Being AI-ready for operational excellence

BusinessToday speaks to Antonio Pietri, President and CEO, Aspen Technology on the importance of being AI-ready and what it takes for companies to bring their AI aspirations towards the next level.

How AI-ready are companies in Malaysia?

AP: In an effort to increase the speed of AI adoption, the Malaysian government (via its Ministry of Multimedia and Communications) has demanded that local companies leverage data and utilise AI in order to spur the market on to the next level.

Therefore, Malaysian industries have the power to deploy Industrial AI via our aspenONE V12 software, which embeds AI across our software solutions. These solutions contain the first Industrial AI hybrid model capability that is purpose-built for the process industries and other capital-intensive industries.

Aspen Hybrid Models capture data from assets across the enterprise, and then apply AI, engineering first principles and AspenTech’s domain expertise to deliver comprehensive, more accurate models at enterprise speed and scale.

Locally, Petronas, Malaysia’s fully integrated oil and gas multinational company, has selected aspenONE software solutions to pursue asset optimisation and maximise profitability at the Refinery and Petrochemical Integrated Development (RAPID) facility in Pengerang, Johor.

Are there any major concerns among businesses when it comes to adopting AI solutions?

AP: Businesses have been concerned about having the right number of data scientists available to adopt AI solutions and have had doubts about the value of AI versus the cost of implementation. Add to that concerns around taking a risk on a new technology. While the chemicals and energy sectors, for example, have been early adopters of many digital tools, they have not yet fully realized the potential of Industrial AI.

However, businesses should be concerned about being left behind by not adopting AI solutions. McKinsey has estimated that the pandemic has accelerated digital trends by ten years. The combination of the pandemic, an ultra-volatile oil market and global political changes are resulting in Malaysian companies needing to adapt quickly and our solutions are helping our customers address these concerns and move forward. For example, during the pandemic, customers have demonstrated increased willingness to allow AspenTech access to their networks for remote implementations.

How is AspenTech facilitating this transition for businesses in Malaysia?

AP: Industrial AI is a technology solution that combines data science and AI with the “first principles” (or fundamental basics) of chemistry and physics and domain expertise to deliver comprehensive business outcomes for the specific needs of capital-intensive industries.

As Peter Reynolds, Senior Analyst, ARC Advisory Group, said: “AI has the potential to enhance many industrial work processes; however, most companies are not well-equipped to bolt on AI themselves. AspenTech’s industry-specific applications with embedded AI will help companies accelerate transformation. While other technology strategies require asset owners to invest in complex platforms and data scientists, with embedded AI, users can get started right away improving margins and profitability.” With this approach, AspenTech’s software is helping Malaysian firms adopt Industrial AI more easily.

Why is it vital for them to take on AI for daily operations and how will it benefit them? What is the rate of AI-adoption by businesses today as compared to prior Covid-19?

AP: According to a 2019 joint study by Microsoft and IDC (“Future Ready Business: Assessing Asia Pacific’s Growth Potential through AI), application of artificial intelligence (AI) will help businesses in Malaysia increase their competitiveness by 2.2 times by 2021 and improve employee productivity by 60 percent.

Malaysian businesses need to consider how AI can help them achieve operational excellence and this study found that 70 percent of Malaysian business leaders were actively pursuing this.

Given the volatile macro-economic environment, this is even more relevant today. First, with global lockdowns, companies have to constantly adjust their manufacturing operations to meet supply and demand swings. Second, companies need to become more agile and digitally productive with many staff working remotely. Third, we see companies wishing to rapidly ramp up the introduction of new processes and technologies to underpin this speed of change and market volatility.

We believe that AI combined with engineering knowledge and experience can accelerate the analysis of data and modelling of assets and provide actionable insights to increase efficiency or extend the asset life. Using AI to drive asset optimization will separate the leaders from the laggards over the next 10 years.

What are your thoughts on the AI industry 2021 outlook?

AP: Given the many and varied market and macro-economic uncertainties at play, it is hard to provide a 2021 outlook with any certainty. That said, we remain optimistic about 2021 and beyond as we see many of our customers accelerating their digital transformation efforts.

We anticipate sustainability will also start to drive investment in digitalization and AI initiatives. Market expectations are creating new business priorities for energy and chemical companies — from plastics depolymerisation to renewable sources. Legislation and pressure from each stakeholder are forcing companies to find efficiencies and ways to reduce their environmental impact, such as implementing zero-carbon and low-carbon initiatives, maximizing energy and water efficiency, and minimizing emissions.

Forced shutdowns also have a major impact on plant and personnel safety as well as greenhouse gas emissions and environmental compliance. By dramatically improving the efficiency and reliability of operations at all stages of the asset lifecycle, software can reduce environmental impact and improve safety, while reducing costs. Today’s technology can deliver advanced warning of failures through a combination of predictive and prescriptive analytics, enabled by integrated software that incorporates AI and machine learning.

What is a Self-Optimising Plant and how will it benefit companies in Malaysia?

AP: By incorporating AI capabilities into existing operating technology (OT) and information technology (IT), AspenTech is creating industrial systems that are empowered to transcend functional silos and operate semi-autonomously (and eventually autonomously).

The integration of technology enables real-time feedback loops, which continuously inform operational systems at all levels as to how to improve performance of the entire system. This is what creates the Self-Optimizing Plant, a facility that can automatically respond to changing conditions during operation.

Our long-term vision for capital-intensive industries is the self-optimising, autonomous plant –and the increasing deployment of AI across these industries brings the reality of this ever closer.

When the potential of self-optimisation is realized in plants, technicians and operators will no longer focus on mundane and repetitive tasks. The AI-driven systems will take care of those tasks, enabling technicians and operators to put their energies into making faster, smarter business decisions that drive agility. With automation in place, the plant systems will operate with increased efficiency and will be able to react automatically to unanticipated situations. 

The Self-Optimising Plant will rapidly assess all available operating data, both within an asset and beyond its boundaries. It will rapidly react to changing conditions to achieve the best possible outcome, considering safety, sustainability, asset health, and operational objectives. Furthermore, it will use AI to anticipate future behaviour and provide workers and managers with future operational scenarios.

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