The cost of process intensification (PI) can increase business risk when implementing modular chemical plants. Additive manufacturing can help keep intensified equipment costs low.
In certain situations, it is beneficial to fabricate chemical plants in pieces, or modules, at an offsite manufacturing facility and ship those modules to a plant site where they can be assembled into a chemical facility. Early efforts in offsite modular construction grew out of project needs, for example, the need to build a chemical plant in a remote location that lacks the infrastructure to support final-site plant construction. More recently, mainstream chemical companies are using offsite modular construction to reduce capital costs and shorten project timelines, putting capital to work faster and lowering the risk of entering new markets. Engineering and construction firms have achieved shorter construction timelines, lowered construction costs, and improved work safety using offsite modular construction to overcome labor shortages, enhance labor productivity, and improve quality of work. However, most chemical manufacturers have not leveraged modular construction in numbering-up strategies to increase capacity. And, most organizations have not yet benefited from the economies of mass production that can be achieved from offsite construction.
The RAPID Manufacturing Institute and its members are helping to facilitate many new applications of offsite modular construction for chemical processing applications. Within RAPID, modularization is being advanced through process intensification (PI). Modular chemical process intensification (MCPI) is the use of PI techniques, methodologies, and technologies to reduce the footprint and mass of a chemical plant, making it easier to build, transport, and assemble on-site. In many cases, the chemical plant can be made small enough so that it can be shipped in a single container, and plant capacity can be increased by numbering-up modules.
Developments within PI can be separated into intensifying equipment, such as static mixers or microchannel reactors, and intensifying methods, such as reactive distillation to enable multifunctional reactors or membrane absorption for hybrid separations (1). A growing list of suppliers have developed more than 500 PI technologies for chemical processing (2). However, in many cases, the equipment needed to intensify chemical processes does not exist, requiring augmentation of available designs or more extensive equipment development.
This article discusses how the capital cost of intensified equipment can be a key driver in managing the business risk associated with advancing modular offsite construction within the chemical process industries (CPI). Industry-wide assessments and net present value (NPV) analyses provide preliminary insights into why equipment costs are important for MCPI. The article describes how additive manufacturing — a new method of building components and reactors — can help manufacturers keep the costs of specialty equipment low.
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