Eighteen months ago, I faced a daunting task. As Vice President of Shell Pennsylvania Chemicals, I was responsible for building the nation’s largest new manufacturing complex in Western Pennsylvania.

We were at our planned construction peak when COVID-19 hit.  We wondered how a pandemic would affect our workers, their training, and our schedule.

At the same time, we were well aware of the benefits we had been gaining from the digital tools, and the data insights they were providing.

Beginning March 20, 2020, we shut down the site, telling our 8,000-plus construction workers to stop working. Subsequently, our digital technology proved to be even more vital than we could have imagined, later helping us to return workers back to site, with new safety protocols. 

In 2017, we established a drone survey program to aid our project planning and monitoring. We took a progress snapshot every week, and published it in a cloud portal called iHawk, from Cyber hawk Innovations, as a bench mark between Shell and contractors.

At the point of the shutdown, we had taken more than one million aerial photos during 4,000 drone flights across the 400-acre site; this documented the course of construction with a new, modern level of precision. This allowed us to compare the progress we had made versus what we needed to accomplish. We could obtain detailed information in a matter of seconds, rather than sending surveyors into the field.

But that is only one of the complications with interrupting the construction of a complex of this scale. For example, we know that roughly 20 percent of emission leaks are associated with improperly torqued flange joints.

There are approximately 110,000 flanged connections in the Plant, requiring more than a million bolts. Each must be torqued properly, or else it becomes a potential leak source.

In weeks prior to the shutdown, approximately 7,000 bolted connections were being progressed by more than 100 crews, working concurrently across the site.

Fortunately - two years before, we had deployed a digital flange management system called Smart Torque, which affords a real-time visibility into critical bolting activities. It enables the project team to know whether each bolt was done to appropriate specifications.

Since Smart Torque is fully digital, the information was fully available after the temporary shutdown as we remobilized workers to site. 

In this case, planning upfront ensured we had precision digital technology when it was needed the most, guaranteeing best-in-class performance. We relied on Planning, Precision and Performance, all made possible through digital tech.

"The value we gained from digital technology boils down to Three Ps: Planning, Precision, and Performance, which is critical to building and operating a major manufacturing complex in the current age."

Worker training presented yet another challenge in a time of COVID.

At Pennsylvania Chemicals, we had more than 100 operator positions to fill – and we wanted to prioritize local hires. We invested in a training system from AVEVA called MPDS – that stands for Multi-Purpose Dynamic Simulator. This allowed us to invite local job applicants from all walks of life, most lacking experience in the industry. Then we could teach them how to operate our equipment, and how to apply that knowledge in a simulated setting.

Besides operator training, through MPDS, our engineers virtually commissioned the plant, simulating the steps of the start-up sequence. Each time they encountered a problem, they resolved it, sometimes by changing the design, which prevented problem from manifesting in the field.

Our workers have implemented more than 10,000 improvements to the plant design during virtual commissioning and process simulations. These optimizations give us confidence we would encounter fewer issues in the actual commissioning process, issues that can result in costly delays.

The upshot is that we are now 80 percent of the way through the construction process and expect to complete it next year, in line with the timeline we put out when we announced the investment in 2016.

And our workers and investment in digitalization made it possible, despite interruptions from a pandemic.

We see digitalization as a tool for our workers; its value comes alive in a worker’s hands, just like a wrench or a nail gun. Digitalization alone cannot perform all the functions we expect from our field workers or managers.

Indeed, at Pennsylvania Chemical, digitalization as a training tool helps us to create highly skilled workers – not replace them. At the same time, we’re reducing the number of tedious tasks in their workday and eliminating tasks that present a safety risk.

So, it improves workers’ performance – our 3rd “P,”– and it gives them a greater sense of purpose and satisfaction.  This, in turn, helps us to reap all the benefits of their talent and dedication.

Ultimately, digital technology provides a level of certainty in a traditionally uncertain landscape.

It encourages people to create more agile, productive ways of working.

It enables delving deeper into data science to unlock value.

And it enhances workers’ skills, equipping them for long, lucrative careers in high-tech manufacturing.

And from these improvements, we find yet another P-word that often flows from digitalization: Prosperity.