The chemical industry is today one of the most important sectors in the world. The industry owes its special importance to its consistently high ability to adapt and solve problems over the centuries. Hardly any other industry has been able to adapt to the needs of its time in the past and to meet the challenges arising from new developments and processes so well. The early development phase and chemistry 4.0, which we know today and which is characterized by digitization and circular economy, are separated by one and a half centuries.
In this blog article, we would like to introduce you to the development stages and major milestones in the chemical industry using Germany as an example.
The origin of the chemical industry lies in industrialization. Chemistry 1.0 was mainly shaped by founders and pioneers as well as their unique inventions, which were implemented on an industrial scale. Inspired by the innovations of that time, entrepreneurs founded the first chemical companies. A short time later they satisfied the demand for chemical products driven by industrialization, such as artificial fertilizers, soaps and pharmaceuticals. Natural dyes were quickly replaced by synthetic dyes such as indigo. Production took place mainly in discontinuous batch processes, which were strictly sequential in terms of time and space. The raw materials to be processed were in particular processed residues from coal chemistry as well as vegetable and animal fats.
Almost a century after the advent of Chemistry 1.0, the demand for strong growth favored the construction of large-scale plants. The dominant companies took advantage of the economies of scale to achieve the lowest possible production costs for their plants. They also set up their own research departments. These contributed to the fact that after the switch to oil distillate naphtha as a raw material basis and after the discovery of crude gasoline for industry, a large variety of industrial chemicals developed from a few primary chemicals via multi-stage syntheses. The newly used raw materials offered the chemical industry almost unlimited potential for previously undiscovered molecules. However, production, which had meanwhile picked up speed, was increasingly accompanied by environmental problems. The research departments therefore developed exhaust air filters and wastewater treatment processes in order to reduce the negative impact of production on the environment.
From the 1980s onwards, the chemical and pharmaceutical industry recognized the widespread use of natural gas and sustainable raw materials. At the same time, the close cooperation between basic university research and application-oriented science not only resulted in greater innovative strength, but also in new production processes for the manufacture of pharmaceuticals. As a driver of this stage of development, globalization fueled industry exports and the internationalization of production facilities. Globalization continued to enable mergers, acquisitions and outsourcing of services. The establishment of chemical parks allowed companies to benefit from locational advantages, which in turn had a positive effect on further innovations.
By contrast, SMEs now concentrated primarily on niches and specialty chemicals. In addition, SMEs set new environmental standards thanks to innovative inventions. New technologies and processes were integrated into production and plant planning in order to significantly reduce industry emissions.
Chemistry 4.0 is a development whose origins can be traced back to the digital revolution and whose drivers are digitalization, the circular economy and sustainability. Although chemistry 4.0 is still in its infancy, the intensive use of data and communication between plants that characterizes it, is already indispensable today. By digitizing production processes, it enables efficiency gains and innovative business models thanks to big data and close cooperation and development with customers for specific products. The spectrum of value creation is to be expanded by means of hybrid approaches so that chemical companies become providers of comprehensive and sustainable solutions for products and the environment. Companies are now entering into more flexible cross-industry cooperations and are also collaborating with innovative start-ups and technology companies in order to boost their own innovative strength. This presupposes an open corporate philosophy and the fact that research and development are no longer carried out exclusively within the company, but externally through open innovation approaches.
It is still unclear today what achievements chemistry 4.0 will bring in the future. Teams from all over the world are currently working on various innovations. These include, for example, augmented reality glasses, with which various work steps can be controlled or the production status can be recorded and documented in real time, or application-oriented artificial intelligence, which in the future may analyze unstructured data or recognize material properties. In any case, the chemical industry can look forward to future developments with excitement.