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Mastering Frequent Changes Customized Solutions Offer Advantages in Process Development

| Author/ Editor: Martina Walzer / Dr. Jörg Kempf

Streamlining work procedures is the key to success in laboratories serving the process industries. Under pressure of time and cost, labs need to react quickly in developing new products or modifying existing ones, so research personnel need tools that let them work flexibly and reliably. Tailor-made experimental systems and state-of-the-art information management support employees in optimizing their work procedures, allowing them to improve quality and throughput significantly. This in turn means that products get to market quicker, with resulting business benefits.

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Developing high-tech and useful products is generally the key to success for companies — and that means research and development. The chemical industry in Germany, for instance, spent almost €9 billion on R&D in 2006.

In industrial laboratories all over the world, researchers develop processes and techniques for the manufacture of saleable products. This process never stops, because needs are always changing. As resources such as oil become scarce and expensive, researchers develop processes that can use alternate raw materials. As energy costs rise, they may experiment to find processes that perform well at lower temperatures. State-of-the-art products created through optimized manufacturing processes ensure economic growth and success for companies especially in the “old” world of Europe and North America. Yet other process developments reduce the quantity of waste that issues from a factory.

Facing such challenges, R&D teams in industrial laboratories perform countless experiments and generate huge quantities of data. The key to success becomes the ability to condense meaningful information from raw figures. Data needs to be recorded, documented and archived in ways that allow it to be processed, stored and retrieved conveniently, yet many laboratories rely on the same data-handling techniques they would have used 100 years ago: manual setting of process parameters, and paper notebooks for documentation.

The difficulties with traditional control of experiments are obvious. Exceptional situations such as rapid changes in pressure or temperature may need rapid intervention by experienced employees to prevent equipment damage or personal injury. In data acquisition, the risk of direct physical consequences is small, but errors in transferring data or simply forgetting measured values can have far-reaching effects — and this risk increases with the number of values to be recorded. Incomplete data is an unreliable basis for further work, and could even lead to dangerous consequences.

Decision-making based on facts

Fortunately, modern process control technology can help in controlling experiments and gathering laboratory data, as well as in production.

“Automated systems have proved themselves in nearly all industry sectors throughout the world. Companies benefit, due to the high availability of plants, and it becomes easier to keep up results,” explains Miguel-Angel Fernandez, Manager of the Competence Center for Chemicals at Siemens Automation and Drives. “Operating a plant becomes child’s play, because the probabilities of incorrect parameter settings are reduced. This ensures high product quality. And in emergencies, the control system moves the plant to a safe state, thus avoiding damage and injuries.”

The same approach works for process engineering labs, too, but laboratory automation is somewhat different to process automation. Where production focuses on stable and safe configurations that rarely change, work procedures in laboratories require flexible and easy-to-use control equipment. Recorded values must be available in a form that can easily be transferred to other analytical applications. And employees with no special training in automation technology must be able to install or replace instruments and change between applications.

Two products from Siemens Automation and Drives, Simatic PCS 7 Lab and Siprocess, offer tailor-made solutions that provide effective support for employees in research and development.

Micro-scale experiments

Microreaction technology is an innovative and rapidly developing field in chemical engineering, synthesis and process technology. Because of the small dimensions (microns to millimeters) of crucial components, process challenges, such as exothermic reactions or the risk of explosion, are easier to manage. And better product yields can be obtained.

“Microprocess technology is a fairly new technology with great potential,” explains Dr. Thomas Bayer, product manager for Siprocess at Siemens Automation and Drives. “Various advantages are already being gained from its use in chemical synthesis, but for process development it has previously been considered complex to set-up and use. With Siprocess, Siemens offers an automated system that facilitates the application of microprocess technology for up to three liquid inputs”.

As well as its use in research, Siprocess is suitable for producing initial development quantities of promising substances. Single modules can be exchanged rapidly and easily. Electronics integrated into each module connect to the Simatic PCS 7 process control system, ensuring configuration and operation for the user.

“We use Siprocess as a tool for the development of continuous processes using microreactors,” says Dr. Klaus-Peter Kalk, Site Director at Laborchemie Apolda GmbH. “Siprocess facilitates the lab work significantly: we can now do parameter scans approximately three times faster than we used to.”

Six different Siprocess module types cover dosing, mixing, heat exchange, reaction, sampling and pressure control, respectively. The modules are installed on racks that allow them to link to each other and to a power supply, a communication bus, compressed air, and heat transfer fluids. A typical Siprocess system might consist of up to 16 modules on two racks. Since it is easy to rearrange modules, the system can be quickly adapted to specific needs.

Each Siprocess module has its own setpoint control system, with sensors and actuators, while a central station provides supervisory control and data acquisition.

Efficient equipment control

In addition to Siprocess, Siemens Automation and Drives offers another solution to facilitate the control and supervision of research tasks: Simatic PCS 7 Lab. This modular control solution is based on reliable components from the Simatic family and the universal Simatic PCS 7 process control system. With easy setup and powerful information management tools, Simatic PCS 7 Lab can significantly speed up experiments. Features include:

  • fast setup, commissioning and configuration changes, thanks to plug-in connections;
  • reliable control and monitoring of reactions based on integrated alarm management;
  • easy system engineering using templates for dosing, temperature and flow control, and much more;
  • efficient data evaluation using export functionalities, e.g. to Microsoft Excel; and
  • high reliability thanks to the use of automation.

In addition to simplified data acquisition, automation also ensures that experiments are reproducible. Integral documentation of the test parameters and the control program ensure that experimental series can be repeated without problems.

The automation system increases the time available for experiments, since preparatory steps such as reactor pre-heating can be programmed to take place unattended. Spending less time on peripheral tasks allows scientists and engineers to make better use of their time.

Application setup becomes child’s play using “Equipment Module Templates”. These are pre-fabricated proposed solutions (SFC) for the most important laboratory procedures, such as dosing, temperature adjustment, and inerting. The re-use of proven solutions reduces the time required to develop a laboratory application, and it also increases quality, because each template has already been refined and tested.

If the standard software — for both engineering tasks and laboratory operations — is not completely suitable for the job in hand, any software components developed for the PCS 7 can be used instead. These components include, for instance, tools for batch management or asset management. A PCS 7 project is also provided within the Simatic Manager to ensure a quick start.

Improvement and scale-up

One of the most decisive advantages of the Simatic PCS 7 control system is its ability to work flexibly with plants of all sizes. This means that control solutions developed in labs are easy to scale up to pilot plants, and finally to production sites. Thanks to its modular architecture, the system can be adapted to almost any customer requirements, and is easy to expand or reconfigure in the future. It works as well in a multi-user environment with a client/server architecture as it does in small stand-alone applications.

Such a universal control platform provides the cost advantages required in today’s globalized world. The ability to re-use proven solutions improves quality, and an integrated system platform simplifies spare-part handling as well as training of employees.

The author is a Manager Technical Concepts and Support with Siemens Automation and Drives at the company’s Competence Center Chemical, Cement, Glass in Karlsruhe/Germany.

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