2019 Digital Operations study for chemicals

Part two of a major new study of energy companies and their use of technology in operations.


Digitization and technological advances in energy, such as renewables and improvements in battery storage, are adding to the energy, utilities, and resources (EU&R) industry’s skill set. These technologies offer considerable opportunities for transformation and are disrupting the EU&R competitive landscape.

For chemicals companies, digitization in particular offers opportunities to reduce costs in various ways, and is also creating new business models that are being pioneered by new entrants from outside the sector. As a result, many chemicals companies are facing a mix of challenges that can no longer be responded to in the traditional way.

As our survey reveals, chemicals companies are turning to digitization faster than their peers in the rest of EU&R, but this is not thoroughgoing enough yet to keep up the pace of other industries. While their initial digitization efforts have been targeted at specific bottom-line generating assets such as supply chain and production, we think chemicals companies need to take a more holistic approach to digitization.

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Three challenges for chemicals companies

The thorniest problem besetting chemicals companies is a by-product of the dynamics of the industry environment in which they operate: commoditization of their portfolios is accelerating, and substitution pressure rises as chemical substances are increasingly scrutinized for their impact on health or environment. In addition, chemicals companies are under increasing pressure from their customers to come up with more and more innovative applications that can, in turn, help those customers respond to the rapidly-changing environment around them.

Speed and profitability

The pace of change in vehicle design – and similar scenarios playing in other industries – is shortening chemical product lifecycles and accelerating the commoditization of these companies’ portfolios as new solutions quickly become the new standard. Inevitably, profit margins are suffering as chemicals companies are forced to offer discounts sooner than they had planned, while spending more than they might want on product upgrades.

Competitive dynamics

A second issue is that these industry dynamics have opened the door for competitors, particularly in developing countries, to chip away at established chemicals companies’ market share. Smaller and more flexible with lower cost structures, these rivals are attracting customers with customizable product lines that often offer more value at lower price points.

Rising standards

And last of all, the chemicals industry is of course dealing with environmental and societal obligations. As customers, regulators and activists raise questions about how well companies are protecting natural resources, addressing climate change and offering good employment opportunities, chemicals companies are often singled out because of the potential for waste and pollution. Ensuring compliance with local rules, high safety standards and voluntary global corporate responsibility guidelines is even more costly for chemicals companies than for many other industries.

How to become a Digital Champion

Given the study results, the question arises what it will take to become a Digital Champion in the industry. We see five areas evolving to set the focus on:

While the environment for the chemicals industry is going to continue to be dynamic and difficult for some companies, this is a good time – perhaps the most crucial time – to develop and expand digital capabilities and set off towards digital maturity. New technologies, apps, databanks, systems and programs will be an essential lever for maintaining competitiveness, developing additional revenue streams and transforming the business model.

Indeed, the most important lesson from Strategy&’s study is that once chemical companies identify the capabilities that they need to modernize and innovate their business model, and aim at digitization to develop and enhance these capabilities internally as well as with suppliers and customers, they start to transform data into real value.

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