Automation is becoming a gamechanger in various industries. Decision makers need to figure out how best to use it, but the results can bring substantial improvements across organizations. Here’s a closer look at the outcomes companies can get when automating chemical manufacturing and why you may want to follow their lead.
Chemical Plant Automation Can Increase Competitiveness
Leaders in the chemical industry must assess the best ways to continually innovate to stay competitive. Automating chemical manufacturing is one way to do that, particularly since it can help plant managers cope with persistent challenges.
That was the case at a Northeastern Ohio chemical plant. The organization began as a primarily regional entity serving customers in the Midwest. However, it expanded over the years and is now a national operation with 200 employees. Despite that success, company managers faced obstacles related to tightening margins and a shrinking labor force. They also noticed more competitors emerging globally and knew things had to change for the company to remain resilient.
They responded by working with an automation-as-a-service company that allowed them to acquire collaborative robots through a rental model. Because this arrangement required no upfront investment, many leaders liked how it removed risk and provided additional flexibility. Plus, renting the technology gives opportunities to try it before automating chemical plants on a larger scale. That aspect appealed to leaders at the Ohio chemical plant, who weren’t ready to take big bets on automation yet.
They installed the cobots to have them assist humans with transferring containers of various sizes from assembly lines to carts and boxes. Some of them are as large as 40lb jugs, so it’s easy to see why doing that work without the help of robots could quickly become overly strenuous.
The goal is not to replace humans, but to supplement their work. If workers find that their roles are more enjoyable and less physically demanding, they may be more likely to stay at the company for longer and even recommend colleagues to work there. If so, it would be easier for the chemical plant to maintain access to a skilled and engaged workforce, making it more competitive in the marketplace.
Automating Chemical Manufacturing Enables the Continuous Running of Experiments
Flow chemistry is one area some experts say is particularly well-suited to automation. It involves sending reactants continually through multiple channels rather than single vessels. This approach allows people to optimize processes on a small scale before expanding those operations to meet industrial needs.
A flow chemistry process reactor also has a high surface-area-to-volume ratio, allowing tighter control of reaction factors such as temperature and light exposure. Research also indicates that flow chemistry automation can significantly shorten the development time for new processes.
One automated system that used machine learning had a built-in self-optimization system that found the ideal reaction conditions faster and informed users of the potential trade-offs with each one. Such setups can also reduce the labor forces needed. After developers tweaked this system, it performed 131 autonomous experiments over 69 uninterrupted hours.
The system optimized four continuous variables, and even the longest experiment was completed within a 45-minute window. Researchers trained the machine learning algorithm by exposing it to data from 20 experiments.
This approach is an example of one that may take a considerable amount of time to perfect. However, automating chemical manufacturing by revealing better processes and enhancing how people run experiments could support the bottom line in the long run.
Automating Chemical Plants Can Help People Do Their Jobs Better
Applying automation in chemical plants can be a practical way to reduce bottlenecks and other frustrations that could cause employees to occasionally feel fed up with their work. Then, their overall performance should improve, and job retention rates will likely go up as well.
Alarms often sound in chemical plants to alert people that statistics associated with a machine or process have fallen outside of desired parameters. However, not all such warnings need immediate human attention. Chemical plants can use automated machine monitoring to improve the operations of essential equipment while allowing people to focus on more rewarding tasks.
At two urea ammonium nitrate plants operated by Koch Fertilizer, some employees use process automation to collect data and apply the findings. This allows them to fine-tune the specifics for the best outcomes. These board operators can now make fewer manual tweaks due to the automation. Some previously managed hundreds of alarms per day on a keyboard-based system. However, making the switch to an automated approach means they may only need to address a handful of alarms each day. They also report that automation allows them to demonstrate higher-level thinking about processes and devote more time to analysis and strategy than they could before.
Automating chemical plants can also reduce the likelihood of errors. Koch employees used automation for state-based control. This improves the processes required to power up or down and reach a consistent operational state. Then, operations run more smoothly and safely because people no longer need to perform so many manual processes that could go wrong with even a minor mistake.
Automating Chemical Manufacturing Requires a Thoughtful Approach
Pursuing automation in chemical plants is becoming an increasingly appealing and widely utilized option. However, people who are seriously interested in moving forward with it should proceed carefully and think about what they most want to achieve with their efforts.
Perhaps a company leader primarily wants to automate a certain process that is error-prone, time-consuming, or both. However, automating chemical manufacturing could be substantially more intensive, such as when technologies may manage most of a facility’s ongoing operations for weeks or months at a time.
Setting a budget for chemical plant automation is another essential step. It’s understandable if plant leaders don’t want to make considerable investments in technologies without seeing the results. However, they should also research the expected costs associated with upgrades that are most likely to get the desired outcomes.
Spending time to get employees excited about automation is important too. Many of them may fear that advanced technologies will take over their jobs. However, managers can ease fears and help workers understand that automation will help them and could make them enjoy their roles more.
When company leaders consider critical factors like these, their attempts to bring automation to chemical plants are more likely to reap rewards. However, people should also remember that virtually all automation plans have occasional setbacks. Staying dedicated to and focused on the overall goals during these temporary difficulties helps everyone stay motivated.