Two newly established enterprises are developing measuring equipment and software which makes it possible to monitor food and pharmaceutical production as it is taking place.
In recent years, it has been a mantra within the food and pharmaceutical industries to switch from batch production to continuous production. The aim is to save time and resources, partly because it prevents equipment from standing idle between batches and partly because there are comprehensive procedures to ensure that each batch is just as good as the previous one. However, the conversion process proved problematic because continuous production places very high demands on accurate, reliable measuring equipment. Two new Danish enterprises have come up with solutions to the problem. Both enterprises are a result of the biotech collaboration Biopro (see box), in which DTU Chemical Engineering’s centre Capec-Process is a participant.
“In addition to avoiding delays and cumbersome procedures associated with stops between batches, the big advantage of online monitoring is that you can immediately make adjustments every time there is the slightest deviation in production quality. When you control quality in this way, you can run much closer to the threshold limits, achieving significantly better use of the raw ingredients. This represents major savings for production companies,” says Krist Gernaey, Professor at DTU Chemical Engineering and head of the Capec-Process Center.
Online, self-calibrating measuring equipment
One of the two new companies, Valipros, has developed software for calibrating online measuring equipment. The company’s name alludes to ‘validation of process monitoring’. An example of process monitoring might be monitoring the concentration of certain components in production tanks using near-infrared light (NIR).
“There has been some frustration among the companies that have embraced online production monitoring, mainly because the process involves regular small adjustments to the production processes. In particular, this is because there are regular small adjustments to the production processes. The changes affect the accuracy of the measured values of the parameters the measuring equipment is designed to monitor. To derive maximum benefit of the costly measuring equipment, the equipment must be calibrated for these changes. The new software will be able to perform calibration automatically via a web-based solution. This means that the vast majority of businesses can benefit from this type of equipment,” explains Krist Gernaey.
The new company emerged from a collaboration between researchers at DTU Chemical Engineering and the University of Copenhagen.
“The researchers are among the very few in Europe who are experts in the software that can be used for online production monitoring in real time. Their expertise coupled with our customers’ requirements led to the development of the new software,” says James van Hauen, CEO of Valipros.
“Production companies suffer from the fact that they have too few experts who can deliver the full benefits of NIR (near-infrared light, ed.). Nevertheless, many companies invest in the equipment because the perspectives are so far-reaching. But just think about how many companies that would sign up if the equipment was just as easy to use as most other types of equipment” adds James van Hauen.
Quick response to bacterial level
The other new enterprise, Biomatics Technology, is developing two products—equipment for automatic biological sampling and analysis equipment based on optical scanning. Used in conjunction, the two types of equipment can provide cellular and particle level readings within 30 minutes. Currently, it takes up to three days to get similar results using manual sampling, where samples are sent for cultivation in a laboratory.
“In addition to the vastly improved response time, the advantage is that sampling and analysis are automated, enabling adjustments during production. For example, additional filtration can be performed in a situation where bacteria levels become too high. In short, you are assured that production continually meets production requirements,” says Christian Lysholm, CEO and founder of Biomatics Technology.
Sampling takes place under sterile conditions. This is a particular advantage when working with fermentation processes, where sampling is normally severely restricted to limit the risk of contamination from foreign microorganisms.
The Biopro collaboration process has been of key importance to Biomatics Technology, emphasizes Christian Lysholm:
“Biomatics Technology grew out of a need that many of the collaborating companies expressed. Companies already operate production 24/7, which means they have a need for continuous sampling. At the same time, the cost of the existing methods means that companies take fewer samples than they otherwise would. In particular, this applies to night and weekend production, where labour costs are higher. Automatic sampling and analysis enables them to take as many samples as they want distributed evenly over time and at the same time monitor the process.”
New operator requirements
However, it would be naive to think that the new equipment and software will solve all challenges, emphasizes Krist Gernaey:
“One of the discoveries we have made is that online monitoring requires a new type of qualifications. There is a greater need for a deeper insight into the production processes than was previously the case. Operators must understand how a change they have made in the process will affect the measurement data.
However, overcoming the challenges is well worth the effort, asserts the DTU professor:
“The greatest bonus is probably that the company gains a much deeper insight into its own processes. The technology gives you a unique insight into what is actually taking place in the large tanks. This information is worth a lot of money and automatic sampling and analysis is certainly the way the industry is going. The Danish companies are pioneers and so they must be, as there is no doubt that foreign competitors will follow suit.”