Flexible into the future

Flexible into the future

2. October 2019

The desire for customization and flexibility has seldom been as strong as it is today. Among other things, it’s making markets even more dynamic. Companies in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries are consequently striving to keep production as flexible as possible – from end to end. The outcome: more and more new and highly specific products in smaller volumes as well as frequent changes in production schedules. Yet in spite of this, at the end of the day, the quality must invariably be up to scratch – while helping the manufacturer to make a profit, of course. Does that sound like squaring the circle to you?

In order to respond not just flexibly but also fast, manufacturing processes must first and foremost be made less complex. The best way to achieve that is with a modular plant. Modularization encompasses everything from the initial design through the process technology to the automation system. From the engineering to automated operation, all of this can only be realized if standards exist which can be utilized by everyone. But is that even possible?

This exact same question was put to the ZVEI by NAMUR. And now that DECHEMA and the VDMA are also on board, I believe I’m justified in saying “Yes, it works.”

Following various demonstrators and tests, the first commercial lighthouse projects are meanwhile available, in which modules are automatically integrated into the automation system using MTP. And that’s only the beginning. Sooner or later, modules won’t simply be automatically integrated into the automation system; they’ll also communicate with one another directly and the automation system will merely be required to orchestrate them.

Orchestrating flexibility

If we take a look at the chronology of production, there are basically two types of process, namely continuous and batch. Continuous processes run without interruption. Their subprocesses are usually linear. Continuous processes are the solution of choice for processing large amounts with few product changes.

In batch processes, on the other hand, the material or substances are added at different times and in small amounts; the subprocesses are nonlinear (batch control).

Basic motives for modularization

As I mentioned earlier, there are three basic motives for modularizing a plant (and with it the automation system):

  • New and highly specific products,
  • Smaller volumes,
  • Frequent changes in production schedules.

The easiest strategy for operators is to use automated standalone modules, which can be purchased turnkey and swapped rapidly. In the pharmaceutical industry, the “ballroom concept” refers to manufacturing areas featuring interchangeable process modules, each with their own automation system. The lighthouse projects have shown that quick and easy integration into the automation system must be feasible to the same degree as orchestrating individual process modules.

The first step toward simplification must always be the engineering. S88 provides not only the hierarchy for different module sizes but also the process and physical models (refer to the diagram below). The process modules and the procedures can therefore be mapped using this structure and MTP. Even chemical engineers with no more than a limited knowledge of automation need to have this capability, in order for the modular automation concepts to gain acceptance and be actively applied throughout the lifecycle. Orchestrating the engineering is one thing. However, the real time killer when automating batch processes is creating and defining the electronic batch records (EBR).

So why not develop a workflow in the first place, to save time and consistently implement both the automation system and the electronic batch records? What started out as a technical specification for MTP becomes a sustainable lifecycle model for flexible production. The ability to integrate process modules into an automation system as fast as possible. Apart from the time saving, that also conserves resources and simplifies flexibility from end to end. So that the basic motives for customization are transformed into reality.

How do you handle this?

Will you dispense with a monolithic control system in the future and use only the functionality for orchestrating individual process modules in the automation system? Just how great is the demand for flexible production and modularization?


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