Advances in automation and telemetry are improving the polyurethane manufacturing process, boosting both productivity and profitability. Andy Brice reports.
Polyurethane production is a complex business, with plenty of room for error. From the moment the raw materials are mixed through to foaming, cutting and storage, there are thousands of factors that can influence the quality of the end product. Everything from temperature and humidity to viscosity and density has a bearing on the block, and even a simple deviation can affect an entire batch and prove extremely costly.
Digital technologies allow countless data points to be captured, analysed and adjusted. Increasingly, chemical companies are starting to recognise how they can benefit from these greater levels of control.
Automation is one way to ensure that every block off the production line is on spec, consistent and repeatable. Certainly, introducing real-time monitoring, data collection and telemetry to the plant floor has never been more achievable.
Beyond the traditional
Today’s technologies go far beyond traditional control systems, the new capabilities opening the door to many exciting opportunities.
In fact, in terms of digitalisation, manufacturing operations ‘present one of the biggest and most readily accessible areas of opportunity’, according to consultancy McKinsey & Company. Its report Digital in chemicals: From technology to impact explains that applying digital technologies to the production process could, potentially, lead to a 3–5 percentage point improvement in return on sales.
Even simple, relatively inexpensive changes to IT systems, or the introduction of new modules and monitoring tools, can result in noticeable gains.
McKinsey cites the experiences of one major PU materials maker that analysed half a billion data points collected at one of its plants. Without any capital costs, it was still able to make substantive changes that improved a plant’s isocyanates output by 10%. It also achieved cost savings by reducing the unit’s high-pressure steam use by 25%.
Automation itself may not be a particularly new concept for the chemical sector, but the application of digital technologies is clearly starting to increase.
‘Over the past two decades, we have seen a growth of both automated machines and cutting lines, as well as digital tools for data integration,’ said Michael Tillmann, vice president technic of Fecken-Kirfel. ‘We still expect additional improvement as our customers need to receive information and solutions in order to optimise their processes.’
He believes that digitalisation will change the industry. ‘It will provide information by horizontal and vertical networking. Processes can be controlled better when knowing the process details,’ he said. ‘This may be an actual situation on a machine to which the production manager can react immediately, or a long-term analysis revealing statistical figures about the production or the machine.’
Certainly, many in the sector are realising that simply maintaining the status quo is no longer possible, and could actually be detrimental to their business. Times are changing, and so too are the mindsets of even the most established and successful players.
Digitalisation is changing the way the industry operates, and has the potential to significantly improve productivity, noted Albrecht Baumer’s CEO, Jan Henrik Leisse. ‘Connectivity is becoming more important and people want to look at their data for the entire production process in order to react more quickly and efficiently. Now there are new possibilities because networks are faster and software is easier to handle,’ he said.
‘We see a lot more potential for software and automated digital plants in the future. I think it’s going to go to another level, maybe even completely independent factories being fully automated.’
Leisse also believes that more control will allow constant quality as a result ‘It will mean efficiency and reliability, less waste and better block utilisation. To maintain a leading position in the industry, it’s essential to ensure a trouble-free process,’ he said.
Telemetry is the key
Indeed, automation and telemetry clearly have the potential to revolutionise a business. Connectivity is key, and linking machines across the factory floor to create a single, integrated and easily managed production line provides operators with a clear overview of a plant, allowing them to manage every aspect of production, from the mixing of chemicals to the cutting and storage of blocks. Bottlenecks can be detected early, problem areas quickly addressed, and downtime predicted.
‘Our range of computer-controlled machines makes our customers more connected,’ said Brian Holdship, controls engineer at machinery maker Cannon Viking. ‘We now see a tank farm, from a control viewpoint, as a single entity. We provide the information to make more efficient manufacturing decisions. In the past, we had one big computer controlling an entire plant – now, with much lower prices, it’s practical to put very high-powered computers on all of our machines.’
Better process control can help ensure formulations are exact and that the environmental conditions are optimal. ‘We’re at the start of all this – it’s an interesting and exciting time. People have high expectations about the Internet of Things,’ Holdship added.
He personally thinks the mixing of the chemicals is the most important part of the process. ‘The foam process is robust; you can make it in a bucket – but to make it well and repeatable, you’ve got to have very tight controls,’ he said. ‘First, it’s about selecting the right chemicals and then monitoring the throughput. We have to take consideration of ambient conditions, temperature and humidity. The quality of the foam is all set in the few short minutes after we mix it together and convey it away.’
Real-time process monitoring puts control firmly in the hands of the user, instantly informing them of any issues, whether that is a lack of material, a band knife rupture or a sudden increase in temperature. Modern systems can even be configured to automatically order new cutting equipment and spare parts to ensure interruption to production is minimised.
Thanks to the myriad sensors throughout a plant, error messages and fault indicators can quickly communicate discrepancies or deviation, and help ensure optimal production. It also means every action is logged and traceable, helping to provide reassurance and full accountability should there ever be any problems.
For greater piece of mind, the technology allows foamers to call on remote maintenance teams to address the more serious issues that cannot be diagnosed or remedied on site too. This represents a huge boon for operators as it can reduce lengthy, and potentially expensive, downtime. Not only can external teams access the systems and process data, but advanced features such as video conferencing also offer greater support and interaction.
‘I can now dial in from here to any of our plants all over the world,’ Holdship said. ‘I can see the activity of a single switch. That’s the first level of diagnostics we can offer if something breaks down. If a machine is not behaving as it should, we can go online and take a look. In the past, that was very difficult to do at a price people would pay. That barrier is not in the way anymore.’
Clearly, this also brings with it numerous implications in terms of cybersecurity, particularly with vast amounts of machine and process data being accumulated, stored and shared. Precautions, therefore, need to be taken to assure customers that their formulations and proprietary data will be suitably protected.
‘Digitalisation is all about data. It’s about using data to control processes,’ explained Jean-Pierre de Kesel, chief sustainability officer at Recticel. ‘That’s going to impact all relationships in the value chain because that also means dealing with confidentiality and data protection – something we’re not all used to. The consequence is that a lot more information needs to be exchanged, and that will require new procedures and a better understanding from all parties.’
Ready for change
However, de Kesel does believe the industry is open to change. ‘I think this will change quite quickly – I’m not worried about that,’ he said. ‘Today, there is already a lot of understanding about digitalisation. Of course, we have to be realistic about how it will improve processes and increase quality.’
Manufacturing is changing, and the drive towards digitalisation will only accelerate, given changing attitudes and acceptance.
‘As a chemical company, we have a lot of interest in digitalisation in terms of automated maintenance, optimised supply chain, improving chemical production processes and new business models and services,’ said Benjamin Schaeffner, manager for strategy & growth, at Evonik’s Comfort & insulation business line. ‘Digitalisation has been around for years, but with big improvements in communication tools, improved connectivity, and automatic algorithms there is now far more interest in this topic. It is more affordable now, and people are much more aware.’
Until recently, some players have almost disregarded digitalisation beyond e-commerce and the rudimentary online interactions between companies and their customers.
‘What is often forgotten is what digitalisation means internally for production and supply processes. Automatic maintenance processes, improvement of forecasting volumes and sales, and changes to the ordering process all have a great benefit but often, they are not directly visible,’ said Schaeffner. ‘If a company is using such processes efficiently, digitalisation can mean huge improvements for the business. These hidden internal changes are just as relevant as the very public, more visible, changes for e-commerce and digital service offerings.’
Link machines together
Darren Round, director of procurement & risk management at Vita Group, agrees, ‘I think there are opportunities by being able to link machinery together all the way through the chain from someone ordering their mattress to payment and production, and this is what we must strive for. We want to ensure we can operate at maximum capability, and that we get repeatability and reproducibility of slab size and shape.
‘At Vita, we’ve got production units which operate with a certain degree of autonomy. What digitalisation means for us is looking for smart ways to take all that data and get all units communicating with each other and the outside world – and that’s where the productivity advantages are.’
Round thinks that they are definitely going in this direction. ‘There’s a requirement to do it because there’s a pull from the customer base and because we see the opportunities to improve our productivity,’ he said.
As digitalisation takes hold, it seems inevitable that players will become far more reliant on their equipment to keep the manufacturing process running smoothly with consistent results. Indeed, companies are increasingly willing to delegate some of the control to their machinery.
Besides helping to eliminate human error, it also allows a redistribution of manpower, and frees talented workers from mundane, repetitive tasks so they can be moved to areas more appropriate for their skillsets. People are an expensive overhead, so using them appropriately is a far better use of all available resources.
Also, with staff retiring or moving to new roles, taking with them their skills and experience, automation helps mitigate some of that risk.
‘In future, I think we’ll see a strong reduction in headcount,’ predicted Baumer’s Leisse. ‘The least skilled workers will be replaced, but we’ll see an increase in staff used for monitoring and controlling. People will need the skills to work with software and digital processes’.
He believes that digitalisation is totally changing traditional manufacturing. ‘We are no long talking about single isolated optimised machines, it’s about fully integrated production and data flow,’ he said. ‘Lead times and batch sizes are decreasing, the time to market is accelerating. For trouble-free production, you have to have more flexible control systems and simplify your processes.
‘Companies that have already invested in digitalisation and modern production processes will be the winners. Personally, I think it will be hard to compete with them. They’ll need fewer staff, offer better quality, be more flexible, and be able to produce high batch sizes efficiently.’