The UK’s chemical manufacturing industry is something of an unsung success story. According to the Chemical Industries Association, chemical and pharmaceutical businesses in Britain contribute over £15bn a year to the UK’s GDP, and make up the country’s largest manufacturing export sector, with exports of nearly £50bn each year. But despite this impressive performance, is the chemical manufacturing industry making full use of mobile technology?
At first glance, it’s an odd sort of question to ask. Yet there are sound reasons for doing so. Chemical manufacturing firms, to be blunt, often tend to see innovation in terms of products, rather than processes. That’s because chemical manufacturing processes, once developed, are relatively stable: yields and efficiencies may improve, but the core technology and chemical reactions remain the same.
Moreover, unlike discrete manufacturing processes, chemical manufacturing is genuinely process manufacturing, even when those processes are carried out in batch mode.
So unlike—say—factory floors in engineering firms, the scope for mobile technology in chemical manufacturing firms is constrained by the industry’s reliance on SCADA and control rooms.
What’s more, partly due to safety issues and FDA and equivalent stipulations, chemical manufacturing tends to be a little more conservative in its adoption of technology than some other industries.
Mobile technology goes mainstream
But at root, technology adoption within chemical manufacturing is ultimately going to be shaped by the same forces influencing technology adoption in every other industry.
Because there’s no escaping the fact that the world has opted for mobile technology.
As individual consumers, more and more of us rely on our smartphones and tablet computers to provide us with mobile connectivity to our e-mail, SMS messages, favourite web sites, and social media feeds such as Twitter and Facebook.
And for some consumers, the switch has been extreme: the desktop computer and laptop have been ditched, and the smartphone and tablet computer have taken their place.
Mobile technology and business
In the world of business, too, mobile has made huge strides in recent years.
As far back as 2012, research by analyst firm Forrester estimated that 5% of information workers such as middle managers and ‘C-suite’ executives were using three or more devices in their jobs. Now, it’s likely more.
And today, a growing number of those information workers will be relying less on laptop computers, and more on tablet computers, smartphones, and ‘phablets’: increasingly, the handheld form factor is the dominant one, and the one that managers reach for first.
No wonder, then, that a recent study from advisory firm PricewaterhouseCoopers highlighted that 81% of chief executives see mobile technologies as being strategically important for their businesses.
Mobile data = real-time data
Convenient though the handheld form factor is, that’s not the key driver in the adoption of mobile technology. There’s another factor at work.
And it’s this factor that is likely to be the deciding factor in the case of chemical manufacturing.
Which is this: SCADA screens and central control rooms can only provide real-time data if you’re physically there, looking at the screen, or standing in the control room, or sat at your desk, getting a data fed through to your desktop computer.
Walk around the plant, and the provision of real-time data suddenly stops. Nobody carries a switched-on laptop around with them as they walk the floor.
But with a smartphone or tablet computer (ruggedized or not), that provision of real-time data is suddenly restored. Real-time data, wherever you are.
Chemical manufacturing can buck the trend
Today, more and more enterprise systems provide connectivity to mobile technology by default. And it’s becoming more and more difficult to find businesses that don’t take advantage of it.
So while the chemical manufacturing industry is behind the curve at present, the odds look good that this will change.