Baton Rouge-based digital media company King Crow Studios was developing video games for years. Then an introduction to decision makers at ExxonMobil gave it the opportunity to co-develop virtual reality training for the company.
ExxonMobil is expanding its Baton Rouge polyolefins plant in a $500 million investment and tapped King Crow Studios, along with 3D Media and Pixel Dash, for the training effort — a sign of an emerging collaboration in Louisiana between tech-driven startups and the industrial sector.
“When you can get an executive into the virtual reality headset, they can see the entire perspective of what is possible,” said Cody Louviere, founder of King Crow Studios. “We’re all seeing new opportunities because these big companies help with the visibility.”
The startups will enable ExxonMobil to simulate emergency situations, among other scenarios, to put employees through the muscle memory of tasks inside a plant.
“In critical scenarios, you can see how somebody reacts while there is a fire going on around them, not just visually and measuring the correctness of the responses but whether they have fight or flight,” Louviere said.
Software can be customized to individual manufacturing facilities because they often have proprietary processes and unique designs, he said.
Louviere said he’s already fielding interest from two other major companies for similar training software and was awarded a Small Business Innovation Research grant for virtual reality training for the U.S. Air Force this year.
Louisiana has a unique advantage for growing technology companies that cater to the petrochemical industry, and local entrepreneurs see an emerging opportunity to capitalize on that as manufacturing executives consider the next generation of the industry.
Tech executives from around south Louisiana mingled with manufacturers active in the state at a recent conference called TEC Next, which is a collaboration between the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and the Greater Baton Rouge Industry Alliance.
Another multinational corporation gave a chance several years ago to New Orleans-based startup Fluence Analytics to pilot its technology that combines hardware and software tools to help companies during development of new chemicals. Alex Reed, CEO of Fluence Analytics, said that was a critical moment.
“We actually did joint development and tested it through a proof of concept, taking it out of the lab and put it in a factory here in Louisiana,” Reed said. “It’s not an easy path and we don’t have that critical mass on the innovation side of things, but we have the assets. I think the vision for Louisiana would be enabling things like that to happen more often.”
Several months ago, the U.S. venture capital arm of Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Corp. led a funding round for Fluence Analytics, raising more than $1 million so far.
Even mature companies in the Baton Rouge area see opportunity with new technology such as artificial intelligence and advanced analytics.
Industrial contractor Turner Industries was founded in 1961 and generated $2.7 billion in revenue last year. It has been investing in closing the knowledge gap as tenured employees look to retire and there is a smaller pool of workers ready to take their place.
“We’ve spent millions upon millions on these monolithic systems,” Paul Plauche, who leads innovation efforts at Turner Industries, said of computer software that captures information about plant machinery. “They’ve done their purpose but there’s still that last mile. …. We’re going to the field and we’re putting handheld (devices) in our worker’s hands to be able to capture that information so it’s not stuck in their head.”
For example, to cut down on incidents happening more than once at a facility, operators are prompted on the devices to follow instructions based on previous experiences and rules. Each maintenance task can be assigned a risk level during a routine job safety analysis, and operators can identify higher-risk tasks on a map.
“There are situations where you will have an incident and three years later you will have the exact same incident at the same facility; we have seen it,” Plauche said. “We started on this notion of operational efficiency but once we dug into it, we started to see a much bigger picture … such as retained industry knowledge.”
Drones in the air
Often technology adoption outpaces government regulation. That appears to be the case with drones in Louisiana. There are nearly two dozen petrochemical plants in St. Charles Parish and most of them are already using drones for inspections and security, said Tommy Faucheux, senior manager of government affairs at The Dow Chemical Co.
Yet, there are mostly only federal laws regarding drone usage, such as registration with the Federal Aviation Administration and not flying drones within 5 miles of an airport. In Louisiana, drone operators are prohibited from using drones as surveillance for schools or correctional facilities nor can they interfere with public safety officials, such as law enforcement or firefighters. Flying drones over private property also is against state law, with exception for commercial agricultural operations.
Dow Chemical is lobbying the St. Charles Parish council to impose some local regulation to drone use to improve security. St. Charles Parish does not have any ordinances in place.
“They are trying to react to industry. … Our typical regulatory and rulemaking system is way too slow,” Faucheux said. “Most of these facilities share common fence lines, which means that at any point there can be 20-plus drones if every company is only using one.”
Ascension Parish, which also has a concentration of petrochemical plants, doesn’t impose any laws regulating drone usage there. Neither does East Baton Rouge Parish.
In 2017, the Louisiana Legislature passed a bill that was signed into law which excludes parishes across the state from enacting regulation of unmanned aerial systems, also known as drones.
There are more than 9,700 hobbyist drones registered in Louisiana and another 3,300 commercial drones across the state as of third quarter this year. Faucheux suggested that it will take industry leadership to bring new local laws into place to ensure the security of the plants, which might be a target for criminal activity.