Digitalization of the Process Industry

Digitalization of the Process Industry

Author: Vera Köster, Norbert Kockmann

Professor Dr.-Ing. Norbert Kockmann, TU Dortmund University, Germany, talks to Dr. Vera Koester, ChemViews Magazine, about his ideas on digitalization in industry and at universities, life-long learning, and the history of process engineering.

Norbert Kockmann was one of the organizers and chairs of the Tutzing Symposium 100 % Digital! Survival Strategies for the Process Industry. Around 100 top-class experts and decision-makers from the chemical and process industries met in April 2018 in Tutzing, Germany, to discuss the challenges and opportunities for digitization in the process industry. Norbert Kockmann summarized the results of the symposium at the ProcessNet meeting where he gave the first Chemie Ingenieur Technik Lecture (CIT Lecture).



How do you define Industry 4.0.? How is it connected to digitalization?

Industry 4.0 is a term that was coined for the Hannover Trade Fair in 2011 and describes the interlinking of hardware and software for manufacturing and services along the entire supply chain. Everything is linked together over a network, thereby creating new market dynamics. Hence, Industry 4.0 consists of the “Internet of Things” as well as many tools from digitalization such as platform solutions, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI).



What should we imagine a successful implementation of Industry 4.0 to look like? Will we be surrounded by R2D2s and drones and guided by ultrafast access to and connections between huge amounts of data? What sort of timeframes are we talking about?

I don’t know exactly. This is an ongoing process; it will not be a single jump. It slowly evolves into certain areas, creating beacons that attract other things.

Not all developments will be successful. Many ideas will be initiated. Not everything will be meaningful and successful in all areas. Testing and a selection process are necessary to identify useful tools. There are so-called sprints, which are projects that are completed after a maximum of a few months. It is about failing as early as possible and then coming up with new ideas. We will see some changes and acceleration in the development timescales.

Software will be integrated and coupled with hardware. Sensors will be integrated into hardware communicating with their environment. Human tasks and responsibilities will shift and change within the next period of time. Over time–and we can already see it now in some cases—customers will be approached quite differently; processes will be controlled differently, a maintenance worker walks through the site with remote assistance, for example. Advanced process control is another keyword.



What are the main drivers? 

Increased security is one thing. The increase in speed, the time-to-market, is also essential. And then, of course, cost and resource efficiency. The primary driver, however, is speed. That the right thing is delivered faster to the customer. It is about removing hurdles that take our time and increasing exchange with digital tools. So, acceleration and economic benefit will guide the development.



Where do you see Germany compared to other countries?

I think we are well prepared. We have companies and research institutes that are very advanced in the development of ideas. What is still missing is the implementation in practice. But that is something companies and the authorities are changing now. We have a good infrastructure and still produce here in Germany, which is essential to be able to test new ideas. Our policy should be more innovation-friendly and reduce hurdles.

Overall I already see Germany as being quite advanced. The main challenge from my point of view is still the raw materials and energy question, for which the chemical industry can provide solutions.

Maybe another comment: Good ideas do not come by themselves. Fundamental and applied research, as well as high-quality teaching, should have greater public attention and support. We all have our responsibility for and can contribute to a better, more human world.


What got you personally interested in this topic?

Our group deals with equipment design. To make them more intelligent has always been a topic, so to adapt the apparatus more to the process and not just deliver a tube, a plate, or a pot. This requires digital tools, control algorithms, novel concepts.



What would be an example?

We have developed an extraction column that is not only stirred but also pulsed. With these two drives, we can focus better on the process. We have an additional degree of freedom. We have also developed this for a distillation column and are trying to transform it to crystallization. In microreactors, we can integrate sensors and get more out of the reaction and the entire process with less effort.



You come from equipment construction.

I am a mechanical engineer by training; I come from plant engineering and then worked in microtechnology, microfabrication, and in the pharmaceutical industry.



So you are familiar with different boundary conditions and bring a wide range of knowledge.

Yes, I had contact with many disciplines. Digitalization is also a cross-sectional topic. The network is important. Linde, for example, brings game developers onto their teams to make operator training more attractive, or graphic designers to make the presentation of measurement data more attractive, or communication professionals to better convey the data. Initially, you do not even think about such details.



So does this mean that interdisciplinarity becomes more important?

Yes. And it will become more and more so in education. Engineers do not only work with engineers or chemists or with other scientists, but also with social scientists, occupational scientists, and communication scientists. Then you might add someone onto the team who maybe mainly plays games but who can, for example, add valuable input for training simulations or adaptive learning. I think that is a very exciting development.

We are also trying to open the eyes of students to the fact that there is more to it than a stirrer and chemical reactions. For example, we try to allow students to program some small intelligent systems in lab courses, or to build self-controlled facilities, supported by open source software or online communities, where results of a control loop or image processing, for example, can be found that they can benefit from and build on. This exchange via the Internet has become more important. This is not only true for academia but companies will also be increasingly affected and will work with open source solutions.



Are students well prepared for the changing job world?

Students naturally have more affinity for digital applications, but more is being used in teaching formats as well.
The young process engineers of the VDI, the kjVIs, for example, have started the chemPLANT competition. Teams of students must quickly implement a concept for a modern plant to produce methanol as a (bio)chemical storage medium for surplus electrical energy from a wind farm. Students should be enthusiastic about process planning and conception of new plants and be encouraged to think outside the box. There were very creative and interesting solutions presented by teams from various universities. I think this is one indication that there is a lot going on at the universities.

Change is also driven by new possibilities: A sensor, for example, does not cost that much anymore. We get control systems for a few hundred euros that previously cost several thousand euros. Many cheap sensors come from the automotive sector. We can also use them in chemistry. For example, ultrasonic distance sensors can be used to detect where a phase boundary is moving. We wanted to use such creative approaches, and the university also offers opportunities in the context of final theses or project work, where students can also try something out. We have the framework and we will use it more.



Why is lifelong learning becoming more important?

That is a point we need to teach students. The university can no longer provide the complete knowledge, but can instead teach how to acquire knowledge, where to look up data, how to deal with data, how to come up with correct solutions, and how to deal critically with sources. The accumulation of knowledge is becoming faster and faster. Lifelong learning was always important but was underestimated. Today, with the rapid evolution of digital tools, companies and employees have to keep pace and focus on the right information.

However, the fundamentals are still important. Students have to know how to make a mass or energy balance, they need to know how to design a reactor for safe operation, or how to determine reaction kinetics. Basic knowledge is still important. Learning to learn effectively and operate with new items will become more and more important.



What role does artificial intelligence play in digitalization?

An important role. Without AI tools, the amount of data is too much to handle. Furthermore, routine tasks can be replaced by tools and methods that rely on AI.



What has been your biggest motivation?

Curiosity and purpose. Curiosity is the driving force and it is important to know why we are doing something. You do not just learn for the sake of learning, but to be able to do something by yourself, to be an enabler.



What do you like doing in your spare time?

I like photography, biking, hiking in the mountains, gardening, reading, …

I have a lot of books at home–the children say too many books. I have just told Dr. Elvers, the Editor of the Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry, that I have the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd editions of the Ullmann’s at home. I also have the whole series of Der Chemie-Ingenieur of A. Eucken and M. Jakob or the three volumes of E. Berl on Chemische Ingenieur-Technik. … I give the lecture History of Technology and can use a lot of the information in these books.



Do you use photos from the old Ullmann’s to show how industrial processes started?

Yes, but they are actually not old enough. In 1914, when the first edition of the Ullmann’s was published, the apparatuses were already quite well developed. In my opinion, the big jumps occurred 50 to 100 years earlier. I have books from 1831 in which quite a lot of the chemical equipment is already described. The basic operations are also already described there. The scientific understanding was not so well developed, but the system was already there. During that time, the Mendelian periodic table of the elements had not even been discovered. Still, they were amazingly advanced in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Other aspects are amazingly young: The German term of “chemical reactor” was first coined in the mid-50s. Until then, there was the reaction vessel or the reaction furnace. The reactor has been shaped by nuclear technology, the nuclear reactor. And then we derived the chemical reactor from it. Another example is the term “reaction technology”. This term has only existed since 1956 in German. The division of chemical reaction technology of the Dechema and VDI-GVCemerged in that year and by this, the term was first introduced.



Can one learn from the past for the future?

What you can learn is that everything takes its time. That there are more evolutionary-like processes and developments in the chemical industry rather than big, sudden jumps. Therefore, coming back to your question about the R2D2s: This will be an evolving process. Some technologies do not prevail, because there may be no benefit or other requirements may not be met. These need not only be economic; technological boundary conditions may also work against it. In addition, processes are always changing, such as from coal to oil to bio-based raw materials.

Chemistry is a very complex industry. The automotive industry has just one product, whereas the chemical industry basically has to serve nearly every aspect of life. And that makes it very exciting.



Thank you very much for this interview.

Norbert Kockmann
studied mechanical engineering at the TU Munich, Germany, and received his Ph.D. in the field of fouling in heat exchangers from Bremen University, Germany, in 1996. From 1997 to 2001, he was a project manager in plant engineering at Messer Griesheim, Krefeld, Germany. From 2001 to 2007, he was a research assistant and group leader for Micro Process Engineering at Freiburg University, IMTEK, Germany. He habilitated in 2007 in the field of microsystems technology. From 2007 to 2011, Kockmann was the Head of the Chemical Laboratory and a Senior Scientist at Lonza AG, Visp, Switzerland. Since April 2011, he is leading the Chair of Equipment Design at TU Dortmund University, Department of Biochemical and Chemical Engineering.

His research interest is focused on modular small-scale process equipment design and complex transport phenomena with chemical reactions under safe process conditions.


Selected Awards

2009 ASME ICNMM09 Outstanding Researcher Award
2010 Sandmeyer Prize for Industrial Chemistry of the Swiss Chemical Society (SCS)
2015 ASME ICNMM2015 Outstanding Researcher Award


Selected Publications


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