Making process control more flexible

10 November 2020

For decades large-scale automation systems have been at the heart of production line control. Today, driven by changes in consumer demands, an alternative plug and produce modular automation approach is emerging, says Ralf Jeske.

Modularisation breaks down systems, plants, processes, and unit operations into standard, modular components, much like those popular children’s building bricks that can be mixed and matched freely to make any number of different creations. The concept centres around the pre-fabrication of specific and complete operational ‘packages’, which include the automation to control them. The ease of assembly this brings has led to major reductions in on-site work time, complexity and a reduction in the possibility of error.

As a concept, modular automation has been around for some time, with construction and shipping industries leading the way in early adoption. Until recently, however, its usage was confined to just a small number of examples in process industries, with no large roll-outs.

However, thanks to advances in the automation technology that controls mechanical industrial equipment, modular automation has become easier to integrate into existing systems which means that it is now beginning to be adopted for use more widely within industrial production lines. 

This is a big change from the large-scale ‘plant-wide’ automation systems that have been at the heart of production line control for decades and are designed to supervise and control entire production plants. 

The aim is to modularise common unit operations into packages to allow customising of both the products made and the production quantities, giving major competitive advantages in terms of flexibility and time to market. The concept also allows rapid changes in deployment of production assets, to make specific product types and volumes when and where needed.

NAMUR as a catalyst
Helping to move modular automation forward is work done by NAMUR, the well-established international user association based in Germany that focuses on automation technology and digitalisation in process industries. The group was started 70 years ago to support the chemical industry, although it now covers other process industries as well.

NAMUR has led the fundamental efforts to develop standards which serve as a base for modular automation to be built upon in industrial plants. It sees increasing flexibility of production plants, using modularisation, as a key tool to meet fast-changing market demands, especially for chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

MTP as a building block
Specifically, a few years ago, NAMUR introduced the Module Type Packages (MTP) standard for building modular automation capability into a process module (or PEA, Process Equipment Assembly). The PEA includes the combined mechanical equipment and controller, and uses an MTP interface, which contains a vendor-neutral and functional description of the process module automation and can be generated by the engineering tool of the module.

Through a simple import of the MTP into the process control engineering of the production plant, the module can be easily integrated. This is described in the standard VDI-2658, which was developed in Germany but is now being adopted as IEC 63280 for automation engineering of modular systems in the process industry. 

The key benefit of using PEAs is that it takes less time and on-site work to deploy production lines and equipment. So with the automation already integrated into the mechanical production equipment, as MTPs within the PEA, the actual deployment to get it running onsite is relatively easy.

Flexibility to meet rapid changes in market demand has been a major driver, especially for the pharma and biopharma sectors where it is becoming common to make very small batch quantities of highly specialised products and medications. For highly-targeted individual treatments, for cancer patients for example, the batch size can even be as small as one specific medication or formula.

Pilot trials
A good example of what is on the horizon can be seen in an application for Bayer AG – this life sciences company successfully conducted a pilot study based on ABB-developed MTP control sub systems and a modular configuration tool, running with a modular-enabled ABB Ability System 800xA for the orchestration.

This is the world’s first commercial modular-enabled process automation solution, and Bayer has publicly stated that it sees it as a first step in moving from monolithic automation systems covering the complete production plant to a more flexible and market-oriented plug and produce solution.

We are therefore steadily gaining the ability to confidently build up various PEA process blocks for steps such as evaporation, separation, filtration, polymerisation, etc. We can now put these mobile building blocks together in the right order and configuration to precisely meet the market demand for whatever we want to make. It is important to note that we usually talk about rising demand, but this can be equally relevant and valuable in times of falling demand, thus allowing capacity to be redeployed very easily and cost effectively.

The modular automation sector now is using the term ‘numbering up’ capacity instead of ‘scaling up’, reflecting the number of PEAs put into service to meet demand. The modular, flexible approach allows both regional redeployment as well as product-specific redeployment. This clearly offers much greater flexibility than would ever be possible using the large, fixed-plant infrastructure that most industrial processes are built upon today.

Instead of a big distributed control system (DCS), in the future automation will truly be distributed where needed. And with the control built into the PEA, it is not complicated to get production started. You add an Ethernet connection, power up and run.

This concept can easily be used for new greenfield lines, with the initial focus on the pharmaceuticals, fine chemicals and food & beverage sectors that will see benefits in both flexibility and time-to-market. 

Brownfield upgrades, in particular unit operations, are also a potential area of application. For example, if environmental laws concerning water are being tightened up in a specific country there could be a strong business case for an OEM to build a water treatment PEA module in a container, complete with MTP automation, that can simply be plugged into the process for easy and cost-efficient compliance.

Modular-enabled automation affords unprecedented agility to react quickly to market changes while keeping wastage and downtime to a minimum. It is an effective solution for a fast-moving world that needs to react in real-time to changing consumer habits and requirements.

Ralf Jeske is global product manager for ABB Automation, Germany.

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