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Digitalization in Layman’s Terms

Dow’s Billy Bardin, explains what it is, why it has the attention of industry leaders, and how it will impact your future
Digitalization concept
Image credit: iStock by Getty Images

Key Takeaways:

  1. Billy Bardin explains what digitalization means and why it is important to the chemical industry 
  2. What are the impediments to digitalization?
  3. The intensification process and how it impacts digitalization

You are one of the leaders in the digitalization effort at Dow. Please explain what digitalization means and why it is important to the chemical industry.

Digitalization offers the chemical and process industries an emerging suite of technologies to improve their competitive position, to help achieve their ESG goals, and to provide new products and services for their customers’ and society’s unmet needs.  

Fundamentally, digitalization is about connecting data from numerous and varied sources in a seamless manner that enables someone or some entity to derive new knowledge, and then use that knowledge to facilitate an action. That data can be derived from existing systems, new sensors, robots, unmanned aerial vehicles, simulations, social media, or numerous other sources. The connectivity of data allows for enterprise and value chain wide optimization that ensures the optimum use of resources.  

Digitalization in the manufacturing industries is also called Industry 4.0 or Manufacturing 4.0 and many use the terms interchangeably. Digitalization is distinctly different than digitization, which is the basic conversion of analog and paper systems in digital format, but lacks the overall connectivity of and insights derived from data.

Much like the transition from pneumatic to modern distributed control systems, these tools will allow our industry to utilize new, more efficient ways of working. Workers will have access to information when and where it is needed, spending less time manually assembling data from multiple sources. They will be able to connect with experts around the world in real time for support. Work processes will require less human intervention and become more automated. 

With these new tools, new types of jobs will emerge that require skills in cybersecurity, data science and analytics, systems integration, and robotic control, among others. Due to the nature of our industry and the potential risks associated with the manufacturing processes we practice, the chemical industry has been slower to adopt some of the technologies than other segments. 

However, if we wish to remain competitively advantaged and attract top talent, digital capabilities will be the new standard of how we operate. Digitalization can offer routes to meeting our objectives, but one should avoid believing that digitalization is the solution for all problems. Digital strategies do not stand alone and must be integrated with overall business and technology strategies to be successful.

Can you pick three main areas where the current push in digitalization stands to make an impact?

There are numerous areas in which digitalization is having an impact in industry:

  1. In manufacturing and operations, emerging mobile tools, connected devices, and data structures will drive more visibility into asset performance, improve reliability, enhance process and personal safety, as well as elevate efficiency gains, optimizing assets at the enterprise level. We can already observe that the execution of capital projects with digital tools are delivering improved performance and knowledge transfer. In maintenance activities, robotic tools and drones are improving work efficiency and safety by eliminating confined space entries and elevated work. In operations, digital procedures and work permits are helping to ensure that adherence to operating discipline is improved, yielding better plant performance.   
  2. The customer experience will be enhanced with greater visibility into orders and improved buying experiences. The ability to have the requested product arrive at the desired location within the appropriate time widow will benefit from the application of data visibility and analytics to supply chains. Supply chain robustness and resiliency will increase.
  3. Development of new materials, products, and services is being accelerated with the application of digital tools today. Advanced modeling techniques and machine learning are helping researchers work with value chain partners to solve problems more quickly as well as to better understand design needs. Being able to track products from conception to creation to manufacturing to reuse will help our industry propel our sustainability objectives forward.

What are the impediments to digitalization? 

No doubt there are significant hurdles to digitalization. We have great opportunities to deploy new digital technologies, but one must be able to derive a viable value proposition for that deployment. Commercializing a digital tool suite is like any other investment for companies. They need clear line of site to a return on investment that will elevate the competitive position. If the value isn’t there, the new capabilities will not be sustained in the long term and lots of effort will be wasted. 

In many process industry companies, there are multiple and disparate legacy data systems that must be incorporated into a new digital architecture. This is a challenging and expensive proposition in many cases. Much of the IT infrastructure is decades old and cannot support new systems or tools. So the challenge is not only justifying the investment of the new tools, but also the re-investment to upgrade existing systems, as part of the overall program.   

Many will highlight culture change and leadership engagement as potential impediments to the deployment of digital tools as well. I have seen that it can be relatively easy to excite team members and leaders about the tools and the potential they bring. However, the challenge is in directing that excitement into a direction that aligns with the overall corporate strategy. Falling victim to the “hype” of digital can be problematic. One needs to be deliberate about how and why they are engaging in digitalization, how that will help their company, and have individual projects or programs aligned with an overall strategic direction. 

High-throughput was seen by some as a way to replace chemists with robots. The data on chemical industry employment doesn’t show that happening. Is that consistent with your observation, and can you explain it?

I consider myself fortunate to have worked in the development of high throughput research capabilities for many years early in my career. Much of the data architecture, analytical tools, and modeling capabilities we deployed in the early to mid-2000s helped as groundwork for what we have done in the last few years with deploying digital tools in the operations and manufacturing environment.   

For me, I never considered high throughput capabilities as a way to replace researchers with robots. The idea was to remove resource limitations and restrictions from the researchers in the laboratory. We wanted to move from a position of being testing capability limited to having the researchers being idea limited.  

With high throughput tools, the researcher has the freedom to try many new and non-obvious areas of exploration, which may not have been accessible due to time and resource constraints with more conventional laboratory testing techniques. The high throughput tools made the researchers more efficient at identifying leads and eliminating failures. I think the last 20 years have demonstrated how high throughput capabilities have been successfully applied to develop new product and process technologies. Today, it is the standard by which work is done. I expect we will see a similar path for today’s emerging digital capabilities in industry.

What is happening now in experimentation enabled by digitalization?

Advanced computing capabilities are helping researchers to develop new materials more quickly. Machine learning, image processing, and artificial intelligence extend the researchers’ ability to try and test material properties in the virtual environment, giving access to screen more ideas, just as high throughput research did a decade ago. 

Working with customers’ inputs, materials can be tailored to specified characteristics more quickly based on measured and simulated material properties. New, more robust data architectures allow researchers to collaborate more easily across projects. Old experimental data is being combined and reused for new problems in a more facile manner. The ability for researchers to receive direct and real-time data from manufacturing facilities helps accelerate process improvements in commercial facilities. Tablets and mobile devices are common place tools in the R&D facilities today, which allow for fewer data transcription errors and for more real-time data entry in the lab.    

One of the more impressive advancements I have observed in the last few years was researchers using virtual reality simulations to study and teach distillation column design. In the facility, students could stand within a simulation of the distillation column and visually watch the vapor-liquid traffic on each tray, looking for flooding or other process operating anomalies. Tray designs could be changed and easily visualized for effect on column operation. It isn’t every day that one can stand inside functioning reboiler! The extension of virtual reality and augmented reality to the researcher allows them to view their work from different perspectives, leading to potential new insights.  

How has your family influenced your leadership style?

I am extremely grateful for the support that my wife, my parents, and my family have provided to me over the years. I continuously learn from them and how they approach challenges. I think some of the biggest impacts my family had on my leadership approach have been instilling a sense of determination to achieve objectives, developing the ability to improvise or be agile in response to changing circumstances, and being open or transparent with my teams. As leaders, we must continuously work to improve the skills and acumen necessary to effectively support those around us, to enable the successes of our teams, and to celebrate those successes. 

You’ve been involved in process intensification. Explain how process intensification is impacted by digitalization efforts.

There are several areas in the design, development, commercialization, and operation of intensified process that will benefit from digitalization. Advanced modeling, machine learning, and emerging artificial intelligence capabilities are beginning to enable processes to operate in a wider range of dynamic conditions. 

Effectively controlling processes in a greater operating envelope opens the design engineer to the possibility of using unit operation and equipment designs that might not have been obtainable with more classical process design or control techniques. Better process modeling and simulation during the engineering phases permits more effective modularization of units, allowing potentially more efficient construction approaches to be used and helping to optimize the resources involved in building the facility.  

The equipment and process monitoring tools that digitalization provides can help ensure maintenance is performed at optimum times, eliminating unnecessary startups and shutdowns. With more robust simulations, energy and operating efficiencies are improved, reducing the energy intensity of the process. Greater visibility of supply chains and customer deliveries allow for reduction of materials held in inventory.

Are chemists and chemical engineers emerging from school ready for the digital world they’ll encounter in an industry job? If you could change anything in their education, what would it be?

This is an area in which I’ve spent much time over the last few years as we have been deploying our digital toolset. The chemists and chemical engineers that are graduating today could benefit from additional experiences and skills in data science and analytics, robotics, and systems integration. These areas will help better prepare them for the types of problems they will face in industry.  

One can observe today that many chemical engineering departments are beginning to add concentrations in data science and analytics to the core curriculum, either as full electives, bolt-on 1 or 2 credit courses, or as micro-certificates / certifications.   

Industry has a role to play as well. We have started to push the use of digital tools into our apprenticeship, co-op, and intern programs. For example, a multi-term digital co-op may be placed in roles within a company that utilize digital skills as part of the day to day work, while also taking bolt-on data science classes when back on campus. This type of experience provides a much more data/digital ready job candidate. Modeling, analytics, and data interrogation will be basic skills required in the future, just as spreadsheets and basic statistics were skills required in the past.    

There will also be a tremendous effort needed to re-skill existing employees to make them digital-ready and trained to use the new technology being deployed. Combinations of on the job training, corporate based training classes, and third-party educational courses will be required to provide the necessary background and technical acumen to be successful. 

What non-technical skills do you most highly value in your scientists?

Succinct and direct communication capability combined with the ability to frame an opportunity within business terms so that leaders and stakeholders understand the technology value proposition are critical. One can have the best idea, but if a leader doesn’t understand it, no opportunity for commercialization will be forthcoming.  

The role of our scientists is to provide robust technology solutions for business opportunities and to help create business opportunities for emerging, valuable, and competitively advantaged technology. In order to accomplish this, our scientists must be able to communicate with technical experts as well as with finance, business, commercial, and marketing leaders. The flexibility in communication style and approach is not always easy to develop or master, but when done well, can make a scientist or engineer an extremely influential leader.

Innate curiosity and initiative are common characteristics demonstrated by many of our most successful scientists and engineers, and are two of the traits on which I focus when I’m interviewing potential candidates. Team members that question how or why things work and with a desire to improve them or develop better solutions can help to elevate everyone’s thinking. They bring unique perspectives to problems, which often leads to more elegant solutions than what may have been developed otherwise.

Let’s set aside chemistry for a moment. What other areas of the economy would you expect to be most transformed by digitalization?

We see the effects of digitalization and advanced computing capabilities all around us today. In fact, in this instance, classical manufacturing industries are slower to adopt these new technologies than the consumer or consumer services sector.  

In decades past, when workers went to the factory, they had more advanced technology there than in their home. Today many workers have more advanced technology in their home than in their workplace. I think consumers will continue to drive demand for more connected devices, more streaming services, the ability to acquire goods and services online, and the mobile economy among other areas.   

Financial services, retail, health care, transportation, entertainment, and infrastructure are all changing with digitalization. By reducing waste and optimizing resource use, digital tools can help us address some of the largest challenges we face as a society today – sustainability, energy, clean water, and food availability.

You received your Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from North Carolina State University, and a Master of Science and a Doctor of Philosophy in Chemical Engineering from the University of Virginia. What brings you greater joy? When the Wolfpack and the Cavaliers win? Or when Duke and North Carolina lose?  

I prefer to see the Pack and Cavs win rather than Duke and Carolina lose. Growing up in eastern North Carolina in the 1980s, sports was mostly about ACC basketball for me. Some of my most vivid, earliest sports memories are from the 1981-82 University of North Carolina and the 1982-83 North Carolina State University men’s national basketball championship teams.  

Billy B. Bardin, Global Climate Transition Director, Dow Inc.
Billy B. Bardin, Global Climate Transition Director, Dow Inc.

Billy B. Bardin is the Global Climate Transition Director at Dow Inc. He is responsible for ensuring the development of a well-integrated digital strategy to realize the vision of Digital Dow and the end to end connectivity necessary to make it a reality, including leadership for the Dow Operations Manufacturing 4.0 program. 

He leads efforts to explore, evaluate, and implement emerging and next generation digital technologies that are required to maintain and improve Dow’s competitive position. 

He also drives initiatives to ensure Dow’s workforce has the required skills, characteristics, and training to be digital ready. Bardin began his career in 2000 with Union Carbide/Dow in South Charleston, W. Va., where he led alternative feedstock and catalytic process development programs. 

He has held numerous global leadership roles in research, development, and manufacturing in which he has developed and commercialized technologies including new heterogeneous catalysis research capabilities, novel catalytic processes for feedstocks and derivative products, process technologies for improved olefins production, and advanced digital manufacturing capabilities, among others. 

Bardin holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from North Carolina State University, and a Master of Science and a Doctor of Philosophy in Chemical Engineering from the University of Virginia. He is a Registered, Professional Engineer (PE) with the W. V. State Board of Registration for Professional Engineers. Bardin is an executive member and past Chair of the Industrial Advisory Board for the School of Chemical Engineering at Purdue University and a member of the advisory boards for the Departments of Chemical Engineering at the University of Virginia and North Carolina State University. 

He was elected to the Board of Directors for the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) in 2016. He is a Fellow of the AIChE and has held board seats for the MxD and RAPID manufacturing institutes. He was named as one of Smart Industry Magazines Top 50 Industrial Digital Transformation Leaders in 2018 and was recognized as a Visionary Digital Leader by the National Association of Manufacturers’ Manufacturing Leadership Council in 2021.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

Copyright 2022 American Chemical Society (All Rights Reserved)

Billy B. Bardin, Global Climate Transition Director, Dow Inc.

Billy B. Bardin is the Global Climate Transition Director at Dow. When originally interviewed, Billy was the Global Digitalization Director at Dow.

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