Use of powder makes them suffer

Process industries could eliminate waste to the tune of £3bn a year by studying new plants at the planning stage in more depth before they are built, according to new research.

Aimed at improving the productivity of the £90bn UK industry that works with particulate material or powders — substances ranging from powdered metal to sugar — the £3m, four-year research project was undertaken by the universities of Greenwich and Surrey, supported by a consortium of seven major companies and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The project found that industries using powders as raw materials suffered from three main problems: particulate degredation, segregation and caking.

Degredation incurs costs of replacement of raw material stock. Segregation concerns a lack of uniformity of materials in a mixture, causing quality problems. Caking is the phenomenon of powders turning into solid blocks, causing material handling system failures and production bottlenecks.

A major cause of these problems, says the study, was insufficient planning for material storage systems and the handling of that material as it is moved to the production system.The study also found that storage and handling has too often been an afterthought in plant design.

To solve these problems, the research teams are developing methods for analysing, at the planning stage, the production systems before they are built.

Dr Mike Bradley, University of Greenwich project leader, said: ‘I did not realise quite how pervasive and costly this problem was in industry. This project has really brought home the huge cost.

‘Companies too often only realise they have problems when the plant starts operation, so they try to troubleshoot. But they cannot afford to solve the problem and end up with substantial financial losses.’

Bradley does not foresee the need for complex virtual reality systems being used to simulate the plants: he believes the problems can normally be identified by a simple analysis at the planning stage.

The project is receiving half its funding, in cash and services in kind, from the industrial partners, which include SmithKline Beecham, Tate & Lyle, Unilever, Borax Europe, GEI International and Morgan Materials Technology, with the rest coming from the EPSRC.