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Digitization Unlocking the Potential of Bio-Manufacturing

Author / Editor: Ute Forstner* / Anke Geipel-Kern

A new biomanufacturing plant uses a comprehensive digital enterprise solution based on the concept “from integrated engineering to integrated operation”. Cathay’s new Wusu plant adopts Siemens’ complete digital factory solution, covering the entire lifecycle of the plant in design, construction, operation and maintenance, enabling Cathay to fully upscale every step of its process from R&D to production.

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Cathays biomanufactural plant.
Cathays biomanufactural plant.
(Source: Siemens)

Founded in 1997, Cathay Industrial Biotech has become widely renowned in the industry by a range of revolutionary products, including bio-based polyamide, bio-based DN5 (1,5-pentanediamine), long chain dibasic acids (LCDA) and biobutanol, that the company is producing since 2003 on a commercial scale.

Poly­merizing these monomers provide a broad array of bio-based polyamides, including the polyamides PA 56, PA 510 and PA 512, with unique and new performance characteristics. The latest addition to the company’s portfolio of bio-based polymers is a new bio-manufacturing process for DN5 that uses starch from plant and biomass as a base, offering an alternative to the commonly petrochemical synthesis routes.

Adding to the benefit of having a renewable source, Cathay’s new polyamides used in textile industry deliver a unique softness, inherent flame retardance, good moisture absorption, high strength and wearability, plus ease of dyeing and spinning. These features also provide a very favorable synergy when blended with wools, cotton, polyesters and other fibers, not only in cost savings, but delivering high performance, feel and appearance attributes associated with much more expensive alternatives.

A Smart Factory for Top Productivity

Cathay currently owns two production sites and one R&D center in China. The R&D center is located in the Shanghai Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park. The commercial development platform focuses on several areas of research, including molecular biology, process engineering, and polymer material science. In 2016, in view of the exceptionally positive response to the new bio-polymers, Cathay announced plans to expand their production base with a second site in Wusu in Xinjiang Province.

The new site will generate an annual output of 50,000 tons of bio-based DN5, 100,000 tons of bio-based polyamide and 30,000 tons of LCDA, almost doubling Cathay’s production capacity for LCDA. “Customer response has been overwhelming for the new bio-based materials. The value of these new products is very clear, and Cathay is eager to work closely with selected downstream partners to deliver this value to the market,” states Dr. Xiucai Liu, Cathay’s CEO. “Doubling our LCDA capacity provides supply security for customers and meets the demands of new markets that Cathay has recently developed.”

From the very start, Cathay wanted to use the latest in technology for this new facility. One critical aspect was a tight integration with the R&D lab in Shanghai to ensure a seamless process transfer from the lab to the commercial scale. Moreover, Cathay wanted an advanced solution for achieving high production efficiency and product quality in their bio-processes as well as optimize energy, water and resource efficiency.

Additionally, Cathay wanted to be able to monitor production in Wusu remotely from their Shanghai headquarters, calling for a sophisticated operations management system. After extensive evaluation, Cathay finally chose Siemens as a technology partner for their new smart factory. “Cathay is committed to R&D and industrialization of new biological materials and their applications, and becoming a global leader and innovator in the bio-chemical field with technical breakthroughs,” Liu says.

“With our insights of the intrinsic parameters of bio-conversion processes and proven derivation methods, coupled with Siemens’ global leading digitalization technologies, we are building an advanced factory and manufacturing process. We want nothing short of reinventing productivity.”

Solution for the Digital Enterprise

Under the cooperation, Siemens will provide a comprehensive digital enterprise solution based on their concept “from integrated engineering to integrated operation”. The project combines the company’s application know-how from a broad range of industries including food and beverage as well as the pharmaceutical, chemical and textile industries.

A key part of Siemens’ digital enterprise concept is a digital twin of the plant. This enables manufacturers to simulate, test and optimize products, production processes and plant in a completely virtual environment, not only significantly accelerating innovation speed and increasing productivity, but also enabling continuous optimization of the production process and the entire plant.

The digital twin integrates virtual and physical world, covering the entire plant lifecycle from design to construction, operation, maintenance, expansion and modernization, which makes production and management more efficient and more agile.

The plant will utilize the latest of Siemens’ automation and IT technology, such as Simatic PCS 7 and Simatic Batch for process control, Simatic Sipat software for applying process analytical technology principles (PAT) to the fermentation process and for a streamlined technology transfer from lab to production as well as optimizing process performance during operation.

The ­Simit simulation software is used to test and optimize the systems. Moreover, Simatic IT eBR provides electronic batch management functionality and Simatic IT Unilab will be used to manage the laboratory information, enabling paperless manufacturing at the new site.

Cathay will use the Comos engineering platform for plant asset management, simulation, virtual commissioning, digital operation and maintenance, and 3D simulation. A manufacturing operation management platform will support the production, material and maintenance management.

Using the XHQ operational intelligence software, Cathay can acquire information from all systems and create detailed reports, dashboards and KPIs that can also be analyzed remotely, thus providing the remote monitoring functionality Cathay requires. Siemens will also provide the smart sensors and process instruments for the new plant, as well as the medium- and low-­voltage systems, and support Cathay with technical services during engineering, system integration and programming as well as commissioning and start-up.

Optimizing the Plant Lifecycle

This extensive partnership and strategic digitalization approach with Siemens have already paid off for Cathay. Using the digital plant twin, Cathay could digitally simulate, test and optimize the process and facilities of the new plant before construction, designing the production process and simulating the actual behavior and performance of the automation solution in a virtual environment. The digital twin also facilitated verifying process quality and stability.

Moreover, the plant model can also be used for virtual commissioning and operator training, which not only will save time and costs but also reduce risks associated with construction and start-up but also help optimize plant operation.

During operation, Cathay will benefit from an advanced process control system that provides detailed process insights and allows process designers, biochemists, and operational technologists to continuously share data and optimize the production process and its output in real time. The Simatic PCS 7 control system and ­Simatic Batch will manage the entire process from fermentation to mixing to forming and to finishing.

All throughout the process, the systems acquire operational and business data in real time and present them to Cathay staff and management both locally on the production floor and on mobile devices. This way, Cathay can monitor and review process output and performance as well as energy and material consumption and use the information to optimize production efficiency. To increase the availability and reliability of the new plant, the mechanical assets will be monitored real-time to enable predictive maintenance.

Another huge benefit is the tight integration between production and R&D through Simatic Sipat. “The PAT software enables a detailed analysis of both R&D and production data, thus streamlining R&D processes while ensuring that critical data is always kept in a secure environment. Patent research and development is key to our competitive edge, and with the digital solutions from Siemens, our R&D activities have become both more efficient and safer,” says Howard Chou, Head of R&D at Cathay Biotech.

Expanding Production and Expertise

With the digital systems and solutions from Siemens, the Wusu plant is on course for its targets of expanding Cathay’s production capacity and helps to build a strong foundation for continued optimization and upgrades. Cooperating with Siemens supports Cathay in their mission to make their environmentally-friendly and sustainable products readily available on the global market — and build their own digital knowledge base.

Siemens helped Cathay in establishing a digital team with experienced and professional engineers by providing hands-on training and support during every key step in the project. “As the digital factory was built, our digitalization team grew as well,” confirms Mr. Li Naiqiang, Head of Cathay’s Digital Team. Now, Cathay is perfectly equipped to operate and optimize their new plant — and to promote digitalization also in other sites. Currently, Cathay plans to also upgrade their production plant in Jinxiang in Shandong with the same digital solution as the Wusu plant.

* * The Autor is Marketing Manager at Siemens AG, Karlsruhe/Germany. Contact: