The biggest is not always the best. The Rapid Advancement in Process Intensification Deployment (RAPID) Manufacturing Institute is transforming process industries by advancing modular technology at the plant level and within plants. Smaller, modular factories could be located close to raw materials, end users and/or in areas where jobs are needed.

Authothermic pyrolysis pilot system designed and built by Iowa State University and Stine Seeds to convert waste biomass into sugars at low cost. Courtesy of Dr. Robert Brown, Iowa State University

“The modular manufacturing concept allows manufacturers to earn their place at scale,” said Bill Grieco, CEO of RAPID. “This is a tool that will enable distributed manufacturing in an industry that historically has not had one. It’s a very different paradigm for our industry.

Over five years, RAPID has spent $125 million in federal and member matching funds to fund 38 research and development projects, 32 of which are still underway in various stages of completion, Grieco said.

“Historically in our industries, manufacturers have taken advantage of economies of scale – if we wanted 10 times the capacity to produce polymer, we built a very large plant that was at least 10 times larger than the previous version,” said Grieco. “With a larger facility, you only have one set of waste processing equipment, one steam boiler.”

But these large manufacturing plants often have hidden costs. For example, chemical plants are often built on site at the construction site, with relatively high costs and cost overruns, he said.

Underutilized capacity, which will be needed in the future but not now, is a major cost driver.

“If you have a new-to-the-world product and you think the market in five years will be 100 million pounds of that product, but in years one and two the market will only be a few tens of millions of pounds , you don’t want to build a gigantic factory to produce hundreds of millions of books now because you’re losing a lot of money,” Grieco said.

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RAPID CEO Bill Grieco speaks to students at Manufacturing Day 2019. Powered by RAPID

Instead of building a factory to meet demand expected 10 years from now, a manufacturer could build the first modular factory to produce 10 million pounds, then build a second factory producing 10 million pounds, adding more as demand grows. increases, Grieco said.

“What we’re advocating is downsizing the individual plant and then mass-producing the plant, taking advantage of the economies of scale by making more of the same plant,” Grieco said.

Manufacturers will start with a smaller factory or modules within a factory, for testing, debugging, proof of concept and demonstrations, he said. Manufacturers will achieve economies of scale by building tens, hundreds, or thousands of factories or modules.

“Standardization and mass production of individual operations and standardization and mass manufacture of modules has never existed in our industry,” Grieco said.

Boost the triple bottom line

RAPID, a manufacturing institute in the United States, actively works to help manufacturers reduce their energy footprint, reduce their overall footprint, and drive sustainability.

Instead of focusing on a single component, the end goal of RAPID is to reinforce the triple bottom line: fostering the environment/sustainability, caring for the workforce and improving profitability, said Grieco.

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RAPID’s ChemE Cube student competition at the AIChE (American Institute of Chemical Engineers) annual meeting in Boston last November. In the competition, undergraduate university teams design, build and demonstrate a one-cubic-foot plant to produce a specific chemistry. Provided by RAPID.

“We take the approach of improving yield, reducing capital footprint, profitability and sustainability at the same time,” he said. “What we are proposing and field testing are projects that enhance the ability of chemical energy to drive sustainability and decarbonization. You can’t do that without these process intensification and modularization tools. »

Part of the modular approach is to reduce many large pieces of equipment, each performing a dedicated task, to fewer modular units designed to perform multiple functions, he said.

“You can fit more capabilities into smaller scale equipment,” Grieco said. “Rather than having giant equipment that performs batch operations for many different chemicals, you can have a model where smaller equipment operates with some level of flexibility. The different ways of operating this equipment provide robustness. , redundancy and resilience Equipment and plant can be a bit more agile.

From batch processing to continuous processing

A project at a mid-sized chemical company required a batch process to manufacture three specialty chemicals and converted manufacturing into one continuous process, Grieco said. The result: a higher quality product, higher efficiency, 30% lower operating costs, lower energy consumption and 10% less capital cost and footprint than the previous system.

“Raw materials come in, and as the raw materials go through the system, the purified product comes out the other end,” he said.

With such a system, a manufacturer might be able to have an entire aftermarket manufacturing line on standby if the main line needed repair, Grieco said.

In many cases, production is being converted from batch processes to continuous production, Grieco said, citing strong interest in the pharmaceutical and chemical sectors for such conversions.

“Many manufacturers realize that converting from batch manufacturing to continuous manufacturing allows them to control quality, size, equipment investment infrastructure and reduce cost and risk,” Grieco said. “Applied selectively, continuous generation also enables the integration of electricity and processes that use electricity more efficiently in the chemical industry,” he said.

RAPID has helped startup IFS, Durham, NC, which has developed electric process heating technology that heats circulating fluids from the middle outward, to connect with engaged members of the process manufacturing community, said CEO Francesco Aimone.

Aimone compared IFS’s technology, developed by chief science officer George Sadler, to heating a pan on a stovetop with the choice between letting the pan heat up gradually to keep the heating impact low and increasing the burner. as much as possible for fast results. “We make sure you don’t have to choose between the two options,” he said. “We can find more surface area and give you gentler heating.”

This intermediate heating process allows the heating units to be 10 times smaller and allows them to be eight to 10 times more efficient, he said.

“Numbering instead of increasing”

While IFS was familiar with the food and beverage industry, the company did not understand manufacturing processes in other industries, such as specialty chemicals, oil and gas and others where its Emerging technology could help, Aimone said.

“RAPID has given us a better understanding of where technology like ours can make a big difference outside of our core competencies,” Aimone said.

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Francesco Aimone, CEO of IFS, during a presentation at the Rabo Asia conference in Beijing in 2017. Provided by RAPID

As an early-stage company, IFS’ technology aligns well with the principles of building smaller, modular systems, Aimone said, “to number instead of expand.” IFS has started deploying small-scale equipment and demonstration projects and plans to produce production-scale equipment by the end of 2022.

Modular factories can help alleviate supply chain issues, Grieco said. Over the past two years, in part but not entirely due to the pandemic, the United States has experienced disruptions in the supply chains of therapeutic drugs, nonwoven paper products, drugs for the treatment of COVID -19 and other drugs, many of which are no longer manufactured in the United States because the ability to manufacture key chemical components is not well known.

For example, modular manufacturing can allow small domestic chemical companies to scale up their manufacturing capacity for these vital chemical components very quickly.

“We would be able to relocate these specialty chemical feedstocks and therapeutics faster than we have been able to,” Grieco said.

The modular factory approach also enables distributed manufacturing, making it easy to locate factories based on the location of raw materials, end users, and workers.

“Think of the coal-affected communities in Appalachia and along the Ohio River Valley that have been depressed for a long time,” Grieco said. “A manufacturer could take production facilities and distribute them to wellheads in this region and create jobs.” Former miners and workers who supported mining could be trained to operate and maintain small modular plants, Grieco said.

Modular manufacturing could also help companies better manage weather-related issues, such as the ice storm that shut down Houston in early 2021, Grieco said.

“If a company had its infrastructure spread across North America, a single manufacturing node would be removed instead of a significant portion of capacity,” he said.

For example, a chemical company could locate a small, modular plant near one of its major customers for just-in-time delivery, Grieco said. In the natural gas industry, modular plants could convert natural gas directly from the wellhead into ready-to-use fungible liquid chemical, reducing the need for compressed gas pipelines, he said. When a wellhead stops producing, the unit can be easily moved to a productive wellhead.

Modular plants could also facilitate the recovery of biomass by-products that are quite low in value but also low in density, and therefore not worth shipping, he said. Such a plant could be located near where corn or sugarcane is harvested, for example, and convert stranded, low-value feedstock into a more valuable intermediate liquid chemical.

“Two decades from now, the whole shape of the factory could look very different,” Grieco said. “It will only work if we educate the current generation and the next generation of the workforce to think differently,” Grieco said.