of the year again in 2019, gasworld took the opportunity to discuss this further with Dhainaut and ask, is there still a long way to go with digitisation in the gases industry?
“Well, there are two aspects: one is the competitors of Air Liquide and the other is the customers of Air Liquide,” he explains.
“On the competitor side, some of them have started before us. But they started at a time when not all of these technologies or analytics were completely available; so they may have remote control centres, but they are remote control centres only – they are not predictive analytics, they are not necessarily doing digital connection.”
“I know that some of our competitors are now upgrading and spending a lot of money, probably to a generation of smart and innovative operations which will be ahead of us in a year or two, but in terms of the wider industry I think that Air Liquide, for the time being, is one step ahead.”
He adds, “I don’t know which impression you had when I made the presentation, but I introduced this move into digital because we needed to improve our reliability and availability, which is true; the other side of this platform is that we are also more performing in terms of energy efficiency, energy savings. If the first benefits are more for Air Liquide, then there are also these other benefits that are to be shared with the customer.”
It’s clear that this is a real point of significance in our conversation with Dhainaut – the customer. Sharing of data with the customer in a joined-up approach in the future is what he sees as the next big step for Air Liquide’s SIO platform, enabling greater collaboration between customer and supplier.
“An example is flexibility in planning maintenance,” he elucidates. “A customer asks you, ‘can you do something for me, I have a window in the market that I can enjoy because a competitor plant is going to be down and there will be a bottleneck in the market and I want to catch this opportunity.’ Bringing this kind of flexibility to a customer because we can easily now tap into not only expertise and experience, but also data, we can add value.”
“We have a pretty reliable understanding of the health of our asset, more than just visually – so we can say yes or no very quickly and enhance our flexibility.”
“…that’s part of the project that we are exploring also, to share data with customers. We definitely have in mind that the second step, the SIO Next, will be more about involving the customer”
“Further still, while we are not yet fully there, we can already share some data with the customer. They are running their data and seeing the same thing, we are running our data and seeing the same thing, so we can all see the bigger picture.”
“So that’s part of the project that we are exploring also, to share data with customers. We definitely have in mind that the second step, the SIO Next, will be more about involving the customer. It will not be company-centric.”
This is what Air Liquide sees as one of the biggest advantages of digitisation in the gases industry, bringing the customer and supplier closer together to leverage the efficiencies and efficacy that such collaboration brings.
In fact, it could be such a ‘tremendous’ achievement that Dhainaut cannot yet envisage the next steps in digisation beyond this.
“That’s already a big step,” he says. “If we can manage to bring human and digital together in the future that would be a big development. Today, we humans talk to our customers but if tomorrow not only we humans talk to our customers but also our platforms are talking together, then that would be a tremendous change in the operational model.”
“As an example,” he elaborates, “let’s say you have a refinery and the refinery says, I have a batch of crude but that batch of crude is not of the highest quality and we need to desulfurize the crude before refining it. If we know that in advance, we can probably secure some sort of energy contract in order to produce hydrogen at higher quantities and therefore be able to help them desulfurize.”
“So that is not only people talking, it’s about exchanging data and platforms talking too.”
Stealing a march
Dhainaut was keen to stress in his presentation at the conference that SIO centres such as this in Malaysia did not appear overnight – there has been a long journey to this level of digital capabilities.
This is a point he continues to explain in our interview. “It is not a journey that we started 2-3 years ago; we built some technology bricks and began to install these 10-15 years ago. You don’t do Big Data overnight. It was already planned.”
Nonetheless, the new centre in the region is stealing a march and rapidly advancing ahead of its counterpart in France, Dhainaut affirms. “Definitely yes. We have passed ahead of the France centre, actually, due to two aspects. There is a digital mindset which is very present in the team here in South East Asia, but also the fact that the geography here is more scattered.”
“It makes more sense for a geography like this to have something central, whereby people in Vietnam or Thailand can rely on a big pool of expertise and technology rather than a single country with a single language, with a single culture, doing this kind of change.”
Commissioned in 2017 and officially inaugurated in January 2018, the SIO centre in Malaysia covers eight countries in Southeast Asia and Pacific, including Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand.
The benefits of SIO include developing industrial maturity through a pool of cluster-based experts and enhancing decision-making processes through data, collaboration and empowered clusters. And this sense of collaboration and empowerment is already in progress, as Dhainaut concludes, “Originally we tested a couple of concepts in France, but I think that this region today is ahead of all of the 15 clusters that I discussed in my presentation. If we judge by the number of visitors that we have every month in our centre, who come to pick up ideas, then we are definitely a benchmark for the other clusters.”