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Process automation

The future of inorganic salt production

Merck_Inorganic salt

The German city of Darmstadt is home to the largest production plant for inorganic salts in all of Europe. Constructed at a cost of €30 million, this plant is equipped with the APROL process control system and other control hardware developed by B&R. The advantages for plant operator Merck? Extremely efficient production while meeting the most stringent quality standards.

Global demand for high-quality inorganic salts has increased dramatically in recent years and shows no signs of slowing. As a result, Merck began construction on an entirely new production plant in 2010 not only to keep pace with this growth, but also to ensure continued continued compliance with current and future GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) regulations.

A year later, Europe's most advanced inorganic salt production complex went on stream. Today, the plant's three highly automated production lines run non-stop to produce active ingredients and excipients for the pharmaceutical and high-level nutritional industries, process chemicals for the biopharmaceutical industry and solid matter for analytical purposes.

cGMP-compliant inorganic salt production

Not only does the new production complex strictly comply with current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) and regulatory requirements, it also advances the company's successful EMPROVE differentiation strategy in addition to ensuring that the production of inorganic salts remains economically viable into the future.

From chemical synthesis to filtration and crystallization to filling, every production step is controlled by a fully automatic APROL process control system that is monitored around the clock by qualified personnel.

All in all, the new plant has doubled the production capacity of its decommissioned predecessor. APROL and control technology from B&R have played an enormous role in this advancement by facilitating the transition from batch-oriented to continuous processes, which has allowed the company to greatly increase production efficiency across the entire range of products.

Merck_Inorganic salt production
At Merck's state-of-the-art production plant for inorganic salts, every stage in the process – including crystallization – is controlled by the fully automated APROL process control system. (Source: Franz Roßmann)

Fast and easy product changeovers

The new process control system must react flexibly to changing requirements. After all, a typical production campaign – lasting four to eight weeks – will see the production of over 70 different active and excipient ingredients across the plant's three parallel lines. This is where the full power of APROL's integrated ParameterCenter is revealed as it easily transitions between recipes without pause. Merck's engineers were also impressed by the system's ability to reliably automate hybrid applications that include discrete plant components, such as the new plant's filling station.

This and other powerful features – such as integrated version management and an extensive range of trend and alarm functions – pushed APROL to the top of Merck's short list.

The production of inorganic salts is not Merck's first acquaintance with APROL, either. B&R's process control system is also operational at over a dozen of the company's other facilities around the world.

Taking new requirements in stride

Offering unmatched scalability, B&R's APROL system has proven itself to be highly adaptable to plants of all sizes – covering the entire spectrum of requirements while still being able to maintain a comparatively low initial investment.

With 11 operator stations, over 1,000 process control loops, 500,000 calculation points and more than 2,400 remote I/O modules, the new plant is one of Merck's largest APROL installations. The plant is operated from field terminals rather than a central control station since the operators are tasked not only with monitoring the various processes, but also loading the raw materials and removing the finished products.

When designing the plant, engineers assigned three operator terminals each to a powerful Automation PC 810 industrial computer from B&R. Acting as servers, these systems are networked to B&R I/O modules and CP382 controllers from B&R's System 2005 series via the high-speed POWERLINK real-time bus.

Merck_Production site
Europe's most advanced production complex for inorganic salts is located in Darmstadt, Germany. (Source: Franz Roßmann)


Effective methods for ensuring availability

The openness of the B&R solution allows the plant to be expanded at any time with minimal effort. One example is the PROFIBUS DP interface from the System 2005 series that Merck integrated to accommodate systems from other vendors should they ever become necessary. The APROL system can be adapted or modified to the new configuration very easily. Another advantage is that the software for operator stations and controllers can be updated from a central location without interrupting operation – a significant benefit of the APROL DownloadManager.

Any bugs that might pop up during an update are easy to eliminate thanks to the integrated version management system (ChangeControl), which logs all engineering actions and makes it simple to revert to an earlier version. A second engineering station provides added security by creating daily backups.

Merck employees handled the engineering and programming of the entire process control system themselves. Building and retaining expertise within a company is important, especially these days. It makes it possible for service personnel to become intimately familiar with the technology right from the beginning while also offering them a role in shaping its design. This not only speeds up troubleshooting and debugging down the road, but also increases overall acceptance of the system.

Startup accelerated by simulation

Acceptance of the B&R solution by Merck employees was also bolstered by the fact that large portions of the HMI and control software could be tested prior to the construction and commissioning of the plant. To make this possible, Merck equipped a testing room with a full setup of the planned B&R control hardware along with an interface to a WinMOD system that simulated the plant's I/O requirements. This not only increased programming efficiency, but also allowed a variety of different concepts to be evaluated. In addition, feedback provided by employees about both the design and layout of process graphics as well as the menu navigation system was taken into account very early in development.

Together with the ability to perform advanced testing of software components such as the sequence control, all of this trimmed valuable time off the commissioning phase and had the plant up and running at full capacity in no time. The simulation interface will continue to be useful in the future as well – for testing potential updates to the process control system.

Automation PC 810_2_Slot

Goals set, goals achieved

Stepping back to assess their new process control system in its entirety, Merck's engineers cannot help but come to a positive conclusion: All of their expectations have been fully satisfied. Each and every goal – from expanded capacity and improved efficiency to increased availability – has been achieved.

Powerful Automation PC 810 industrial computers from B&R act as servers for the operator terminals in Merck's new production plant. (Source: B&R)


All of this with the help of the APROL process control system and technology from B&R – the perfect solution for optimizing plants of all sizes.

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