What is continuous manufacturing?
Continuous manufacturing, sometimes called flow manufacturing, is one of the main types of manufacturing approaches. It means that a product is made nonstop, without any interruptions or pauses between batches.
Continuous production is traditionally used for manufacturing high-volume products which don’t require customization, such as paper and pulp manufacturing, petrochemicals, or oil and gas refineries, and/or for products that are consumed on a continual basis such as electricity production or water treatment plants.
Continuous manufacturing stands in contrast with batch manufacturing. With continuous manufacturing, machinery and equipment are in constant use and there is barely any variation in the process to produce different types of products.
While batch manufacturing is the simplest and easiest form of processing, continuous manufacturing can help overcome processing bottlenecks and increase both the quality and quantity of the product.
Why do process plants use continuous production?
For some verticals, such as electricity production or water treatment, continuous manufacturing is the only approach that ensures sufficient product supplies and makes efficient use of the machinery available.
Other verticals such as pharmaceuticals and food and beverage, which typically use batch manufacturing, are increasingly seeing the advantages of continuous production to help them scale up production, improve quality standards, and reduce the risk of human error.
The advantages of continuous manufacturing include:
- Lower manufacturing costs
- Faster production
- Improved ability to scale up
- Greater use of automated production and predictive maintenance
Continuous production requires a higher initial investment than batch manufacturing, but that is offset by ongoing efficiencies in production which make continuous manufacturing more profitable over the long term.
Continuous manufacturing is less reliant on employees to supervise processes and ensure quality. Until recently, this made it unsuitable for products that need frequent customization, but advanced tools based on artificial intelligence (AI), like predictive analytics, predictive maintenance, and robotic process automation (RPA), are making it possible for plants to use continuous production while still customizing the product.
Manufacturers also relied on batch numbers to create a paper trail for products so that they could be traced and recalled if necessary. But by using big data from smart devices and IIoT sensors, continuous manufacturing plants can define products by other parameters, enabling companies to track batches with greater accuracy, recall smaller amounts, and thus reduce waste.
The FDA, for example, published a framework for implementing continuous manufacturing for pharmaceuticals, to improve quality, reduce shortages, and raise the efficiency of pharma plants.
How can process plants make the most of continuous manufacturing?
Today’s smart machinery that uses AI and machine learning (ML) together with data from IIoT sensors, makes it possible to create a smart factory that applies continuous manufacturing even to customized goods and products and those that need a high level of traceability. In this way, plants across the verticals can become more efficient, profitable, and competitive, and boost their bottom line.