AspenTech Keeps on Enhancing aspenONE

Process industries often find the sophisticated software products from Aspen Technology (a.k.a., AspenTech) quite functional and useful in catering to their complex supply chain planning (SCP), manufacturing execution, and engineering process optimization needs. The vendor has about 1,500 companies in the energy, chemical, construction, and pharmaceutical industries as its customers (its name, curiously, stands for “Advanced System for Process Engineering”). In fact, had BP used the Aspen HYSYS petroleum process simulation software, it is likely that it wouldn't have attempted the costly and ineffective “top kill” attempt to stop the Gulf of Mexico oil leak of 2010.

But the early 2000s were years of serious mismanagement and dysfunctionat at AspenTech, a damaging anti-trust Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruling, and even being delisted from NASDAQ in 2008. Over a short time span starting in the late 1990s, the company had acquired more than 20 diverse software products that were on different platforms and technology sets, and it simply didn’t know what to do with them (140 or so different modules) in a coherent manner. As a result, Honeywell, Invensys, Siemens, SAP, and others took AspenTech’s lunch money.

Since 2009, under the leadership of Mark Fusco, a former NHLer, AspenTech has attempted a corporate turnaround strategy in the following manner:

  • Consolidating and rationalizing over 40 former facilities with regional head offices down to 25 or so (most of the company’s revenues still come from outside of the US)

  • Reducing its scattered research and development facilities from 19 to 3: Process Modeling based in Burlington, MA ; Manufacturing and Supply Chain Center of Excellence in Houston, TX ; Quality Assurance Center in Shanghai, China

  • Reorganizing the professional services business unit via a new organization structure and management, and streamlined operations

Even before the aforementioned financial and regulatory issues, the breadth of AspenTech’s product lines and limited ability to cross-sell the products had caused sales to stagnate. With each new product, the company needed more specialized presales and implementation, and often more sales people. The costs to grow each sales team and the associate marketing programs become very expensive.

Making More Sense

Although the company has offered a slew of highly specialist software products, today the vendor sells only a dozen or so of its principal products. AspenTech's software—which includes supplier collaboration, inventory management, production planning, and collaborative engineering functions—is currently offered under its umbrella aspenONE subscription service. There is a core aspenONE process engineering suite, while the complementing core modeling and optimization modules are those of planning and scheduling, production management and execution, advanced process control, and supply and distribution. When an acquisition is made, the associated product(s) and supporting development coding gets handed over to AspenTech, and then transferred over to and built upon using Microsoft .NET as the standard development platform with service-oriented architecture (SOA) principles. This is what allows all the products and solution areas to talk with each other.

Together with the aspenONE platform, AspenTech has introduced a software licensing model based on application usage that it refers to as “tokens.” This is an innovative approach that allows users to consume various pieces of the vast product portfolio on an as-needed basis without having to purchase perpetual licenses for each individual product component. The token-based licensing model is a critical aspect of how AspenTech’s customers get access to and use aspenONE software. Few companies use more than one or two aspenONE modules. Cost per module is relatively high but users (typically heads-down chemical and process design engineers) per module are low. High costs per module have limited cross-selling opportunities of other modules as a result. While aspenONE is not a cloud platform by any stretch of imagination, it is refreshing that its subscription (pay per use) pricing resembles those of cloud software providers.

Continual Enhancements

AspenTech is on a quarterly release cycle, meaning that each quarter brings a new set of enhancements to the aspenONE software suite in different capabilities. The aspenONE V8.0 software launch in December 2012 delivered many enhancements focused on helping new and experienced process industry workers become more productive and efficient to combat the global skills shortage in the following manner:

  • A new version of the aforementioned Aspen HYSYS product makes it faster and easier to generate optimized process simulations for the hydrocarbon industry—from upstream to refining

  • Solids modeling functionality (acquired from SolidSim earlier in 2012) integrated within Aspen Plus chemical process modeling software eliminates silos between previously disparate solids and liquids modeling processes to optimize all chemical processes together for the first time

  • The new Aspen PIMS Platinum ("PIMS" stands for Process Industry Modeling System) optimizes petroleum supply chain planning and scheduling by enabling planners to collaborate more easily to deliver optimal plans faster by visualizing and evaluating multiple scenarios along with plant data to make better and more profitable decisions

  • A new version of Aspen Collaborative Demand Manager helps process manufacturers improve demand forecast accuracy to increase customer service levels, reduce excess inventory, and provide better input to purchasing decisions

  • New innovations in Adaptive Process Control (APC) automate many of the tasks that traditionally required control engineering resources, allowing process manufacturers to sustain APC performance by making maintenance a continuous process

  • Energy and economic analysis allows process engineers to quickly identify ways to change designs to reduce energy, saving design time and future operating cost, while ensuring the best use of capital

In late February 2013, AspenTech announced the latest release of its aspenONE software to help process industry experts collaborate easier and become more efficient (and ultimately obtain greater profitability). The specific enhancements related to aspenONE V8.1 are as follows:

  • The Aspen Deployment Assistant helps to accelerate the deployment process of manually validating model results. This version also provides a seamless upgrade path to the latest version of aspenONE so that process engineers always have the latest software to streamline processes.

  • The new Teaching Modules within Aspen HYSYS provide curriculum to universities that are educating future process engineers. These modules were designed by the industry’s top chemical engineers and professors and serve as a powerful tool in enhancing the ability of future engineers.

  • Aspen IMOS (Inventory Management and Operation Scheduling) is a Web-based software that allows petroleum supply chain operators to gain visibility into inventory positions, current and future inventory movements, market demand, and contract status, without spreadsheets. The real-time information and collaboration delivered from Aspen IMOS allows operators to quickly adapt to market changes and enables better decision making.

  • The new Aspen PIMS module gives refinery planners the freedom and ability to access assay data from anywhere. Now, planners can import industry-standard crude oil assay data (essentially the chemical evaluation of crude oil) into Aspen PIMS where it is stored and easily accessible.

AspenTech was re-listed on NASDAQ in 2010 (under the “AZPN” ticker symbol), and the company has grown significantly over the last few years. It appears that the vendor has painstakingly straightened its ship and got its foundations. Providing more value to customers via ongoing product releases should bode well for its future.
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