The paradigm shift from West to East marks a new competitive era in the petrochemicals industry.
For Middle East manufacturers this raises challenges, but it also presents opportunities. To be a market leader, companies in the region must be operationally efficient through the full lifecycle of plant design, manufacturing and supply chain execution.
Adopting a model-based business culture, improving processes and empowering the workforce with advanced technology will differentiate their businesses as global production centres of excellence.
Being lean in ethylene requires flexibility and integrated end-to-end solutions to optimise plant assets, which deliver vital benefits including yield improvement, production efficiencies and energy intensity reduction.
Ethylene plants have evolved into highly complex processing systems that can adapt to changing raw material availability and market demands for olefins products.
Therefore, integrated design and operations control technologies used in plants greatly improve products quality, plant performance and result in a significant fast payback of capital investment.
Ten years ago the Middle East enjoyed a production cost for ethylene of less than half of its nearest competitor.
Today, that commercial advantage has narrowed significantly.
The competitive position of Middle East ethylene production is under pressure due to global market factors altering the supply and demand landscape and challenging the export competitiveness of the region.
Significant North American capacity based on cheap shale gas and China’s investment in coal-to-chemicals capacity means that the feedstock advantage that the Middle East historically enjoyed is diminishing.
With many new Middle East chemical projects being constructed and coming online, this presents ‘growing pains’ to regional operators.
Producers are also challenged to both comply with environmental, health and safety (EH&S) regulation and safety standards.
Starting up and operating highly complex, world scale facilities in a safe and reliable manner is a high priority, which poses operational challenges and stretches workforce capabilities.
With new and less experienced indigenous engineers to support major expansions, expediting training and intuitive technologies is essential to be competitive.
Safety is paramount.
Reliability is absolutely essential to best in class ethylene operations, as there is no room for unscheduled downtime or production loss in business today.
The notion of optimisation has been viewed as an option in the past.
Today it is a commercial necessity.
To be best in class, companies must deploy optimisation initiatives across all aspects of the business and build a sustainable programme of measures that will drive down costs, streamline processes and maximise performance to increase margins to become globally competitive.
At the plant design phase or revamping an existing asset, robust engineering tools help engineers to accurately model capital costs, energy usage and equipment design.
With plant operations, utilising innovative techniques, such as advanced process control and performance management solutions, can have an enormous impact on reducing energy costs and improving overall throughput and product quality.
In optimising the supply chain, creating demand-driven strategies with cutting-edge integrated planning and scheduling improves feedstock selection, customer service and increases satisfaction levels.
Operational excellence requires having the best facilities.
The use of superior design engineering, planning and scheduling, control and execution techniques can be used effectively during the initial construction phase or modifications and to help establish a system of success to achieve business objectives.
Better design, analysis and data visualisation will give staff the opportunity to make better decisions at all stages of the design through production lifecycle.
For chemical companies in the Middle East, the opportunity today is to focus on best practice and adopt advanced technology that will help the workforce to overcome daily challenges across the enterprise and strengthen their position as global leaders in the face of strong competition.
The immediate prize for being lean in ethylene is exemplary production efficiency.
The long-term reward for operational excellence is market differentiation and sustainable profitability.
The author is the Mena regional sales vice-president for AspenTech