This is an expanded version of the editorial that appeared in the September 2020 issue of CEP.
This month’s issue of CEP marks a first for the magazine — a special issue in which all feature articles revolve around a central theme: digitalization.
Often confused with digitization (the process of converting data or information into a digital, computer-readable form), digitalization represents a much more far-reaching and transformational shift. Although it is difficult to define, digitalization can be thought of as the integration of digital technologies to improve efficiencies, drive revenue growth, or produce value.
In chemical plants, digitalization has improved asset reliability and performance, enhanced process control, assisted maintenance practices, and improved safety metrics. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are being deployed to reduce overall energy consumption, identify process bottlenecks, or warn of failing equipment — all faster and more effectively than a human engineer. Advances in data availability and processing power have given rise to predictive and prescriptive analytics. “Analytics have advanced beyond just describing what happened or detecting what will happen. Now analytics software can provide guidance on what to do to avoid abnormal operation or imminent failure of an asset,” writes Tim Olsen in his article “Understanding the Digital Transformation,” on pp. 29–35.
Just as digitalization has driven some major changes within the chemical process industries (CPI), it has also prompted a shift at home. A few years ago, adjusting the temperature of your house meant walking downstairs to the thermostat and turning a dial to kick on the heating or cooling. Today, you can connect a digital thermostat to your home WiFi network, enabling you to change your heating or cooling settings from anywhere using your mobile device. And, after using your new digital thermostat for a short period of time, it can learn your habits and preferences and automatically program itself to output your desired temperatures at specific times; it even uses your phone’s location to know when you typically leave for the day. Let’s say you like to sleep at 68°F, eat breakfast at 73°F, go to work at 7:30 am (triggering the system to go into eco-mode), and like to turn up the air conditioning after you work out at 5:30 pm — AI gives the thermostat the ability to keep track and learn from this data, saving you several small trips to the thermostat and lowering your energy bill.
One of my favorite new inventions is the robotic vacuum cleaner, an ingenious device that I can program to sweep my floors at a specific time of day and is smart enough to navigate back to its charging port when its battery is low. I have an older model that uses sensors to navigate my home — choosing its path seemingly at random as it clumsily bumps its way around my furniture. My robotic vacuum is far from foolproof. Before it starts its cleaning routine, I need to quickly scurry around my home and pick up any loose socks or charging cables so they don’t get eaten. But newer models of robotic vacuums incorporate AI to map out surroundings in the home and can be programmed to avoid areas with easily snagged cables — like under the entertainment center.
As digitalization makes our lives easier and more enjoyable, it also comes with some dangers. Devices that are connected to the internet can be hacked by malicious actors. Often, hackers use usernames and passwords obtained from previous data breaches to easily access devices (an important reminder of why we should use unique passwords for every service and website). Reports abound of hackers accessing internet-connected baby monitors and nanny cams using this technique. Cybersecurity is a critical issue in the CPI as well, detailed in the article “Predict the Impact of Cyberattacks on Control Systems,” on pp. 52–57.
Overall, though, the impacts of digitalization are largely positive. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies have been forced to reevaluate their digital strategies, giving workers the tools and technology to work remotely and connect with teams from afar.
Those lucky workers who can work from home, like myself, are empowered — able to separate their health from their paycheck. New digital tools have given us the ability to work, network, and socialize, all without actually meeting anyone face-to-face and remaining safe in our homes.
Just as digital tools are empowering consumers, they are also empowering AIChE to host conferences and meetings in a safe and effective way. In mid-August, AIChE announced that the 2020 Annual Meeting (Nov. 16–20) and Annual Student Conference (Nov. 13–16) will take place online. The virtual experience will open conference participation to a new and global audience. Whereas attendees at a typical in-person annual meeting are limited to attending only one talk or session at a time, attendees to the virtual meeting can revisit recordings of technical sessions up to one month after the meeting. And, virtual networking events will give participants the chance to connect with other engineers from all over the world — while forgoing the risks of a handshake.
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