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Adapting to Change? Modular Manufacturing Processes Can Help

In times of change – from COVID-19 to recipe updates – manufacturers can rely on modular automation to provide simple steps toward production flexibility.

Today, manufacturers are faced with a new, stark reality that includes supply chain issues, workforce shortages and stringent safety precautions. In the early months of 2020 COVID-19, the disease caused by a novel coronavirus, has brought on cases that are in the millions worldwide and the virus has brought daily life as we knew it to a halt.  The silver lining? Many manufacturers are inspired and driven to join in the fight against the spread of COVID-19 by producing items that are needed by the medical community and beyond.

Because of this crisis, manufacturers are realizing that they need to change the way they think, plan and execute production. Are you and your team wondering how you can scale back or change production to adjust to new needs or market demands? Whether you want to or need to pivot your plant’s production capabilities, modular manufacturing processes can provide fast, easy, and cost-effective ways for you to be flexible and reactive.

Over my nearly 30 years in process automation, I have often been asked about the most efficient ways to update or modify the process automation systems in response to new manufacturing needs. Those questions are more relevant now than ever before, as manufacturers consider additional ways to be flexible and adaptable in their processes.

Whether you are dealing with a new product or raw material, supply chain disturbance, capability expansion or another modification to your existing control system, consider these two questions:

  • How can you tell if your system can be quickly changed and adapted as your manufacturing needs change?
  • How do you minimize the effort needed to make and test changes to your process automation system?

Batch control standards

One of the key features that determines the flexibility and modularity of a process is whether it followed the International Society of Automation’s (ISA) standard on Batch Control, ANSI/ISA-88 (also known as S88), when it was first installed. The S88 standard, released in 1995 and updated in 2010, sets a terminology and process for segregating the physical capabilities from the usage or direction of your machinery and equipment. It draws a distinction between what you can do (what you can measure, what the equipment's capabilities are, etc.) versus how you’re going to do it (the procedural execution, the processing steps, etc.).

The separation of physical and procedural aspects allows systems to be easily modified and adapted to various scenarios from new processing equipment and new functions of existing equipment, to new orders of operation or new products – all depending on the needs of the processing system.

Modular manufacturing process changes: Common scenarios

Modularity is not a new concept in automation. I have long used the analogy of a subroutine in BASIC to represent this concept. A piece of code that is written once can be used repeatedly in many ways by altering the settings that you use to run the code. That is the beauty and strength of modularity.

To showcase the value of modularity, let’s look at a few simple change scenarios that are common for manufacturers, and how those changes could be facilitated by modular programming that follows S88.

  1. Addition of a new raw material to the process. This could also represent a change to an existing raw material. Given a straightforward three-raw-material additive mixing process, we want to add a new chemical, such as a virucide, to our process and change our 10 existing recipes to now add this new raw material. What is the most efficient way to do this?
    • Non-modular solution: In a typical plant that does not follow modular programming principles, each recipe needs to be modified to add the functionality for the new virucide. Since this is done with no concept of modularity all the functionality for the new raw material must be replicated in each recipe.
    • Modular solution: In a modular implementation, the new raw materials functionality is implemented as an object. This object fully represents from an automation perspective the complete functionality of that raw material delivery system. It is written for the capabilities of the system. The recipes are written to execute or call these automation objects. All the functionality is, therefore, written once in the object and then called by recipes as they execute.

      Since we only need to create the functionality once, instead of in every recipe, we could conceivably save as much as 90% of the implementation effort which is a significant cost- and time-saving benefit.

  2. New product recipe. Imagine that you want to add a new recipe to an existing system. This example demonstrates the benefits of being able to combine these functional objects in new unique combinations and orders easily.
    • Non-modular solution: The new recipe includes all the code to perform every action required, every raw material addition, every agitation, every cooling, and every transfer.
    • Modular solution: The new recipe uses links or pointers to the objects for raw material additions, agitation, cooling, and transfer.

      The savings in implementation of recipes depends on the complexity of the recipe. The more complex the recipe, the greater the possible savings. The effort to implement a new recipe in a modular plant versus a non-modular plant for a simple 10-step recipe is less than 20%. In both examples, additional benefits will be realized from the modular implementation including reduced cost to manage configuration, reduced testing expenses and expedited change process.

Modularity: A clear winner when it comes to flexibility

As you can see in these examples, the segregation provided by S88 allows the modularization of control functionality so that functionality is contained in small reusable objects. These small reusable objects represent the functionality of the physical world, of the process. These objects of equipment functionality can be updated and modified, added, or removed from the system without effecting other objects reducing effort when making changes. After all, who hasn't tried to jump around and make changes to monolithic programs jokingly referred to as “spaghetti code?”

Additionally, as seen in the second example, since these objects are separate and modular, they can be combined in many different and unique ways as needed for new products or recipes. While the concepts and ideas in S88 were written with a batch manufacturing process as the core, they can be applied to a variety of processes.

You may be thinking: simplistic, abstract examples are nice but how are these concepts helping us to do something important, like battle COVID-19? Right now, many manufacturers are adapting to supply chain challenges and embracing the flexibility of modular manufacturing processes. Some are going above and beyond to make new products that they’ve never made before to help with public health efforts addressing the pandemic, including:

  • Ventilators – a healthcare company was able to scale up production in just weeks
  • Virus tests – a multi-national healthcare group has pivoted production to make COVID-19 tests
  • Hand sanitizer – brewers and distillers are quickly adapting to produce higher ethanol recipes to meet critical demand

Is modular manufacturing the path for you?

The simplest way to determine if your processes and automation systems are modular is to ask yourself if all your recipes must change every time there is a physical process change to your equipment. If you must modify multiple recipes in response to a physical process change, then you may not have a modular system. Some good resources on modular automation are the latest ANSI/ISA standards S88 and S95, which deal with modular hierarchies in manufacturing automation and are both current and good manufacturing practices.

What can you do to move towards a more modular automation framework? Moving forward is an easy three step process:

  1. Set goals. Document what a flexible manufacturing strategy looks like for your production area. Identify what you hope to achieve and the associated benefits.
  2. Make a Plan. Assess your current equipment and workflows and review it with an automation consultant familiar with S88 concepts. Identify how your current implementation supports your goals and where there is room for improvement.
  3. Take Action. Prioritize investments and implement change based on which projects achieve your goals.

Our solutions consultants are experts in batch control and automation, and they can help you determine a path forward no matter where you are in your journey. In this ever-changing world, Rockwell Automation is with you every step of the way as we all pivot to overcome COVID-19, and beyond. Learn more about how our consulting services can help.


Bruce Kane
Bruce Kane
Global Industry Technical Consultant, Life Sciences, Rockwell Automation
Bruce Kane
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