By Gregory Hale
While globalization and digitization are strong trends starting up now and will carry forward in the months and years ahead, a focus on cybersecurity must be the backbone to a successful movement toward those endeavors.

“While globalization and the benefits of digitization are going to be important, what will be even more important will be our focus on cybersecurity, said Bhavesh V. (Bob) Patel, chief executive of chemical giant, LyondellBasell, during his Monday keynote address at the 2020 AIChE Spring Meeting & 16th GCPS AGILE Award Keynote Address (the meeting ended up postponed from the spring until organizers could hold a virtual meeting this week). “Cybersecurity will remain a threat, but it can be managed, and it can be handled in such a way that our companies and society at large can benefit from the digital trends that have accelerated now as a result of the pandemic.

Safety and cybersecurity were not the only topics of Patel’s talk, but as he discussed other trends, it just pointed to how strong a security profile chemical companies should have as they move into a more connected industry.

Show Must Go On
“Chemical engineers will continue to be called upon to address challenges in resource availability, healthcare, food, water and energy,” Patel said. “If you look at the past several months, this has played out very well. With the coronavirus pandemic, in many ways we are re-evaluating how we do business. We can’t change the fact the virus is here, but the show must go on and work must go on and we must find ways to get our work done. The true heroes today are those listening (virtually). Just think about what our products have done on the front lines in dealing with the virus. For example, plastic masks for front line health care workers. Isopropyl alcohol used to make hand sanitizer. Our courageous employees who produced all the products needed for everyday life, and for those on the front line battling this pandemic, they are the true heroes and should be commended and lauded for their efforts.”

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Patel talked about issues facing the industry today, but added a few up and coming thoughts on trends facing the industry tomorrow.

“While the coronavirus has caused society to hit the pause button, there is no denying that implications of population growth and the growing middle class will shape many trends,” he said. “There are a few trends historically that are really driving demand for our products. There is a growing middle class and we have seen that take shape in India and China and other parts of the world, where the middle class is thriving. They have more demand for automobiles and packaging that brings food to the grocery stores and keeps it fresh longer. Many of our products play a role in infrastructure. The need for clean water is in demand today.”

Another big trend, he said, is mobility and lightweighting vehicles. Chemistry is at the heart of enabling that where companies work to make parts stronger and lighter so automakers can create lighter weighing vehicles.

Beyond these clear and self-evident trends, Patel discussed new trends that will shape the chemical industry in the decades to come. Those trends are:

  • Globalization
  • Digitization
  • Environmental sustainability
  • Plastic waste

“No doubt globalization has been a net positive for our industry,” Patel said. “Today, less than 8 percent of the global population lives in extreme poverty. That is the lowest rate ever recorded in human history. By 2030, that number is supposed to drop even more. As an industry we have been able to open up new markets and business models. There has been a trend for production of petrochemicals and plastics in regions that offer low cost feedstocks.

One of the other trends is digitization.

“So much of our work is being done virtually today. 90 percent of the data ever created by humanity was produced in the past two years,” Patel said. “If anything, the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital applications. The World Economic Forum estimates between 2016 and 2025 the cumulative economic value from digitization could range from $310 to $550 billion in the busines of chemistry, just in our industry alone. With the acceleration with the adoption of digital, the numbers are likely to rise and not decline.”

Secure Trends
Those two trends alone just cry out for a secure cyber environment for any company to stand a chance a succeeding.

While the industry truly has focused on the pandemic for the past six months or so, one area to think about long term is environmental sustainability. The Pew Research Center issued a report that indicated 13 of 26 surveyed countries said global climate change is a threat to their nations.

This challenge of sustainability will be the next frontier in terms of technological innovation, he said.

The issue of plastic waste is real, and it must be solved, Patel said. “We as an industry often think we must solve it ourselves. But in reality, we were a part of the forming the Alliance to End Plastic Waste to engage the entire value chain that included chemical companies, waste handlers, consumer goods companies.”

The alliance allows everyone to think as a group on how companies could produce packaging that is more recyclable and how waste handlers could collect the waste, so it doesn’t enter the environment.

But all these trends, Patel said, will end up being more applicable through “digital technologies that make our plants more safe and more efficient and allow our plants to make products tomorrow that we don’t make today.”

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