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With robots in control, chemical makers fight for their formulas.

Four decades ago as a young engineer working for Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd, Patrick Thomas helped install one of the sector’s first digital computer systems: a mahogany-encased machine now on display in a science museum.

Computing has since transformed the industry into a $4 trillion business supplying ingredients for all types of manufactured goods, ranging from shampoo to paint to mattresses. Yet for Thomas, it’s also emerging as a battleground over ownership of valuable formulations.

“There’s no sort of regulatory framework and there’s no shortage of lawyers trying to get involved," said the executive, who headed German chemicals maker Covestro AG for more than a decade before becoming chairman of Johnson Matthey Plc on 1 June. “Who owns the data in the chain?"

The warning from the top industry veteran serves to highlight a debate raging across the corporate world over data, privacy and ownership rights, which has particular relevance to chemical makers because of their growing reliance on factory automation. Industrial robots are stepping into the shoes of trusted employees, absorbing huge quantities of sensitive data from both manufacturers and customers, while learning and modifying key formulations along the way.

The arrival of artificial intelligence onto factory floors is timely as experienced workers reach retirement age, executives said. Self-learning software can go some way in filling the gap left by long-standing workers who could often adjust machines or formulas almost instinctively.