Chemical manufacturers must operate a serious network of plumbing: pipes, ducts and valves to process, produce and transport millions of gallons - and billions of dollars - of valuable product.

These companies also are expanding their plumbing when it comes to network transport, and the various types of applications they deliver over Ethernet, WANs and wireless networks. IP networks at companies such as Dow Corning and Nova Chemical are helping to push sales information to employees in the field, centralise plant and back-office data stores, and even adjusting the heat or mixture of complex processes.

Nova Chemicals is applying intelligence from its IP network and data centre to how it manages the physical control of the chemicals and pipelines that produce its products.

The Pittsburgh manufacturer of plastics and chemicals employs a mix of technologies to control the chemical production processes throughout its factories in North and South America; software from Pavilion Technologies is used in concert with process control hardware and software from Honeywell, and a centralised SAP ERP system platform.

The Pavilion software runs on a central server in Nova's Pittsburgh data centre, and taps into the ERP and process control systems also running there and in the factories across the Western hemisphere via the corporate WAN (a mix of Frame Relay and IP VPN links). Pavilion provides predictive process control management by analysing an array of factors, such as what products were scheduled to be made in certain locations; what resources were used to produce the products; how these resources were used; and what the outcome was in terms of production quality and quantity (and potential revenue).

"Based on all the data it has available, Pavilion knows what you're trying to make," says John Wheeler, CIO for Nova Chemicals, who recently announced his retirement from the company. "It can predict the capacity of the reactor and monitor the process as it happens."

In addition to monitoring all these factors, the Pavilion software can take action to control these various processes in order to reach the planned production outcome. If too much heat is detected during a production process, or an irregular mixture of chemicals occurs, the software can notify plant engineers or even perform automatic actions, such as lowering temperature or valve controls in the factories, Wheeler says.

This tight integration of physical and software controls makes factories more efficient and profitable, Wheeler adds. In plastics production, product that is made on specification can be sold at a higher price than "off-spec" material, which might be sold to a garbage bag manufacturer instead of a medical supply maker.

The plant/software integration "allows us to make more on-spec products and lets us be more productive," Wheeler says. "If I can take a plant that is a multimillion asset and produce more on-spec product, it can mean millions of dollars to the bottom line." (For competitive reasons, Wheeler says, he cannot state how much the company is saving or the revenue generated at its plants because of the Pavilion software.)

Another manufacturer with a similarly integrated plant/data centre operation is experimenting with technology for pulling valuable data out of its systems, and putting it into the hands of its salespeople.

Dow Corning, the silicone production venture between Dow Chemical and Corning, is extracting data from its centralised SAP system and putting it in the hands of salespeople with Blackberries. With a single world-wide instance of SAP running in its Michigan data centre, access to almost any data on production, supply chain, customer relations, sales databases or other records is accessible through a web browser.

Putting customer data in the hands of the employees who are in direct contact with that customer can answer questions with hard data - what products are available, when they were ordered and delivery time.

"Being able to answer specific questions right there on the spot has been great," says Jeff Duly, an IT governance and enterprise architecture specialist at Dow Corning.

The integrated Blackberry also takes questions or complaints customers may have made through one channel - such as phone or e-mail - and ties them to the face showing up at the front door, Duly says.

"When our employees walk into the customer's office, they're not getting blindsided by questions," he says. "There's no more 'why doesn't our salesperson know about this?'"

While putting this data in the hands of salespeople impresses Dow Corning employees and customers, most of the heavy lifting and integration for this technology was completed several years ago when Dow Corning consolidated multiple SAP ERP applications into a single instance. The SAP NetWeaver product was used to web-enable all data that can be accessed by SAP's standard thick client.

"We've just started to recognise over the last year or so how easy it is to get this data," Duly says. "Our back-end SAP systems are all web-enabled now, and we've already got the BlackBerries in the salespeoples' hands. To connect the two is pretty easy; we already know how to write online web applications - there's just a little different flavour for the Blackberry." And he adds jokingly, "I don't like people to know how easy it is because then it doesn't look like I'm doing anything."