Accelerating innovation cycles by using modular continuous systems

A new type of chemistry set

More and more new products in ever shorter cycles – and the chemical industry is no exception to this trend. New or improved raw materials, preparations and prod-ucts have to be available within just a few years. This acceleration of the time to market period requires a rethink in the area of speciality chemicals regarding how new products can best be developed and produced in the future.

At Evonik Industries, experts from process technology, engineering and technical services work at an interdisciplinary centre of competence to develop and implement the future of small-scale production. The goal is to find the right manufacturing technology to get products to market faster. Where the journey of speciality chemistry companies is taking them is clear – modularisation is becoming increasingly important and goes hand in hand with continuous production processes. This combination is intended to gradually replace batch or multi-purpose systems. That means that in future, more and more small systems will be based upon the principle of modularity. Certain mechanical components, and in future also components of automation technology, will be provided in standardised form.

The individual modules facilitate specific systems engineering functions. For example, they pump a reaction mixture, transport starting materials to a reaction, separate out valuable products, filter exhaust gases or heat a solvent to a certain temperature. Small-scale modular systems are particularly suited for research and development activities as well as for the production of small to mid-sized product volumes. Modularly designed systems can be installed in existing building structures in the form of appropriately equipped framework structures or used as stand-alone units, for example as closed containers. These are provided with the necessary infrastructure, are flexible and can be used regardless of the existing building structures. The three illustrations show examples of concepts that can be implemented in a modular fashion.
Flexible and efficient
This approach offers many advantages, starting with the design. Modular systems can be assembled not only at the place of use but also in a workshop and then be taken to the site as a finished unit inside a framework structure. This saves time and reduces interference with daily production or pilot operations. The same goes for disassembly. Furthermore, standardised modules can be replaced quickly and affordably – and they can also be reused.
Small, modular, continuous production systems use energy more efficiently than the batch systems which were previously the norm for this kind of task; they provide greater process stability and thus higher quality as well as increased system safety, for instance through the lower hold-up of quantities of substances. And whereas the capacity utilisation of batch systems is often around just 30 %, modular continuous systems achieve more than 90 %.
Standardised modules can also be configured faster, which adds flexibility and makes it possible to cut the time to market by up to 30 % – not insubstantial in terms of the competitive edge. They represent a flexible solution that is quickly ready to use for new or growing markets. Capacities can be adapted according to demand and customer needs by changing the number and size of the units. Small modular units also have cost benefits: the low investment risk when introducing new products goes hand in hand with low production costs per ton of product, because standardised modular designs are cheaper if a large number of units are manufactured. “We make an important contribution to getting products from the lab to market faster in this way”, explains Dr. Wilhelm Otten, Head of Process Technology and Engineering at Evonik. “Small modular units are not just an optimal platform for research and development; they also make chemical production more flexible, more efficient and more independent.”

The future belongs to modularisation

Ask the Expert

cpp: To what extent are modular small-scale systems already used at Evonik?
Grütering: Modular compact systems for research and development or small-scale production have already been tested and are in use at the company. At our Marl site, for example, various pilot systems have already been built and are operated in a modular fashion. On the basis of the experience gained in this way, we are currently reconfiguring a pilot plant building for modular systems; there are similar plans to do the same at our Hanau site soon.
cpp: What are the greatest challenges on the way to modular construction?
Stenger: In the chemical industry, it is very clear that a rethink is required. As a rule, the process design parameters are already specified on the basis of batch tests, with which most colleagues in research and development are familiar. Many of them are still relatively unaware of the modular approach with a continuous production meth-od – in a sense, we are competing against a hundred years of chemistry. Nevertheless, I think that we can flip the switch and in ten or twenty years many new products will be produced using modularly designed, continuously operated systems. After all, the advantages of modularisation will win people over in the long run.
cpp: In what direction do you think modular solutions will develop?
Grütering: The future belongs to modularisation. You can compare it to developments in computer technology. In the chemical industry, too, we are moving from fixed, installed components to convenient plug & play solutions. Interconnectedness is also becoming more and more important – on many different levels. For one thing, more departments have to work hand in hand and sometimes alongside each other. We call this ‘connected functionality’. Our goal is to set up a centre of competence in which experts in the areas of process technology, electrical engineering, measurement and control technology, materials technology and other areas can work together in the same place, in order to plan, install and uninstall the modules.
Stenger: What’s more, the systems located behind these systems also have to be connected further. I’m thinking, for example, of control systems that can independently detect the docked modules and their structure and, on that basis, carry out configurations independently – that will be our contribution to Industry 4.0. In future, the upstream and downstream logistics for supplying and removing materials will likewise be based on modular processes.
Grütering: Overall, we want to continue on our chosen course and think about the next higher level of modularisation. That will be a suitable building structure which is already designed to accept small modular systems and itself merely provides the essential infrastructure. You can see that we have indeed taken some important steps on the road to modularisation, but we still have a long way to go before we reach the end of our journey.

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