Automation combined with agile manufacturing could provide benefits for continuous processes, such as oil refining and bulk chemical production. In these processes, feedstock is fed steadily at one end and the product emerges continuously at the other.
Many of these processes produce a range of saleable products – for example a cracker in an oil refinery produces several different hydrocarbons from crude oil – whose prices can vary independently on the commodities markets. `If a commodity price changes for the better an agile process plant could be rapidly adapted to optimise conditions for the most valuable product,’ says Honeywell’s Chris Morse. He foresees a time when automated control systems, combined with agile manufacturing systems, could link manufacturing plants directly to the price being traded on international commodity markets.
Such a system would require a degree of timing and control only possible using automation. Feedstocks would have to be precisely altered to maintain the right balance for the chemical reaction. But Morse insists that it is possible. `It could easily work for large throughput, multiple product processes. It’s simply a matter of balancing variables,’ he says.