Canada’s petrochemical industry sees tech innovation as labor tightening looms

Canadian petrochemical companies are seeing technological innovations to cut emissions, increase recyclability of plastics and future benefits from developments in robotics, and artificial intelligence will increasingly find a place in an industry that is seeing labor tightening.

The next decade will see large investment in drones and digital twin facilities as Canada's downstream sector grows.

A wave of petrochemical projects announced in recent months, mostly in Western Canada and representing nearly C$12 billion in investment which followed the granting of incentives to add value to liquids, will likely find adequate skilled labor but labor tightening looms in the longer run.

The industry will see a bigger impact of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and digitization in the coming decade, initially with applications in the oil and gas industry that supply feedstock, and eventually in more fragmented areas like construction, according to an AI analyst.

Disruptive changes involving robotics would be increasingly applied and allow more frequent inspections of facilities like refineries and pipelines, as well as address human safety concerns, not just in Canada but elsewhere, a COO of a robotics company added.

Western Canada projects will find skilled labor but tightening looms

“Skilled labor is starting to tighten as older workers begin to retire and new workers entering the field are less in number, said Dave Cherniak, senior policy analyst with the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada. “This is a longer-term issue that employers and the chemistry sector are watching closely,” he said

Several petrochemical projects have been announced in Canada, particularly in the west of the country. 

Pembina Pipeline Corp, in partnership with Kuwait, will build a C$4.5-billion plant, demanding 3,000 construction jobs at peak and after completion in mid-2023 200 full-time jobs.

Inter Pipeline, which started last year the construction of another PDH and polypropylene plant, also located near Edmonton, plans to complete it in 2021. A company official told an Eluta job recruiter that 180 permanent full-time jobs will be created, in addition to thousands more during construction.

Nova Chemical is working on expanding its ethylene and polyethylene production in the Sarnia Lambton area, in Ontario, in a C$2.2-billion project that according to a Sarnia Journal report in January will create 1,400 construction jobs, and later 150 full-time manufacturing jobs.

There are other projects. For example, Nauticol Energy’s proposed methanol plant in Grande Prairie, Alberta, yet to be confirmed, would demand 3,000 direct and indirect jobs, including 1,000 construction jobs and over 200 direct permanent jobs.

There are bigger projects in earlier planning stages such as LNG plants in British Columbia, as well as new pipeline construction that would also need skilled labor. Yet labor shortages are not expected to be an issue at least in the short to medium term.

Unlike other areas of Canada, the West of the country is particularly well positioned to supply skilled labor.

“The supply of skilled labour in Western Canada is higher owing to the nearly two-decade boom (and beginning in late 2014 the subsequent downturn) in natural resource development,” Cherniak said. In addition, Canada’s chemistry sector is “firmly integrated” in the broader North American market.
Innovations to lower emissions, increase recyclability

“Recently we have seen members adopt things as simple (but integral) as new burner tips in their process heat applications and these new burners have led to marked decreases in greenhouse gas emissions,” Cherniak said.

Existing facilities of Nova Chemical in Joffre, Alberta have seen “furnace replacement” to increase efficiency.

“More recently, CIAC and our members have responded to the growing concern around plastic waste. Earlier this month two of our member companies (INEOS and Styrolution) partnered with startup companies Pyrowave and Green Mantra respectively, to increase the recyclability of polystyrene products,” he added.

“As new products come to market, whether they be sensors that help monitor and control chemical process, new technologies that increase the recyclability of plastic resins or in the case of Inter-Pipeline and CKPC, the deployment of brand new processes here in Canada we expect that the best available technologies will be used,” Cherniak said.

Disruptive technologies, artificial intelligence, robotics

Technologies that will change the industry are starting to be put in place in the oil and gas industry, such as non-destructive testing applications such as for the inspection of pipelines, which also feed and connect petrochemical facilities.

Safety is also a key concern as deadly accidents can occur. In April 2016, for example Nova Chemical, at the time expanding its polyethylene facilities in Joffre, Alberta, saw a contractor working with a stationary crane die after he “came in contact with equipment resulting in severe trauma.”

“Our first target for industrial applications is automated inspections in the oil and gas industry. Oil and gas companies spend billions of dollars each year on manual nondestructive testing,” according to an email sent by Bob Raida, Chief Operating Officer of Hebi Robotics.

“Our customers report to us that existing inspection methods are not sustainable,” he said.

“Budgets cannot accommodate the required inspections and there are increasing concerns regarding the safety of human operators,” he added.

Hebi Robotics can offer “a system of mountable or mobile robots that quickly integrates with existing NDT sensors,” Raida said.

Drones, digital twins to feature prominently; construction to lag

The next decade will see large investment in drones and digital twin facilities, according to Rian Whitton, a senior analyst at ABI Research. Oil and gas are likely to lead, with construction lagging.

“The data that drones gather will be cultivated into advanced analytical tools that create digital twins of facilities, and help generate efficiencies through increased intelligence,” he said.

Robot producers like Sarcos Robotics and Anybotics “are developing teleoperated systems that can inspect and interact within environments considered dangerous for humans,” he added.

“For construction, robot adoption is going to be a stiffer challenge. The construction industry is fractured and has lacked the capacity to invest sufficiently in capital equipment to increase productivity,” he said.

By Renzo Pipoli