Modular working in R&D labs
The automation of laboratories used to be considered very costly and not very flexible, because the workflows are very complex and amounts of data are constantly increasing. Yet, as chemical and pharmaceutical industry product lifecycles become shorter and shorter, the need for digitalisation has become urgent. In this article, Christof Franzke, Senior Technical Consultant Key Accounts at COPA-DATA, explains the vital role of the zenon platform in the roll-out of modularisation and digitalisation in labs.
Today’s consumers expect technologies to ‘plug and play’ and work seamlessly with other devices in the home — and the same qualities are required in industrial and manufacturing environments.
Digitalisation has become somewhat easier over the years, thanks to the diversity of automated hardware now available. Yet, on the other hand, it is more difficult to achieve seamless and holistic connectivity across multi-vendor, multi-tenanted production sites. One way to achieve this is with an industry standard called Module Type Package (MTP).
Dubbed plug-and-produce manufacturing, MTP is an approach that enables all equipment in a central control system to communicate independently of the typically fragmented hardware and software usually found in laboratories. Each individual work step is provided by a completed module and researchers in the lab can then combine these modules, quickly and repeatedly, into new applications and processes. What’s more, this can be achieved with just a few clicks and without the need for programming knowledge. Therefore, MTP helps to ease and democratise the whole process.
One company that has successfully implemented the MTP approach is Merck KGaA, a German multinational science and technology company. For the first time, Merck is applying its Industry 4.0, Smart Factory and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) approaches, which are formerly tried-and-tested in production environments, to laboratories.
Modularised process development
Configuring a laboratory so hardware and software work in tandem is still a challenge to this day, as many labs still rely on closed, unconnected systems. To alleviate this challenge, Merck KGaA set out to make this automation as simple as connecting a printer to a PC.
When selecting system partners for its automation solutions, Merck KGaA attaches the greatest importance to open platforms and the independence of individual applications. For this reason, Merck KGaA and Siemens started a modularisation project in 2021 for production facilities that manufacture innovative materials and products in the three business sectors healthcare, life science and electronics.
Independent of this, Merck KGaA has taken a further step with zenon from COPA-DATA. The software, which is designed to facilitate MTP standards and support modular production, was introduced to the research and development laboratories of the Electronics Technology Center at Merck’s global headquarters in Darmstadt, Germany.
Merck KGaA and COPA-DATA’s systems enable the use of MTP standards in a higher-level Process Orchestration Layer (POL). This flexible application of modules is accelerating time to market considerably. The result is more efficient interaction between production and research and development (R&D) and accelerate the market launch of new products by up to 50 per cent.
Another growing demand in industry is customised products, and MTP can also support this goal. An important benefit of MTP modules is that data can be transferred seamlessly from the laboratory to production. This means formulas currently being developed in the laboratory can enter mass production immediately, without the need to waste effort on manually reconfiguring the production lines, thus enabling faster mass customisation. Moreover, Merck KGaA expects that the boundaries between R&D and production will become increasingly blurred in the future.
Plug-and-produce is becoming an increasingly established method of production in today’s labs. With advanced industrial automation software like zenon, the chemical and pharmaceutical industry can be ready to cater for shorter product lifecycles, and a need for more customised products through the application of modular production.