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“We Are Not Only Investing in Technology, but Also in Our Employees”

Pushing Boundaries is Covestro’s motto. The chemical company is using this philosophy to press ahead with its own digitalization plans. Stephan Krebber, program director responsible for digitalization, production, and technology at Covestro, explains in an interview what this means for engineering, production, and maintenance now and in the coming years..


INSITE: Mr. Krebber, on a scale of one to ten, how digital is Covestro right now?

Stephan Krebber: I would say six or seven, so we’re on the right track. For example, some of the documents for our plants are already available in digital form. But we don’t yet have “intelligent documents” that are linked to one another. In the future, we will be managing data rather than documents. Our aim is to have a virtual data model of plants, a kind of digital twin (see info box). As soon as part of the plant is changed, the model also changes. To this end, it is important for employees to be able to access and maintain the production plants’ digitalized plans via handheld units or other mobile devices. We currently access the implications of working with mobile devices with our workers’ council.

And when will Covestro go paperless?

The whole of Covestro certainly won’t go paperless any time soon, but that’s our aim in production and technology. We want paperless manufacturing. There are two aspects to consider here: Firstly, we will keep chances for errors to a minimum if we work digitally in the course of day-to-day operations – during shift changeovers, for example, as well as in maintenance. Secondly, we want and will be able to gather much more data and analyze it with a view to optimizing our plants.

This sounds like a vision. Is Covestro a pioneer in the industry?

I’m in regular contact with other chemical companies and I would say that Covestro is one of the pioneers in Germany. Many others are biding their time and conducting pilot projects. But it is also worth knowing that BASF, Evonik, and Covestro are the only companies to date to have approved considerable budgets for the digitalization process with the appropriate backing of the board. That is certainly another big difference, because top management always ask for the business case and has to be convinced. We are investing large sums of money and we’re not doing it for the sake of digitalization, but because we ultimately wish to earn money.

And which areas exactly are you investing in?

It is divided between hardware and software, IT service providers, consulting, and in particular change management. As you can see, we’re not just investing in technology but above all in a new mindset. This means that we have to convince our employees and organize training courses so that they also support the new paperless world and the processes associated with it. It’s a fundamental change for
everyone involved.

Your biggest project at the moment is known as OSI2020. At the heart of it is IPEP. What do these abbreviations stand for?

OSI stands for Optimized System Integration – naturally by the year 2020. IPEP is an acronym for Integrated Plant and Engineering Platform. What is this? I’ll give you an example: In the old world, our engineers would plan a plant using software XY. Then somebody would come along and do the
structural work, followed by the electricians, pipe fitters, and several other disciplines. And everyone would use their own specialized tool to plan the part of the plant or infrastructure for which they were responsible. At the end of the process, all the documents are handed over to the operator, who constantly updates them over the lifetime of the plant and perhaps even creates a 3-D computer model of the plant. However, errors occur in the course of this process.

Our IPEP project will simplify and significantly improve this handover and updating of data, and reduce the likelihood of errors. IPEP will create a digital platform on which all data relating to the entire plant is stored and connected. This will allow us to considerably improve the cooperation and handover process involving internal and external employees during the development and operation phase. It doesn’t mean that every contractor we work with must purchase a new planning tool. Instead, we want to issue data packages. Our partners can use them in conjunction with their tools and feed everything back to us at the end of the process in a defined interchange format.

Digital Twin

A digital twin is the virtual copy of an industrial plant with its assets, processes, and systems. The concept of the digital twin is used in a wide range of industries to improve production and maintenance processes. This involves the real and virtual twins permanently sharing data recorded by sensors. As a result, the concept ensures that operations run more smoothly. For example, faults can be identified at an early stage, production processes can be simulated, and shutdown periods can be planned more efficiently.

And what does this mean for contractors?

Will you work with other operators to create uniform standards for interchange formats? That’s precisely how it works. The DECHEMA society has formed a syndicate with other industry representatives within which we discuss common technical standards such as interchange formats. After all, it really makes no sense whatsoever if each party insists on using its own solution. What’s more, we are currently working on a cross-company database where manufacturers of plant components such as valves, pumps, insulators, and such like can enter their technical product data and upload their certificates and manuals. Obviously we need common standards here, too.

We’ve mostly talked about engineering so far. What does all of this mean in terms of operating the plant?

It will become more efficient. IPEP makes up roughly 80 percent of OSI2020 because all other applications are based on this new database. The engineering is merely the start. Other aims include mobile maintenance, more effective shutdown planning, big data evaluations, and complete simulation of chemical processes in our plants. We’ve also already looked at augmented reality. However, it is presently of little value because we first have to establish the foundations. Of course, others are already experimenting with it. At the moment, however, these are still demonstration attempts rather than widespread usage.

What improvements are you expecting and in which areas?

I can tell you where we are making a difference. In the engineering process, for example, we are getting faster and more efficient and achieving better quality workmanship. We expect less revision work. As a result, we can complete the plant earlier and start production there. We also expect an improvement in maintenance efficiency in terms of quality and time. I have calculated this on the basis of a simple example. A crew attends a pump that is displaying error code five. What does this mean? The employees search and have to look at the documentation. If they do this in IPEP, they will find what they are looking for more quickly, reducing the error rate and optimizing the quality of processes. And ultimately we can conduct much better analyses – for instance, by comparing identical components at our sites around the world and identifying the parameters that cause them to wear less quickly. And those are just a few examples.

That sounds appealing. How are the employees reacting to it all?

We’re not just launching the pilot project in China because that’s where our newest plant is located, but also because we encounter certain skills there, particularly when it comes to an affinity with digitalization. Our employees have reacted very positively so far. They are aware that this is the future, although it goes without saying that there are uncertainties in relation to the impact these changes will have on work processes, methods, and tools. It is important not to confuse digitalization with automation. It’s not about reducing staff numbers. On the contrary, we will also create new roles at Covestro. For instance, there used to be archivists and then came document managers. The majority of employees, however, will require no special IT knowledge, but must get to grips with new processes and roles. That primarily requires good communication from us.

Does your personal background also help you here? You have worked all over the world in the field of engineering as well as maintenance.

It helps a great deal. I’m familiar with the locations, the different mentalities, the sectors – engineering and maintenance – and I know how to motivate the right people. I consider the mere fact that all stakeholders are behind the project to be a major success. Everyone is curious about the results, but they are all fully committed. I often compare it to plant construction. Here, too, I learned how expectations rise when you spend a long time designing it before building it step by step, but the success is only evident once the plant is actually inaugurated.

One final question: What will we be talking about when we meet again in two or three years’ time?

We will be talking about the successful implementation of IPEP and the other OSI2020 projects. At this point, I should also mention the fantastic job done by the entire team in 60 plants throughout the world. We have all pulled together across all countries and departments to achieve a step change for Covestro. But I am also already planning beyond 2020 and working with teams in innovation workshops to consider what comes next. How can we make even better use of the new digital infrastructure we will then have?

The person

Stephan Krebber has worked at Bayer since 1991 and has already held a wide range of positions within the company. Before his role as program director for the digitalization of production and technology
at Covestro, the engineer oversaw factories and plants in Europe and Asia, most recently as technical manager at facilities in China where he also helped to oversee the spin-off of Bayer MaterialScience to
Covestro. Away from work, the 52-year-old also takes a keen interest in digitalization and technology and combines his passion for photography with his love of drones.