03/03/2022 | Process Innovation

Smart Factories

Modular production methods look set to revolutionise the process industry, thanks to some critical thinking, experimentation and evidence of an industry coming together with a common goal.

It was back in 1901 the car maker Ransom Olds created and patented the assembly line, something adopted with vigour by Henry Ford a few years later and thought to have been inspired by the 19th century meat-processing industry in which carcases were conveyed to workers by overhead trollies.

They were examples of what were, in effect, the first smart factories; innovations that helped to redefine the industrial revolution long before we were counting the benefits of mass production, defining early organisational hierarchies and exploring the possibilities of automation. But it was only in more recent times that new technology and it’s digitalisation successor, that the pace of change began to increase exponentially, leaving us today on what can only be described as the threshold of a new manufacturing paradigm.

Modular production – the ability to sub-divide production processes into smaller modules that can be independently created and the used in different systems – is at the heart of this, allowing the sort of flexibility demanded more and more in industries such as those producing speciality chemicals, for example, aided in particular by the introduction of the Module Type Package, or MTP, a protocol which defines the IT aspects, ensuring their easy integration into a comprehensive automation solution.

There is no better example of the change of pace in pharma manufacturing than the global vaccine effort in response to COVID-19 and the vital importance of time-to-market, something that’s becoming increasingly important in the development of many other products, if only in order to maintain a competitive advantage. Enhanced throughout is growing in importance in today’s market. Whereas a plant of the past may have been expected to produce a handful of drugs in similar form, such as tablets, liquids, or injectables, current manufacturing lines are expected to adapt for multiple different products. This expands to accommodating the manufacture of personalised medicines and small batches.

Two companies at the heart of this change are Merck and Siemens. A joint project will see the construction of a €10 million modular plant at Merck KGaA site in Darmstadt, Germany, The partnership aims to advance the development of a process control system for the manufacture of Merck’s products – including biopharmaceuticals and life science tools – by using Siemens’ tech platforms for the development of an overall system for automating the modular production.

The ever shortening lifecycles

Although Merck will make the initial outlay, there will be additional funding from the German Federal Ministry of Economic, Affairs and Energy, and falls under part of plans by Merck to invest upwards of €1 billion across the site. Siemens will develop a supervisory control system, known as process orchestration layer (POL), offering various production modules that can be interlinked to an overall process. German CDMO Vibalogics added a Siemens process control system at its site in Cuxhaven last year. As a producer of liquid crystals and OLED materials for displays of all kinds, Merck KGaA has long been committed to stepping up its efforts on flexibility. Head of automation, Christian Schäfer summed it up when he told colleagues from Siemens in the Smart Automation Test Lab in Karlsruhe: “Product life cycles are getting shorter and shorter. Over the past three decades it went like this: You decided what you wanted to make, and then you ordered a specialised automated plant that would then operate for a number of years. But that doesn’t work anymore.”

The market, he explained, is demanding smaller batches and wants them produced faster than ever. Modularisation provides the answer. Karlsruhe is a prime example of this. The modules there can be “docked” with the backbone, as one commentator put it, just like a space station. In other words, plug and produce. Production installations are put together from different modules, but with minimal engineering time. This requires physically plugging in the modules. But they also have to be interconnected digitally, which involved different challenges. LANXESS are another pioneer of the modular plant, thanks to their ReeL (resource-efficient manufacture of leather chemicals) concept.

Last year, they formed a collaboration with Switzerland’s Hüni AG to produce container-sizes production modules. The partnership saw a joint effort on overall customer concepts, with Hüni focusing primarily on plant engineering and construction of the modules, and LANXESS contributing its chemical process engineering and application expertise to the X-Biomer production.

The ReeL technology was developed by the LANXESS Leather business unit in partnership with the German companies Invite and Heller-Leder.

And there’s a wider perspective. The significance, for example, of Asia’s increasing trade flows, which challenge those of Europe and North America, is the effect it will have on the strategically positioned Singapore and the volume of business it does within the chemical industry. More significant is the way companies such as Denka and Evonik are investing in smart plants.

Attracted by a wealth of incentives available talent and the fact that the Global Innovation Index ranked it in 2016 as the region’s most progressive there has been an influx of specialist chemicals manufacturers, such as Afton Croda and Solvay. Back in 2015, the German specialty chemicals company, Evonik Industries, expanded its oil additives plant in the innovation hub that is Jurong Island.

Alex Möller explained DECHEMA’s role: “Our job is to bring people together and to build networks because modularisation will only work with standardisation and standard ideation will only work if people agree a standard – and they will only do that if they talk,” he explained.

This is a key element, given the initial resistance from some equipment manufacturers who were reluctant to share their technology as companies mixed-and-matched. But now there is an acceptance that this will become the norm – as demonstrated by the MTP presentations among exhibitors at Pulse. Questions, however, remain over regulation. As for the longer term: “External forces are driving this,” added Moller. “Customers are demanding faster speeds and the companies can’t deliver it with the classical approach. For anything with short development cycles, this is certainly the future.”

Alexandra Hughes Industry Sales Manager at automation software supplier, COPA-DATA UK of Newport, Wales, put it this way: “The pace of change in the pharmaceutical industry is faster, fiercer and often more urgent than ever before. While R&D teams are storming ahead, manufacturing facilities themselves cannot adapt at the same rate. One of the greatest barriers to achieving this level of agility is the inflexibility of current pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities. As many of these factories operate with legacy machinery that is several decades old, producing new, novel medicines at the drop of a hat often is not feasible, at least, not without significant investment. That said, the cost of introducing new equipment to a site can be colossal.”

Digitalisation software can also make this possible, even with legacy equipment, What’s more, MTPs can make modular production more straightforward. In the case of COPA-DATA’s zenon, a software platform for pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities, a tool can map out modular automation while maintaining full connectivity and control of the facility. For pharmaceutical manufacturers using zenon, this allows them to make inflexible production lines far more agile.

Advancement via collaboration

The Merck-Siemens partnership is intended to result in, according to Merck’s own assessment, “the development of a process control system for the modular production of innovative materials and products for the electronics, pharmaceutical and life science industries”. Merck already has experience with modular production systems. The collaboration is meant to advance the concept of flexible and simple interlinking of individual modules globally in the process development and production network of all business sectors. “Now we are at the breakthrough stage,” said Sebastian Härtner, Principal Project Lead, Future Manufacturing.

“I read an article here in Germany recently that said ‘MTP is not stoppable anymore’. I don’t really agree with the way that was phrased but It’s true that we are very much in the roll-out phase. In terms of this project we are finalising the technical backbone. Then we will begin brining in the first modules to this technical backbone. It’s very important we do this correctly as it’s very much a public project, as we are also working with the German government. We are rolling out this technology in different projects and we still search for new use cases as it may not suit every project to go forward in this way, but we do see others where it’s beneficial.”

I asked him to define the ultimate goal and he replied: “Automation in the whole production lifecycle; if you have this sort of leverage you can be sure you can support the forward lifecycle in many ways so you can be faster in development and research, you have more robots in more stable product qualities because you have learned a lot more in the phases that have gone before and then there’s the data you can accumulate in those pre-phases. During research and development you create data which you can integrate into your production cycle and that, in turn, ensures you have robots with high quality production qualities. This is a major area we are working on and where I can see the most potential.”

Reducing the carbon footprint

Part of the criteria that attracted funding from by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy was thanks to the modular, flexible and efficient technology, the carbon footprint of production can be reduced, something that will grow in importance this year. Kai Beckmann, CEO Performance Materials and Executive Board Member of Merck responsible for the Darmstadt site, said: “In the smart factory of tomorrow, everything will revolve around flexibility, networking and efficiency. The time needed from the product idea to market readiness is a critical success factor. The resulting technology platform for standardised, modular production will also be usable in product development in the future.

“This allows data-based decisions to be made as early as the product development phase and then can be applied seamlessly to the production process. Therefore, in the future, we will be able to respond quicker and even more flexibly to high customer requirements.”

Eckard Eberle, the CEO of Siemens Process Automation said recently that there is now a recognition that production plants “have to be more flexible and more efficient in order to support faster product changes”, adding that the Merck partnership will create brand new opportunities “to drive forward modular production and to meet the growing requirements for the chemical and pharmaceutical processes”. The advantages convinced GEA to be, what they describe as an early adopter”, the driver behind their centrifuges which “speak” MTP. They have been working closely with international committees such as NAMUR, ZVEI and VMDA to develop products from scratch.

NAMUR summarises MTP as something designed to use intelligent equipment modules for production, flexibility and to increase efficiency, enable package unit integration, allow quick adoption of new processes, fulfil users requirements, cut engineering and automation costs for plant conversion, and reduce time-to-market for products.

A short history of abbreviation

MTP embraces all key sectors – from Motions to Proceed (law) to Mid-Term Planning (business), Media Transfer Protocol (IT) and Microtiter Plates (science). Gamers will even recognise it as a Sonic the Hedgehog character. But in industry it is making ground as a standardised, non-proprietary way of describing process automation modules from individual components up to production skids, which lets them work with other modules, and fit into larger applications. Such shared definitions of capabilities, interfaces and services let MTP modules plug-and-play with other devices and systems, saving efforts usually spent on programming, configuring, networking and getting devices to work together.


Richard Burton

Editor / World Show Media


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