Interview with Merck Competitive Advantages Through Modular Plant Engineering

Author / Editor: Anke Geipel-Kern* / Ahlam Rais

The Smart Factory has received an important boost at Merck. Soon, the company will have a live system based on MTP (Module Type Package) automation in production for the very first time. In this way, the specialty chemicals group aims to become a leader in modular production systems. Marc Dittmann, Process Development, Senior Engineer Electronics Integrated Supply Chain at Merck KGaA, explains his company’s work on the Enpro project.

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Marc Dittmann, Process Development, Senior Engineer Electronics Integrated Supply Chain at Merck KGaA
Marc Dittmann, Process Development, Senior Engineer Electronics Integrated Supply Chain at Merck KGaA
(Source: Merck KGaA)

Merck is a project partner in various consortia of the Enpro 2.0 (Energy Efficiency and Process Intensification for the Chemical Industry) initiative. Which areas is the company involved in?

Marc Dittmann: We are participating in the Orca, Teia, and Skampi projects. The goal in all these projects is to grow our applications for modular plants in order to expand modular production technology across the company. Specifically, we have been working on the following areas:

– In the Skampi project, the focus was on a holistic method for developing process designs, including equipment selection. To do that, we evaluated data on the product material flow in a structured manner, and simulated the separation behavior in the process engineering equipment. The simulation results were validated by supporting experiments.

– In the Teia project, experimental test specifications for extraction and crystallization were developed in modular pilot plants, and product samples were generated. The plants are partly automated according to the MTP concept.

– The core of the Orca project was to generate knowledge for the implementation of MTP automation. This included developing the basics for flexible and barrier-free plant configuration, as well as basic steps towards implementing an official approval concept for modular plants. The results were successfully implemented in demonstrators and presented to a broad public.

Each of the projects had specific goals and was intended to increase our knowledge base and application maturity in the field of modular plants.

Why is the topic of modularization so important for Merck?

Dittmann: Modular production technology promises to make the development and production environment fit for the critical challenges of efficiently meeting market requirements in terms of time to market, cost, sustainability, and quality.

One of your key topics within Enpro is plant modularization. What role does the MTP concept currently play for Merck?

Dittmann: With regard to the MTP concept, two important building blocks have been achieved at Merck. These are also being implemented in plants in the form of investment projects that enable Merck to play a significant role in the use of modular plants. This means that we can reach the most important stage of the learning curve with regard to implementation in production, and create a first live system.

This implementation will allow us to build, bring together and implement in a practical way all the individual systems needed to operate a modular plant. The number of process modules will also be expanded, as will the number of basic operations mapped. Funding for the projects from Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) has greatly supported this development and is helping us to take another step towards the smart factory.

In the Teia project, the foundations were laid in the field of extraction and crystallization for carrying out processes with our stock systems on modular, continuous demonstrators and automating the demonstrators using the MTP concept. The economic and sustainable benefits for our product portfolio were also demonstrated here. The Orca project formed the central hub in the Enpro 2.0 initiative, since all the requirements regarding automation and approval were processed here. Orca made the work on MTP automation for various demonstrators possible in the first place.

Enpro combines science and industry. What makes the mix so exciting?

Dittmann: Working together as a group made it possible to address complex issues while incorporating all the necessary expertise from academia and industry. This resulted in a balanced mix of theory and practice. On the one hand, that enabled the development of a solid foundation for understanding the fundamentals. On the other hand it allowed an ecological and economic classification in industrial applications. Thus, we have not only developed a scientific understanding of new technologies, but also implemented industrial applications.

Still, there are always conflicts between theory and practice. How can you resolve those?

Dittmann: Industrial partners want a high degree of flexibility with regard to the systems of substances being studied, since we may always need to react to market changes. To minimize the risks of negative experiences, detailed coordination is necessary for progress on the individual tasks, scope, and schedule. There is a need for fair management of expectations as well as regular exchanges of information. If necessary, readjustments may also be necessary during the course of the project.

What would you do differently in follow-up projects?

Dittmann: To avoid misunderstandings between the project partners, an open and intensive exchange is necessary when preparing the project description and defining objectives. In particular, the technical possibilities of the partners with regard to the investigation of substance systems and existing equipment must be discussed. In other words, limitations and restrictions should be expressed at the start in order to avoid surprises later in the project.

We have already talked about MTP; what other concrete results has its incorporation in Enpro produced?

Dittmann: The Skampi project gave us a systematic approach to process synthesis. We selected the equipment based on the properties of the reactants, products, and by-products, as well as requirements for materials of construction. At this point, a quick selection of possible equipment items can be made, supported by a few experiments. I know that’s a very quick explanation, but it illustrates the potential of a software-supported development process.

Enpro will soon go into the next round. Will Merck be involved again, and if so, with which project?

Dittmann: We are concentrating on the continuation and implementation of modular technology and its application in development and production. That goal can be divided into three sub-projects:

– achieving approvability for modular plants in the production environment by meeting the regulatory requirements through a safety and approval process for the operation of modular plants,

– developing new process PEAs (Process Equipment Assemblies) to complete the process chain in the downstream area, and extending existing ones in the upstream area to new reaction classes, and

– preparing GMP-compliant PEAs and applying these in the area of regulated products.

The various sub-projects enable us to introduce modular technology in several business areas, thereby shortening time-to-market, responding quickly to market changes, and increasing the sustainability of our products in terms of energy and resource efficiency over the entire product life cycle.

* The author is a senior editor at PROCESS. Contact:

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