Hi-Tech Manufacturing

If more companies did this kind of stuff, the US could remain competitive in high tech manufacturing.

Amid a jumble of minaret-like distillation towers, fat natural gas furnaces, and massive storage tanks, all connected by snaking thick pipes, BP's sprawling petrochemical plant in Texas City, Texas, is changing the face of an industry. Instead of highly trained technicians manually monitoring hundreds of complex processes, the work is now done faster, smarter, and more precisely by computer—and from inside the air-conditioned confines of a softly lit control center. The result: greater efficiency, improved market responsiveness, and significant savings.

The improvements are the result of Project Future, a two-year, $75 million investment in computerization and automation. Completed last year, it has already paid for itself in additional revenues and operational savings, and has solidified the Texas City plant's standing as a leading producer of specialty chemicals. Productivity has increased a steep 55%, enabling the reassignment of 10% of the plant's workers. Energy use has fallen too; the plant now uses 3% less electricity and 10% less natural gas—savings that amount to millions of dollars—and produces fewer CO2 emissions.