Continuous Flow and Modularized Production A Look at Future Production Concepts in Chemical Industry

Author / Editor: Dr. Björn Mathes / Dr. Jörg Kempf

Over the last years, chemical and pharmaceutical industry companies have been working on two major production concepts to further improve their production of chemicals, drugs, materials or biotechnology products: continuous flow and modularized production. The general goal is to produce faster, with a higher quality and less waste.

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Numerous advantages are offered by continuous production methods, especially in pharmaceutical drug production.
Numerous advantages are offered by continuous production methods, especially in pharmaceutical drug production.
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Due to globalized and volatile markets, reduction of time-to-market is as essential as safe, resource-efficient and flexible production. The chemical industry is facing an increasing demand from fast growing and vibrant markets such as China, India or Brazil (maybe not as strong as expected, but still reasonable) and a trend to customized specialty and fine chemicals. This leads to high product varieties which are produced from small amounts to over hundred tons per year.

But what are the advantages and disadvantages of continuous production processes and modularized production systems? Are these production concepts really helpful for the whole industry, or are they only fit to the production of bulk chemicals?

Let’s have a look at traditional batch processing: Scaling up a batch process is a long-term run and requires a lot of chemical engineering know-how and calculations as well as experimental results from lab-scale and pilot plant prototyping. Step by step the production volume is increased until the final production plant is build. Every step is difficult, accounts for a high investment and increases time-to-market. Not forgetting that market foresight has potentially a high deviation rate as time-to-market is too long.

So, the continuous-flow and modularized process approaches to overcome the disadvantages of the batch process and reduce the development time of a chemical or biotechnological production process from initial idea to market operation with simultaneous energy and resource efficiency are a new paradigm in chemical and pharmaceutical industry. It could also be an example for the agrochemical industry.

Smaller Ecological Footprint

Numerous advantages are offered by continuous production methods: first of all they have a smaller ecological footprint, the required equipment is much smaller and more easy to handle, process cycle times are lower as well as operating costs, maximized quality control and a higher level of automation coupled with less human interaction allows for smarter and digitized process control from upcoming trends like the Internet of Things. You also have to keep in mind that depending on the produced chemical or biotechnological product the usage of single-use equipment could be profitable, and overall the need for inventory and storage is much lower.

For processes which are susceptible to contamination, like in pharmaceutical drug production, continuous processes together with real-time monitoring and regular sampling can easily detect such contaminations and allow for discarding only a small amount of the product instead of the entire batch.

Another key point of continuous-flow production is the fact that the process is fully integrated. More on the next page ...