What a Post-COVID Plastics Industry May Look Like

What a Post-COVID Plastics Industry May Look Like

It’s clear that COVID-19 will continue to have economic and social impacts beyond 2021. For the plastics industry in particular, the question is whether or not the impact will outpace or lag behind economic fallout.

By Shell Polymers on May 24, 2021

The pandemic shifted the conversation around plastics worldwide to safety and cleanliness. McKinsey states that jobs with higher physical proximity to other employees are likely to be the most disrupted,1 so solutions to address future working conditions are a necessity. This need accelerated the push to digitalize the industry and keep workers and customers safe while still providing seamless experiences.

Unexpected Challenges Lead to Unplanned Innovations

Like many companies, the pandemic forced us to get creative in our plant production practices as we implemented social distancing rules and reduced on-site workers to continue construction. For our employees and contractors, providing a safe work environment was critical. Fortunately, we had already been investing in ways to digitize our plant to create more efficiencies for converters. These new technologies helped us stay efficient, even in ever-changing working conditions.

For example, we were able to leverage simulations to remotely train employees on our plant equipment, reducing physical contact. By using new solutions like augmented and virtual reality, our teams can collaborate online, giving them access to in-depth experiences without having to go on-site.

Learn more about creating a reliable polymer supply with leading-edge simulation technology

With these new technologies in our plant, we can show converters the benefits of them first hand. Industry 4.0 solutions like sensors and automation will provide our customers transparency into our operations and a reliable polyethylene supply. While these solutions are considered innovative and advanced today, the future will present new changes and technology that will continuously shape the way we work in the plastics industry.

What future ways of working will look like

We recognize that ways of working will continue to evolve due to COVID-19. For example, the increase in plastic production will also come with a call from consumers for polyethylene manufacturers and converters to embrace a circular economy and sustainable solutions.2 

We are always looking for ways to help converters adapt to these market changes and stay on top of the latest trends. That includes using innovative recycling methods like pyrolysis,3 providing guidance around achieving a circular economy,4 and industry expertise. But what about how we’ll be working in the future?

For starters, virtual meetings and remote collaboration will continue as long as work can be done without a loss in productivity.5 For those in positions that require in-person set ups, there will likely be a rising adoption rate of automation and AI technology. Companies are already deploying these solutions in warehouses and manufacturing plants to reduce density and cope

with demand surges. Developing new ways of working will be key in areas like plastics, where high levels of human interaction take place.

For example, Shell’s Scotford Complex in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta is using two Boston Dynamics robot dogs to do higher-risk, mundane tasks at the plant.6 Inspections, 3D imaging, and thermal scanning can now be completed with robotics either in dog or drone form. Shell Polymers also uses drones during its plant’s construction for imaging and design purposes. These options maximize worker safety and help employees focus on more value-driven tasks.

It’s also possible that in-person meetings and consultations can move from the boardroom as virtual and augmented reality continue to evolve.7 In time, VR and AR may eradicate barriers between people and create a digitally collaborative workplace without physical interaction.

The future holds challenges and interesting solutions for the plastics industry as we continue to strive towards new ways of working. While the past year has been one for the books, we will always rise to the occasion to help converters meet customer expectations by staying on top of the latest technologies and creating a resilient, forward-looking business.

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1 https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/the-future-of-work-after-covid-19
2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7430241/
3 https://www.shell.com/business-customers/chemicals/media-releases/2019-media-releases/shell-uses-plastic-waste-to-produce-chemicals.html
4 https://www.shell.us/business-customers/shell-polymers/resources-and-insights/how-converters-can-support-a-circular-economy-in-packaging.html
5 https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/the-future-of-work-after-covid-19
6 https://globalnews.ca/news/7682274/robot-dogs-shell-scotford/
7 https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2021/03/01/how-technology-will-unlock-new-ways-of-working-in-a-post-covid-world