BASF’s Holland: Digitalization has been challenging but necessary during Geismar mega-project

Beth Holland, vice president and project execution owner, MDI3 expansion, BASF Geismar (Photo by Sam Barnes)

BASF’s Beth Holland says the digitalization of processes during the current MDI3 expansion project in Geismar has brought some unexpected challenges.

As vice president and project execution owner, Holland oversees the $780 million final phase of the project and shared her digitalization “lessons learned” during the Downstream USA Conference June 7-8 at the Galveston Convention Center. “About 82 percent of organizations say there’s a new sense of urgency (to implement digitalization),” she says. “They feel like we need to go faster, but many don’t know quite how to do that.

“So what makes digital transformation so hard? The biggest obstacle is culture change,” Holland says. “We’ve found it to be a major culture change for some in our work force. We’re changing how they do their work, changing the work processes and giving them new things to learn.”

It has evolved into a group effort at BASF Geismar, whereby the owner relies upon user groups and “communities of practice” to implement and manage change. “Our digitalization group has more than 2,000 members,” she adds. “We now know that people can collaborate and learn from each other on simple platforms such Microsoft Teams and Sharepoint. It’s an effective way to amplify our digitalization strategy.”

There have been challenges to overcome, as some processes have proven more difficult to transition than others. “We underestimated the challenge of converting to a digital permitting process,” Holland says. “At the end of the day, it was more than merely digitalizing everything from paper to electronic. It had to be truly representative of what was going on in the field. It was difficult to come to a place where there was trust that things would flow the way they were meant to flow.”

Other processes were easier to transition, such as the use of drones for inspections and the digitalization of  employee training. “We’ve gotten a lot of traction in the use of drones,” Holland says. “As a result, we’ve been able to save about $2 million in our inspection processes.”

One additional tip – “You need to know when to hire experts. BASF has traditionally grown a lot of its talent from within, but we’ve discovered that sometimes you need others to show you what ‘good’ looks like.”

The MDI expansion is BASF’s largest wholly owned investment in North America, as the material is in high demand for use in foams for insulation and refrigeration in homes, and for the manufacture of lighter, more fuel-efficient cars. The expansion requires “a much more global execution strategy,” Holland says. “We’re tackling the first large-scale modular design for BASF, and it provides the opportunity to further build our experience with digital tools.”