Evonik’s Game-Changing Modular Process Development, Production, and Automation Strategy

By Valentijn de Leeuw

ARC Report Abstract

Executive Overview

Evonik, a leading global specialty chemical company, believes that the NAMUR Module Type Package (MTP) standard for describing a process module’s services will be a game changer for the process industry.  The company decided to invest in the standardization effort as well as in testing and applying MTP to accelerate the standard’s development and maturity. Evonik also regularly communicates to the process engineering and automation communities about MTP to raise interest and improve adoption rates.

In 2019, Evonik realized the world’s first industrial MTP application when integrating a package unit in one of the company’s world-scale plants in Singapore.  ARC Advisory Group recently had the opportunity to see firsthand the use of the MTP standard in several pilot plant installations at Evonik in Marl, Germany and interview the team executing these projects.  Key takeaways include:

  • The MTP standard is sufficiently advanced to integrate package units in industrial-scale plants and to operate modular pilot plants. 
  • After the initial learning and investment period, use of MTP offers the potential to help reduce project engineering loads, time to operational readiness, the cost of pilot plant setup, and time-to-market for new products. 
  • MTP can be used in conjunction with process orchestration layers (POLs) provided by traditional automation products, such as DCSs, but also by Industrial IoT platforms to further reduce engineering time, cost, and time-to-market in pilot plants and applications where DCSs may not be required.
  • MTP aligns well with the modular, standards-based automation approach of the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF).
  • Use of IoT platforms introduces a new mindset that can lead to new process engineering and process control concepts.

Concepts behind Industrial IoT platforms, open architectures, and the emerging changes in control hardware architectures of edge devices all confirm a trend in which traditional top-down hierarchical control structures are complemented with peer-to-peer interactions in networks of automation and industrial IT components.  This can be accomplished without compromising either real-time, deterministic control principles or violating industrial safety or security constraints.

Halving the Time from Product to Operational Readiness

There’s tremendous pressure to reduce the required engineering effort, time-to-operational-readiness, and investment risk in the specialty chemicals and life sciences industries.  To address this, in 2009, the participants of the German Tutzing Symposium defined the principles that could ultimately lead to reducing development, engineering, construction, and commissioning time by 50 percent.  This is often referred to as the “50 percent” concept.   International research that enable “Tutzing” goals have made great strides toward this objective.   Modular production, one result of that research, offers high potential for reducing time to operation and much more.

Modular Production

The F3 Factory project, financed by some 25 companies and the EU, was started the same month the Tutzing Symposium was held.  It provides a highly visible example of this research.  The goal of F3 Factory was to overcome the disadvantages of large-scale continuous processing (high capital investment and rigidity) and small scale-batch processing (inefficiency) and combine the respective advantages by introducing efficiency to multi-purpose, multi-product facilities; and flexibility to world-size continuous facilities.  Research objectives included:

  • Provide more compact and less costly process designs that lower environmental impact
  • Develop standardized, modular, plug-and-play chemical production equipment capable of handling many chemical processes

The project has delivered promising results, with several modular processes developed.  All have demonstrated significant improvements in both cost and sustainability.   F3Factory, one of the projects hosted at the INVITE research lab founded by Bayer and two universities, continues to contribute to research on modular production.

Modular Plant Vision for Product and Capacity Flexibility

The traditional approach to scaling up from pilot plant-scale to high-volume chemical production is to reengineer the plant for all aspects related to larger holdups. Among other things, this impacts heating, mixing, reaction, and cooling times or equipment sizing and designs.  Most chemical plants can operate economically within the range of approximately 60 to 120 percent of nameplate capacity.  This is typically chosen close to the higher end of the expected fluctuations in demand for the chemical to be produced.  The associated risk here is that should demand for the chemical shift outside that range of production (that is, greatly exceed or fall below that range) due to economic fluctuations, the capacity will be either under- or over-dimensioned; both economically unfavorable situations.

Modular Production:  A Response to Capacity and Flexibility Challenges

During the economic crisis in 2008, many world-scale plants either had to be mothballed or produce with very poor return on assets (ROA).  This demonstrated the real risk of over-investment and over-capacity.  These major market fluctuations used to be rare, but market volatility has increased in recent years (as demonstrated by the COVID-19 crisis) and demand can vary dramatically without upfront warning signs. 

Based upon the publications by the F3 Factory project, an alternate approach could be to create the needed capacity by lining up several smaller, modular, standardized plants.  In other words, by “numbering up” as opposed to “scaling up.”  This would provide a series of advantages.

While the engineering workload might be only marginally smaller, the amount of materials used and capital expenditure required for the same capacity could potentially be reduced to a significant degree.  The equipment would require proportionally less materials relative to the volumes produced and thus potentially achieve some economy of scale by utilizing multiples of equipment and parts compared to unique (and probably much larger and more costly) pieces.  The equipment and parts could be assembled and connected using standards such as MTP, reducing costs further.

A modular approach would also provide flexibility to help manufacturers adjust to economic cycles and fluctuating market demand for these products.  In a downturn, some modular production lines for the product could be stopped or transported to other geographic regions while the other lines continue to produce at optimal conditions.  When demand rises, additional plants could be put on stream very quickly.  Investments would yield higher returns, not only because of improved utilization rates but also because the average equipment lifespan would likely increase because of its reusability, which would further support a circular economy.  While still just a vision, in the future Evonik believes this will help it respond to its needs for capacity and site flexibility.

For short-lived specialty chemicals, a trend is to produce smaller quantities, gradually introduce improvements in product and process, and respond flexibly to market and client demands.  With relatively low effort, modular production lines could be reconfigured or modified to produce different grades, variants, or even entirely different chemicals.  An owner-operator could add, interchange, or modify modules, rather than having to procure or construct a new plant.  These changes are reversible too.  This responds to the need for what Evonik refers to as “product flexibility.”  Combined with capacity flexibility, this offers powerful potential.  The capacity for a product with declining demand could be gradually transformed into capacity for a product with rising demand and at very limited cost compared to traditional engineering and construction approaches for monolithic plants.  Increases in flexibility and agility would be tremendous.

The modular production concept requires new engineering approaches.  Rather than optimizing the production process by tailoring all process units to a capacity range, the plants would be composed of a choice of standard, general-purpose, and ideally pre-existing and reusable modules. Examples could be feed preparation, process analytical technology (PAT), or separations.  This thinking is well-established in the use of industrial-scale package units.   Modularization extends this idea by assembling standard units with a few highly specialized modules for critical steps, such as reactors.  Specialized, high-performance modules could take full advantage of new technologies, such as 3D modeling and printing, detailed fluid dynamics, and chemistry modeling.   On average, smaller, modular plants would produce closer to their optimal operating points than traditional large-scale plants.

Modular Process Development

Modules, also called Production Equipment Assemblies (PEA), can be composed of modular functional equipment assemblies (FEA).  When a module is adapted to changing process or product requirements, it often just involves exchanging an FEA, rather than building a new PEA.   This increases efficiency and reduces the effort and capital required to adapt production.

When engineering plant modules, package units, or any process unit; modular engineering could be applied to favor reuse, reduce repetitive work, and create more quality engineering time.  Modules (PEAs) and traditional process units include instrumentation, actuation, and controls.  Many process assemblies are conceptually similar.  For example, consider a reactor with a stirrer, heat exchanger, and pump along with associated measurement and control instrumentation.  Engineering software packages could use modular templates for process components and include electrical and automation.  These templates could be instantiated or parameterized to reflect the size and capabilities of a specific plant or module and are thus also well-suited for engineering self-contained modules.


Table of Contents

  • Executive Overview
  • Halving the Time from Product to Operational Readiness
  • Modular Plant Vision for Product and Capacity Flexibility
  • Evonik’s Process Development Strategy: Modular Pilot Plants
  • MTP Implementations at Evonik’s Pilot Plant
  • Recommendations


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