Beyond "do more with less"

Feb. 20, 2023
Sustainability maxi-series 2023—Day 5—Applied Control Engineering shows how system integrators are helping chemical manufacturers limit resource use, reuse more scrap, and shift to alternative energy sources

One of the first items on any sustainability to-do list is adding some new goals to the traditional mission of simply making more product and accelerating throughput.

“We’re seeing changes in project goals due to sustainability. Traditionally, clients just wanted to make more product and make it less expensively, but projects lately are addressing concerns and requirements outside of increased production and efficiency,” says Ian Burns, president of Applied Control Engineering, a system integrator in Newark, Del., and a member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). “Clients are refocusing their activities on longer-term benefits or requirements from other bodies. They’re seeking to limit resource utilization, reusing more scrap, and shifting to alternative energy sources—often because their customers are demanding it.”

Ethylene oxide as needed

Burns reports that one of ACE’s chemical manufacturing clients used to buy ethylene oxide produced from a petrochemical process, but recently switched to making it themselves from ethanol. “They licensed this technology five years ago, and we designed and programmed their control system, which includes multiple reactions, distillation and other unit operations,” explains Burns. “We deployed Rockwell Automation’s PlantPAx DCS and AADvance safety system, and integrated third-party skids.”

Because ACE’s client could source raw biomass material for its new process it could produce ethylene oxide more sustainably, and gain other efficiencies and advantages. “Ethylene oxide is flammable and explosive, so it’s costly to transport, but now our client can make it as needed, which was more efficient and less expensive,” adds Burns. “Plus, sustainable production lets their customers, who use the surfactants produced, market their products as more sustainable, too.”

 Old know-how is new again

To make the big shift to meaningful sustainability, Burns adds that process engineers, end users, system integrators, suppliers and their partners can still use the control, efficiency and optimization know-how they’ve employed for decades.

“The needs are different—we may be recycling instead of simply processing and consuming raw materials—but many of the tools required for sustainability are the same,” says Burns. “For instance, one startup client in Connecticut is taking food scraps that usually go to the landfill, and removing protein to make animal feed. We did some of the data recording and metering for their process last year. They needed to measure protein during the input process, so we installed and integrated a new sensor with their PLC and historian.”  

However, even though traditional expertise is essential for sustainability, some news skills are needed to maximize its effectiveness and impact. “To focus our sustainability efforts, we rely on our manufacturing execution system (MES) team that we formalized in 2015 because it can contribute to sustainability across industries, and help us do continuous improvement for sustainability at customer sites,” adds Burns. “We’d been doing MES functions for 20 years, but growing this core lets us talk to customers, and educate them about what they can get out of sustainability. MES can help us identify and track downtime, waste and inefficiency, develop contextualized data, and bring the continuous improvements we were doing before closer to real-time to produce more benefits.

"For example, when one pharmaceutical client’s energy costs increased, we put setbacks on the temperature and humidity control in manufacturing and packing spaces that weren’t being used, and this delivered huge costs savings and improved their sustainability performance. Likewise, MES data can also help users decide which boilers and chiller to run at base load, and when to turn them on and off. These calculations don’t just include the cost of the energy they’re using, but also determine what source will be most efficient, which generates more savings that can go to other sustainability efforts.”

About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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