Smart Manufacturing by Fluence Analytics
Smart Manufacturing, also referred to as the 4th Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0, is an innovative approach to manufacturing that utilizes technology to deliver superior efficiency and performance in production. Oftentimes, deep analysis of available data, adding new sensors, and increasing the frequency and type of data gathered, are approaches taken to enable Smart Manufacturing. Many of these sensors can be connected to each other, the plant, and internal and external cloud services for easier data access and analytics. This new data creates a wealth of opportunities for optimizing quality, yield and other parameters of interest.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that companies across the world have launched Smart Manufacturing initiatives and are racing to lead the way and capture the competitive advantages awaiting the first movers. In the polymer industry, we are seeing a similar push, but many manufacturers still rely on older production processes, including manual sampling and intervention. This is problematic due to the limited data generated on some of the most critical parameters of the product during manufacture, its properties. Thus, there remains a significant opportunity for polymer manufacturers to further optimize production processes.
Various team members at Fluence Analytics recently contributed a chapter to a book released in August 2020, titled Smart Manufacturing: Applications and Case Studies edited by Dr. Masoud Soroush, Dr. Michael Baldea, and Dr. Thomas Edgar, which is a great overview of Smart Manufacturing in different industries. The chapter, titled “Smart Manufacturing Enabled by Continuous Monitoring and Control of Polymer Characteristics,” provides an overview of some legacy methods and shortfalls in the industry, along with an overview of ACOMP technology, use of data for optimized control, and some case studies. The chapter explains that Smart Manufacturing of polymers is behind some other manufacturing sectors because of the complex nature of these chemical reactions compared to other basic chemicals or discrete manufacturing processes. This includes frequent changes in raw material inputs, high variability in installed equipment, high viscosities, pressures and temperatures, and turbid solutions.
The focus of the chapter is Fluence Analytics’ patented ACOMP system, which is a Smart Manufacturing solution that enables faster cycle times, reduced energy usage, improved product quality, consistency and yield through the measurement analysis of unique properties in real-time. ACOMP continuously withdraws a small sample from a polymer reactor and dilutes and conditions the stream as needed. This dilute, analytical grade polymer solution then flows through a series of detectors to measure certain characteristics, including molecular weight, viscosity, conversion rates, residual monomer and composition. Since ACOMP continuously generates and stores reaction data, over time the system can predict process anomalies, quality deviations, maintenance schedules, and when a reaction will be complete. In the near future, products will make it from the lab to the factory in a matter of weeks, rather than months, or years. Autonomous facilities will use sensor data from systems like ACOMP to automatically adjust and control processes to achieve increasingly tighter specifications on the most efficient production trajectory.
ACOMP data can also be combined with other large datasets available from process and lab parameters to apply machine learning and other artificial intelligence methods to produce advanced correlations between seemingly unrelated variables. These correlations can be used to generate novel process control strategies. The industry is headed toward on-demand polymer manufacturing where a customer would specify needed product characteristics, and an autonomous facility could automatically produce them, creating the value of customization with the scale of commoditization.
Ultimately, technologies like ACOMP will also lead to the creation of new classes of materials, which include ‘smart materials’, containing unique properties that can change depending on stimuli. Smart materials’ will drive the next generation of consumer and industrial products for applications we have yet to imagine. The more sophisticated the chemistry, the more important Smart Manufacturing technologies like ACOMP will be in enabling these production processes moving forward.