Process manufacturing plants have been implementing and experimenting with technology-led innovations for decades, with the aim of increasing efficiency and productivity, lowering costs and environmental impact, improving product quality, and raising employee safety. 

However, the last few years have seen the pace of innovation speed up significantly as technology races ahead, and digital transformation and industry 4.0 take hold of the sector. Innovation is needed even more during uncertain economic times when the markets are turbulent and customer demands are hard to predict, and innovation in manufacturing techniques has skyrocketed by more than 150% in the last 2 decades if you take the number of new patents registered in the United States as a guide.

The pace of innovation in manufacturing processes

It’s worth remembering that innovation may seem fast, but it never happens overnight. Most innovative practices begin small, and scale up gradually to new use cases and more areas of the organization. Plants generally take time to adapt to the modes of operation that these new processes require, and today’s innovations all rest on successful digital transformation, which is proceeding at different speeds in different companies. 

As part of this uptick in innovation, the SAMSON Group recently opened the ROLF SANDVOSS INNOVATION CENTER, as a center for innovation through valve R&D, together with the DIGITAL LAB to assist process plants to prepare for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Industry 4.0. 

Innovation involves time and effort, but there’s no avoiding it if you want to maintain your position in the market and continue to meet customer expectations. As McKinsey analysts point out, “Not all innovation is created equal or can add the same value. Yet players that adopt the right combination stand to gain an outsized share of the market.”

The Innovations Multiplying Across Process Plants

There are three main components which form the foundation of manufacturing innovation:

  • Artificial intelligence (AI) and its sub-sectors machine learning (ML) and deep learning
  • IIoT
  • 5G networks, cloud computing connectivity, and edge computing systems.

AI and its variations (ML, DL) are applied to use cases like inventory management, demand forecasting, supply chain visibility, transportation cost reduction, process efficiency, product development, predictive maintenance, and more. CIOs in oil and gas companies have said that AI/ML, AI-powered analytics, and industrial IoT are the top game-changing technologies in 2021.

IIoT devices connect the entire plant, making it possible to streamline operations, increase safety, and reduce costs. Machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, which enables the smart factories of the future, is only possible through IIoT sensors.

5G, cloud, and edge computing systems speed up data sharing and reduce lag and latency while making connections more secure. 

Let’s take a closer look at some of the ways that these foundational industry 4.0 technologies are enabling innovation in process plants. 

1. Digital twins

With the entire plant equipped with IIoT sensors streaming data to a central hub, process manufacturing companies can create a digital model of the plant that is constantly updated in real-time, forming a perfect mirror of the physical plant. For example, SAMSON equips certain valves, pneumatic actuators and valve accessories with a “digital nameplate,” which makes it easy to identify and track in a digital twin.

By revealing hidden or dangerous areas of the plant clearly and safely, digital twins speed up investigation of incidents and issues, enable remote investigation, and can often remove the need to stop production to resolve issues. Enterprises are also using digital twins to map the manufacturing process for a new product, so as to identify problems and weaknesses before implementing any changes, and to configure or reconfigure key equipment to ensure processes run efficiently.

2. Immersive technology

Immersive technology, also called augmented reality (AR), involves using tools like Google Glass to explore digital twins. With AR glasses, engineers can configure the product mix remotely, visualize processes to check efficiency, and view “inside” machinery to carry out repairs and maintenance. 
Oil and gas companies are increasing their adoption of AR and machine vision, such as cost-effective wearable location devices. AR glasses are also being used for training purposes.

3. Predictive analytics

Predictive analytics uses AI and ML analytics to crunch real-time data from IIoT devices and other sources of plant information. It has a number of use cases in manufacturing verticals, including predictive monitoring and predictive maintenance for early alerts about anomalies and inefficiencies that could lead to part failure. 

Predictive analytics also encompasses sentiment analysis, root cause analysis, product development, demand forecasting, and predictive modeling for better long-term business decision-making. 

For example, industries facing rapid fluctuations in customer demand, like chemicals, pharma, and food and beverage (F&B), are using AI for demand forecasting. Pharma and chemicals are also embracing ML to develop new medications and chemical formulations, and F&B plants are using it to create plant-based foods and alternative proteins, shortening the time it takes to develop, test, and scale-up new products.

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4. Automated process quality control

AI can spot defects in products at higher speeds and with greater accuracy than human quality control. Plants using machine vision error detection to automate quality control can support higher throughput without lowering product quality or consistency, like the pharma plants using AI with spectroscopic and other sensors for advanced and reliable process quality monitoring.

5. Robotics

With AI and data from smart sensors, plants can use a range of robotics tools as part of human operations, or to replace them to some extent with robotic process automation (RPA). 44.9% of manufacturing businesses across a range of verticals agreed that robots are an integral part of their operations, and another 23% plan to add robots in the next year.

Some operate as an extension of the human body, like robotic gloves or arms that mimic human movement; others are independent robotic tools, like automated packaging solutions; and more are cobots, which work alongside humans and are often lower cost and more flexible than full robotic solutions. 

Industries like pharmaceuticals, F&B, and chemicals, which saw immense growth during COVID-19, ramped up their adoption of robotics to boost throughput. Robotics are now being adopted into new use cases and vertical industries; e.g. oil and gas companies are showing interest in robotics to automate processes that are currently manual. 

6. Process automation

In a similar vein, many plants are using AI to automate processes without robotic tools. Pharma companies have applied automation for process intensification, and for faster changeovers and fewer errors between batches, which is important when small batch production is increasing.

7. 3D printing

3D printing helps reduce costs for internal maintenance processes in process manufacturing businesses. Plants use 3D printing to produce crucial parts directly in the plant or in the field, saving on wait time for replacements to arrive. E.g. oil and gas companies using a 3D printer to create downhole tools and equipment components on-site have cut equipment downtime by 10-15%

8. Blockchain

Chemical, pharmaceutical and F&B manufacturers – among others – need to verify the provenance of products, track them through the supply chain, confirm they are not counterfeit, expired, or contaminated, and enable easy recall if the latter should occur. 
Blockchain is proving valuable for this purpose. Chemists in the UK modernized their supply chain with a blockchain-based system that enables secure transactions and continuous tracking of goods. Pharma companies are using blockchain to tackle counterfeit medications, and F&B businesses are using smart blockchain-based packaging to confirm and track food provenance, storage conditions, and expiration dates.

Innovation process manufactoring

Process Manufacturing Innovation is Powering Ahead

Fundamental innovations like AI, IIoT, 5G, and cloud computing are powering a range of innovations that together help process manufacturing plants to increase efficiency, raise product quality, increase productivity, cut costs, and boost agility during times of crisis. 

Innovation is surging ahead across all manufacturing verticals, although different industries may apply the same tech in different ways and to different use cases, and inevitably have different priorities. 

As more plants see the benefits of digital transformation, industry 4.0, and the innovations that they support, we can expect to see innovation continue to increase and drive growth in the market.