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The software driving the petrochemicals industry

Petrochemicals can be a data management minefield. The sheer scale, complexity and diversity of monitoring and testing various products as they whizz down the manufacturing lines and pass through R&D centres means the petrochemical companies need a reliable, flexible yet easy-to-use chunk of software.

The industry also needs to make sure its products are of a certain quality, optimise the efficiency and throughput of its continuous processes, keep within governmental product and safety standards, and control its processes with rigorous testing and real-time monitoring.

A key ingredient for petrochemicals companies to achieve this is a decent laboratory information management system (LIMS), to ensure that the correct tests are performed on its products at the correct time and then produce a record of conformance with internal and external standards and regulations. There are plenty of vendors to choose from, such as LIMS providers including Applied Biosystems, LabWare and Thermo Fisher Scientific.

LabWare LIMS lets users alter their testing and inspection models to correspond with their manufacturing processes and, furthermore, lets them automatically collect data both within the lab and at remote locations. John Gabathuler, director of the industrial and environmental sector at LabWare, says: ‘LabWare focuses on a single product, LabWare LIMS, which is used by all of our customers. The product is configuration-driven meaning the customer can take on full ownership of LabWare LIMS and easily manage and adapt it to their changing business needs.’

Total Petrochemicals chose the LabWare LIMS to act as a repository for data in both its research and development and quality control laboratories. Once a product has been produced the LIMS creates a certificate for the customer that verifies the quality of the product. The LIMS is then integrated with CambridgeSoft’s E-Notebook to provide an interface for the researchers to work with. This allows the scientists to access all the functionality of the LIMS system directly from their electronic laboratory notebook (ELN).

LabWare LIMS can also monitor conformance to multiple product grades and specs to let users better manage continuous processes and batch release – which is a must in the petrochemicals business where there can be different rules and regulations depending on what you are doing and where you are doing it.

While LabWare focuses on a single product, there are three Thermo Scientific software products used in the petrochemicals industry, helping enterprises manage and track all of the their laboratory and process data: Sample Manager LIMS, Atlas Chromatography Data System (CDS) and Grams.

Thermo’s LIMS offering manages the quality of the data, including data for the calibration and for the environment, which can all be integrated to the instrument data and viewed in one central system in real-time. And the speed of a system is vital for petrochemical companies, according to Colin Thurston, director of product strategy, process industries and informatics at Thermo Fisher Scientific: ‘A key requirement for the petrochemicals industry is to be able to make decisions  very quickly. A refinery may need to process samples, put them in the LIMS very quickly and make a decision just as quickly from the data they’ve put in the system to stop sub-standard quality or excessive amounts of petrol being made.’

Atlas CDS is used for the capture, processing, reporting and management of data from more than 150 types of instruments. Thurston adds: ‘Gas chromatography is a major technology in the petrochemicals industry, where workers need to categorise and check the product. Crude oil is made up of different parts and the proportions need to be carefully monitored during the refining process.’

In fact, the CDS is often seen by petrochemicals customers as the key component of their Thermo suite of products, as Thurston says: ‘Thermo Scientific Atlas CDS is seen as mission critical by customers – if the LIMS goes down then the refinery will not stop working, but if the CDS goes down then the entire operation could come to a halt.’ And Grams is a desktop spectroscopy software suite, containing a cheminformatics module to capture, process, report and manage data, which stops the user from having to continually take samples, and uses simulation to build up a model of samples.

Growing geographies

Petrochemical products can also differ depending on geographical region, and time of year. The petrochemical market is also opening new refineries and offices in many new locations, bringing new challenges to the LIMS vendors. Thermo’s Thurston adds: ‘A lot of companies are moving and extending plant operations from the US and Europe to Asia, India and Latin America so the LIMS , CDS and other enterprise software needs to be able to let companies share data across continents and also be able to work in a multitude of languages.’

Thermo Fisher Scientific has many petrochemical customers worldwide, with petrochemical being the second largest customer segment for Thermo Fisher informatics solutions; nearly 40 per cent of its revenue comes from this customer base, only being outdone by the pharmaceutical market.

One option which petrochemical companies are opting for is to pick software to match its individual company’s needs, instead of opting for a single generic system. Petrochemical company LyondellBasell Industries has a wide range of software provided by a large number of suppliers and sometimes the same kind of information is managed by different applications in different sites. This more haphazard way of doing business is a consequence of many mergers and acquisitions related to a global strategy, but works well at a local level.

LyondellBasell uses SampleManager from Thermo Fisher Scientific at its petrochemical sites around the world. Image courtesy of LyondellBasell.

Cost was a major driver for the diversity of LyondellBasell’s systems. Andrea Carlini, R&D systems and automation support for R&D and product and application development at LyondellBasell, says: ‘The key factor is value for money. About 20 years of knowledge is kept in a single repository within our organisation, and various sets of tools can be used to query, analyse and report all that data quickly and without complex algorithms. The structure of the data is simple; people don’t have to learn about additional software or tools.’

For laboratory information management and control LyondellBasell has SampleManager LIMS from Thermo Fisher Scientific software for R&D, and SQL*LIMS by Applied Biosystems for manufacturing. The company also uses the SampleManager Instrument Management module for instrument data acquisition and control and the Thermo Scientific Atlas CDS. For all of its unstructured data, such as technical reports and publications, it uses the Plone CMS framework, which is an Open Source offering.

A flexible package is also important within petrochemicals, as Carlini adds: ‘Almost all other software, including some leading ERPs like SAP, suffer expensive migrations and updates; some others just die because the supplier has been merged and the application terminated by commercial needs. Thermo Scientific SampleManager LIMS and Thermo Scientific Atlas give us the ability to maintain user operability while extending functionalities and keeping maintenance costs down.’

LabWare is also deploying its LIMS across the globe with a Brazilian petrochemical customer making use of the web to manage its data. Petrobras supplies almost the entire demand of the Brazilian market for petroleum and its by-products with 16 refineries.

The Petrobras LabWare LIMS project involves 11 refineries, two fertiliser plants and a shale extraction plant, all of which communicate via the web with LabWare LIMS, which is hosted on a central database in Sao Paulo.

Early on in the project it was decided to fast track the implementation for Transpetro, the Petrobras subsidiary responsible for the pipelines and terminals as well as shipping, in order to integrate their quality data into Petrobras’ corporate database BDEMQ (movement, storage and quality database). 25 Transpetro laboratories are now online via Citrix, also hosted in Sao Paulo. Between them, the laboratories test an extremely wide variety of products and all of the product specifications, analysis definitions and measurement units are maintained in BDEMQ. The quality results are also stored here and the LIMS therefore maintains a bidirectional interface with BDEMQ to synchronise the two systems.

Fellow LIMS-provider StarLIMS is working with the Alliance Refining Company (ARC) based in Rayong, Thailand, which has decided to replace its eight-year-old SQL*LIMS from Applied Biosystems with StarLIMS. ARC is expecting the new system to give a higher laboratory throughput and use its resources more efficiently. ‘We have grown out of our old LIMS; with StarLIMS functionality we now have a solution that conforms to our current needs and with its flexibility we can modify it as our needs change,’ said Worrarat Phutthuworapattana, laboratory manager.

Petrochemical companies also frequently need to observe any trends in the data that they are monitoring and this information needs to be presented in a way that anyone – and not just an analytical chemist – can understand. The SQL*LIMS from Applied Biosystems can create a very simple ‘dashboard’ that represents all of the necessary information in a graphical form, such as a pie chart that is updated every 10 minutes. 

Making sure everyone can understand what  the software is telling them is also vital within the petrochemicals business as Stephen Hodgson, LIMS administrator of LabWare LIMS user Ineos ChlorVinyls, says: ‘Most important was that the system was easy to use as we have a large number of people using it with differing levels of computer skills.’

Eco-friendly and flexible future

As with most industries, there is a drive in petrochemicals to improve its eco-image and make its processes greener. Thermo’s Thurston adds: ‘The petrochemical industry is now making a move to become greener and this has resulted in LIMS being used within the labs for R&D into biofuels, bioethanol and other more eco-friendly alternatives to traditional fuels.’

It’s not just the environmental side that is getting more diverse; petrochemicals users are also demanding greater flexibility from their software too, as LabWare’s Gabathuler adds: ‘Ease of deployment is an area of focus for the petrochemical industry, with LabWare LIMS' “configure once, deploy anywhere” approach providing customers with great flexibility in both architecture and deployment, enabling them to choose how their systems are deployed using client, web and handheld devices.’

Adding eco-friendly and flexible working issues to the already massive mix of requirements for a petrochemicals producer means more work on the software side of things too. This means software companies will have to add more strings to their bows to keep up with petrochemicals.


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