By Rose-Marie Brandwein, Director of Membership and Marketing Communications

You don’t need to gaze into a crystal ball to ascertain what’s on the horizon for manufacturing as the innovations of tomorrow are being made possible today through greater adoption of transformative technologies. Many are a cluster of technologies under the umbrella of Industry 4.0, which is often defined as the fourth industrial revolution in which communications and production operations reside within two worlds— the real world and the digital or virtual world.  They run the gamut from artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to 3D printing (additive manufacturing) and augmented reality/virtual reality. Other innovations are non-technical but equally impactful.

As unique as these innovations are, they each contribute to making process intensification (PI) more viable and valuable. Here are some trends to watch for:    

1. Smart Factories Will Get Smarter

Thanks to Industry 4.0, operation and production assets are growing more connected and better able to communicate through the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). AI, machine learning, and advanced analytics are creating new entry points for modular chemical process intensification (MCPI) and predictive maintenance which are emerging for a broader range of industries and applications. 

For PI’s purposes, datasets are only useful if they lead to greater understanding of chemical reactions, process control or optimization, among other applications. Datasets are especially useful in modeling to predict outcomes such as chemical reactions within reactors. 

RAPID member Carnegie Mellon, whose John E. Swearingen Professor of Chemical Engineering, Nikolaos Sahinidis, believes these computing trends are not only very exciting but also promise rapid progress in many challenging areas of PI. Sahinidis explains, “What is often different in PI is that the collection of data from chemical processes is rarely free.  As a result, we find ourselves having to work with limited data, which requires machine learning techniques capable of maximizing information from measurements.  Luckily, newer machine learning algorithms are more capable of working with limited amounts of data.” He emphasizes that what’s especially relevant are “machine learning techniques capable of providing models that are simple and interpretable, thus facilitating physical validation of these models and their use in PI.”

In other areas, researchers from major U.S. universities (led by RAPID member MIT) have developed a methods-focused AI system capable of analyzing paragraphs in technology papers containing methods with 99% accuracy, and classifying key words with an 86% accuracy. These keywords can delineate the names of target materials, equipment, operating conditions, and role adjectives. This tool, which uses a Google algorithm, can significantly impact energy storage, catalysis, and hydrogen storage. Using AI to eliminate onerous manual processes can permit easier development of novel solutions in the PI space and elsewhere.

2. Print and Go with Additive Manufacturing

A multi-billion dollar business, 3D printing, also known as Additive Manufacturing, is being used in multiple industries from aerospace and defense to healthcare and energy. While already influencing the future of MCPI, 3D printing enables organizations to innovate, design, and manufacture new products and components which improve responsiveness, reduce complexity, and lower costs.  

Professor Brian Paul, RAPID Focus Area Leader in Modular Manufacturing at Oregon State, believes additive manufacturing will have more impact on PI efforts as we add more value through the selective doping and alloying of materials. He notes, “The digitization of parts through additive manufacturing is opening new approaches to materials engineering and mechanical design.  The ability to locally control material properties will enable embedding monolithic sensors within parts to produce strength and thermal conductivity gradients that further improve part performance.” 

3. A Thirst for Membrane Technology

Membrane technology has already impacted water filtration and treatment with a sizable global market growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.7% and is expected to reach $11 billion by 2021. It is also set to grow exponentially in food and beverage processing with estimates approaching $6 billion by 2020. Membrane technologies in the food and beverage processing industry employ reverse osmosis (RO), nanofiltration (NF), ultrafiltration (UF) and microfiltration (MF) for applications such as liquid-solid milk separation, concentration of whey proteins, clarification, concentration, fractionation, desalting, and purification of different beverages.

RAPID member, Compact Membrane Systems’ Chief Technology Officer, Hannah Murnen, observes how hugely effective membranes are in increasing process intensity in separations processes, especially for petrochemicals and chemical manufacturing. “They have the potential to dramatically reduce the energy needed by eliminating or greatly reducing heat-based separations such as distillation. At the same time, they could make separations much more modular, allowing them to happen where and when you need them, making processes that are much more flexible to scaling up or down.” 

Membrane technologies are advantageous primarily because of their varied characteristics which lend themselves to different materials, momentum and operations—making them a perfect fit for PI but with certain precautions. RAPID Focus Leader, Professor David Sholl of Georgia Tech, notes,”The economics and sustainability of any separation technology need to be evaluated in the context of a whole chemical process. Performance metrics such as cost per kilogram of product and energy use per kilogram should be used. The lifetime and replacement costs of components such as membrane modules or sorbent materials need to be factored in… but benefits far outweigh the costs.”

4. Empowering Industry through Diversity and Inclusion

No sector or industry has faced more turmoil than U.S. manufacturing. It is continually confronted by numerous challenges such as growing global competition, an ever growing array of technologies to embrace, adopt and invest in while contending with a problematic labor force alternately gripped by the prospect of retiring baby boomers, the opioid crisis, and a lack of qualified candidates to fill an ever growing glut of jobs. As the saying goes, “there is no rest for the weary,” but there is a safe haven for U.S. manufacturers: diversity and inclusion (D&I).  D&I initiatives are increasingly seen as a core business imperative that can solve many problems. Securing representation of talent is not only a good business practice but also is good for business, cites a PwC-Manufacturing Institute joint report. The new Ps—Pollination of ideas, Partnerships for innovation and Performance improvements in job and business are just some of the obvious benefits.

At AIChE, D&I has been a strategic focus for many years with the organization successfully sponsoring numerous workshops and conferences on everything from leadership to recognizing and avoiding confirmation bias designed to empower women and the LGBTQ community while educating senior leadership at the same time on the value of adopting internal D&I initiatives. In 2019, D&I will take on a more prominent role within both AIChE and RAPID.

At RAPID, 2019 will be a year of empowering the startups within our community, with a strong focus on minority-owned and women-owned businesses through workshops, skills development and showcasing of technologies and/or capabilities. As RAPID CEO Bill Grieco recently noted, “We are committed to ensuring the long-term success of our smaller member organizations. Many are either minority-owned or women-owned, and we recognize their inherent drive to succeed and make an impact through truly innovative approaches borne out of their own diverse experiences—all of which will help the process industries advance.”

5. New Collaborations Through Community

The value of industry-university collaborations has long been acknowledged; however, in 2019, links between industry, academia and new partners such as government and/or quasi government agencies and other nonprofits will strengthen as all sides seek to leverage expertise and resources (financial, equipment and people, etc.) of others to enhance their processes and increase their understanding of the theoretical and practical applications of new technologies within PI. Institutes like RAPID that foster collaboration and community will quickly become the focal point and coaches for innovation. 

According to an Ernst & Young report, “industrial-mashups,” a disruptive new form of flexible partnering, will spur organizations to automate, share and integrate services and/or data from each other for short- or long-term periods. Organizations which would never partner in traditional ways will borrow concepts from “the shared economy” to form unusual collaborations that will ensure greater access to information, reduce risk, and foster new ways of thinking to enhance problem-solving. 

The E&Y report goes on to reimagine factories “participating in online marketplaces that create easy access to asset and business process information. Combine that with a relatively frictionless transaction environment within which to rent the use of those assets or processes and an API-like interface to put them to use. Economic efficiency and productivity would spike, while the pace of innovation would accelerate.”

According to Bill Grieco, “Sharing facilities and data among our members will not only lead to a free-flow of information but also to inevitable breakthroughs in technology that will change industry at a faster pace.”  

Agility Is Key

The ability to make PI a reality and industry standard has never been better. If your organization is an agile one, that moves quickly and strategically, you stand to reap the benefits of these new technologies and programs. If implemented, they can enhance global competitiveness, provide tangible costs savings, ensure satisfied customers, and engage your workforce and more. So act quickly, deftly, and adaptively to environmental or market disruptions so you can seize the opportunities along the way.

Want to read more about some of the topics and reports above? Here are some helpful links:

All in: Shaping tomorrow’s manufacturing workforce through diversity and inclusion --PwC

Is Collaboration the New Innovation?-E&Y$FILE/ey-is-collaboration-the-new-innovation.pdf

How to Create an Agile Organization –McKinsey & Company

Seven Chemical Separations to Change the World—David P. Sholl & Ryan Lively