Behind the Science: New Production Concepts in the Chemical Industry

Behind the Science: New Production Concepts in the Chemical Industry

Author: Barbara Boeck, Stefan Lier

Dr. Barbara Boeck, Editor-in-Chief of Chemie Ingenieur Technik, talks to Dr. Stefan Lier, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany about new modular production concepts, such as chemical production in standard shipping containers, and their promise for decentralized and flexible production.

Stefan Lier investigates the transfer of modularization concepts and lean principles to the process industry and has recently co-edited a special issue of Chemie Ingenieur Technik dedicated to new production concepts.

Dr. Lier, what is your scientific background?

I studied industrial engineering and management at the Technical University Dortmund, Germany, and at the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA, USA. My experiences prior to my Ph.D. work have been mainly in the automobile industry. During and after my Ph.D., I have worked on transferring principles like modularization and lean manufacturing from the manufacturing into the process industry, focusing on production as well as logistics processes.

Could you explain the motivation behind your work?

I find it fascinating to get to know different industries and the interfaces between different disciplines such as engineering, economics and natural sciences working together in the industry. In assessing different innovative technologies and production and logistics concepts, people from all of these different backgrounds have to work together and understand each other. This challenge is a big motivation behind my work.


Could you summarize the findings presented in your article?

The focus of our article is on new, innovative production concepts for the process industry. They are transformable, meaning modular, scalable, universal, mobile, and compatible. A modular set-up and design is the basic enabler for transformability. Standardized small-scale modules reduce time and effort in development, resulting in short times to market. Modules can be added or taken away and used for other purposes.

With this scalability, production systems can adapt their capacity to market needs. The same applies for the product mix: By exchanging modules, different products can be produced. Current large-scale centralized production can be replaced by many small-scale mobile modules, e.g., in standardized ISO containers forming decentralized production networks in proximity to customers and raw materials.

The compatibility of the interfaces ensures short changeover times of different modules. The main finding so far is that there is a lot of potential for these concepts, especially in the sector of specialties. It is of current interest because market dynamics like volatilities, product differentiation, and shortening life cycles require more flexible production and logistics concepts.


How long do you think it will be before these productions methods become a reality?

Some parts of these concepts have already turned into reality. Within the EU F³ Factory Project, chemical production in standard ISO containers has been demonstrated. There are also some companies applying modular approaches to their production environment. But there is still a long way to go until this new production paradigm is fully integrated and accepted as a complementary alternative to large,scale mono plants and multi-product batch production plants.


Which improvements are needed for these systems to succeed?

There are still many challenges which have to be tackled before these new production concepts are implemented in an operational environment in many places. Firstly, we need a development of modular apparatuses especially within separation technologies with free boundary surfaces like distillation, absorption. and extraction. Secondly, logistics and operation concepts have to be adjusted in order to fit the transformable, flexible production concepts into an appropriate operation environment. Thirdly, automation technologies and assistant systems have to support the idea of exchangeability and quick set-ups with plug and produce concepts, found in the ideas of the fourth industrial revolution.


How big an impact could these modular concepts potentially have?

The impact can be large if the shorter development and construction times prove to be real and the markets behave more and more volatile. Then decision makers will see a competitive advantage in being faster and stepping into markets earlier. They will also appreciate that they do not have to decide about a huge investment for twenty and more years now – facing the risks of uncertainty within such a long timeframe – but can decide stepwise with more certainty in market developments. The obstacles of available technologies and appropriate operational environments and IT integration have to be solved and efficiencies have to be validated in order to unfold the full impact of these new production concepts.


Thank you for the interview.



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