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Article # 0017

 Startup of a New Chemical Process

        The Argument for Semi-commercial Production

 

by: Pierce Burns, PE

 

Introduction

 

When chemical processes are moved from research to a plant, it is mandatory that the move be a success. The author has been involved with many such moves over a period of many years. Most companies have a written procedure for such a move and many also have a sign-off list to insure that each function has made sure that the work has been done to insure success. There probably will be be a task force set up to coordinate the move. The amount of effort needed depends on the nature of the process and chemical involved. If the new product is very similar to one already being produced, then the chances of success are good with minimal effort. An example of this might be a polymer with a slightly different molecular weight from an existing product. If the product is substantially different from existing products and the customers are new, then the risk is more and a greater effort is needed.

 

Functions Involved

 

When a new product is to be manufactured for sale to customers, the following sections or divisions of a company may be involved. Others may also be involved depending on the nature of the process.


 

                     Research - the chemists, analytical personnel, physical property data specialists, and others who worked on the process,

                     Process Development - The engineers and other personnel involved in devoloping and describing the process,

                     Safety and Environmental - Plant, research, and corporate personnel,

                     Sales or Marketing - Persons who represent these functions for the product involved,

                     Regulatory and Governmental  - People responsible for these functions in the company,

                     Transportation - People in charge of shipping and handling,

                     Management - The company executives and staff responsible for the new project.

The nomenclature of these functions will very between companies.

 

Normal Considerations

 

When a new chemical product requires a new plant and a new process, there are numerous research and design jobs to be done prior onset of manufacturing. Some of these are:


 

 

#                    Chemical and Reaction Data - Complete reaction conditions must be determined to produce the chemical. Reaction rates and undesirable reactions must be studied and quantified.

#                    Process Development Data - The design information for the process and the plant must be determined and collected. This would include physical property data and reaction rates and purification schemes and the data necessary to design reaction and purification equipment,

#                    Chemical Hazards - Toxicity of the product, raw materials, and waste materials must be determined and reported,

#                    Environmental - All necessary studies must be done and all paperwork completed,

#                    Details of Manufacturing - A complete description of the process must be written. All data and information to design and operate the plant must be included,

#                    Marketing - Marketing strategy, customers, product requirements must be detailed,

#                    Cost and Profitability Study - The cost of the plant must be estimated and the cost of production must be determined along with selling prices and resulting profit expectations,

#                    Plant Design - The plant must be designed,

#                    Plant Construction - the plant must be built,

#                    Startup - A startup task force is usually assembled, personnel are hired and trained, and finally production is begun.

 

Consideration of Adverse Happenings

 

From the above list of tasks needed to be done for the successful introduction of a new chemical for sale, it is obvious that manufacturing a chemical for the first time is a complicated possibility. The author can say from personal experience that the procedure is wrought with hazards and surprises and not always successful. From the above description of the procedure, it is also obvious that introducing a new chemical for sale can be a very expensive undertaking both in manpower and in dollar cost. What can be done to increase odds for success? First we must look at what is fairly likely to go wrong. This is not a complete list.


 

 

                     The process does not work on a plant scale - This can be for a large number of reasons including; different chemistry after the scale up from lab to plant, purification problems from bad physical property data or unexpected byproducts, equipment that does not work, corrosion problems, and so on.

                     The cost is too high - This can be from higher raw material costs or from higher processing or utility costs.

                     The customer wants an unrealistic price - This is always a possibility.

                     The product does not meet customer needs - This can happen when the product is somewhat different from what the customer evaluated from lab-scale equipment or perhaps there is a contaminant that cannot be removed. The customer may also be developing a new product and must make changes in raw material requirements.

                     There is really not much market for the product - This really can happen.

                     Governmental regulation problems - Government regulations change or may not be clear. This may be a tough one and may not be avoidable all the time.

 

The Argument for Semi-Commercial Production

 

In almost all cases with a new product, the product can initially be produced on a semi-commercial scale to avoid some of the problems in the preceding section. It has been my personal experience that almost 100 percent of the processes going through a semi-commercial phase are ultimately successful whereas a large percentage of the processes going from lab-scale to commercial plants are failures.  The production can be ramped up slowly and problems solved without the considerable expense of running a large plant.

 

Semi-commercial production may be done in a number of ways. The first idea that comes to mind is to build a semi-commercial plant. This is a very expensive option and probably should only considered if there will be a very slow ramp-up of product sales. The next option that comes to mind is to use existing commercial equipment to make the product. This has the advantage of low investment and usually trained personnel are available. Processing may even be split between two or more locations. The third option is to use a custom processor or a combination of existing equipment and custom processing. Innovation is the key here. Careful attention to detail can keep costs down. The semi-commercial production can very well be profitable. 

 

What Semi-commercial Production Accomplishes

 

There are several advantages of semi-commercial production of a new chemical product.          

                     Production may begin with a few drums of material and move to an occasional truck load, and then to larger volumes. In the meantime, the customer is using the material on a commercial scale. Quality problems may surface and can be worked out with little expense. At this time a more accurate estimate can be made of market size and ultimate pricing. Quick response to customer needs is much more possible.

                     Technical personnel have an opportunity to work with customers on quality issues without the cost and pressure of running a commercial plant in the meantime.

                     Development personnel have a chance to make sure that the process works well on a much larger scale and to have a chance to make design changes without major costs.

                     Any adverse regulatory issues may surface and can be addressed during this time.

                     This is an excellent opportunity to work with a customer who uses your new product in his new product. Frequently the customer will find that his product needs modification and his requirements will change. Your product can change and you are not stuck with a fixed plant geared to an outdated product. An example of this would be if an additional purification or processing step is required.

 

The use of semi-commercial production of a new chemical can be very valuable in insuring the success of a new project.

 

Pierce Burns, PE

 

Biography:

Pierce Burns, PE, retired from Texaco Chemical after 34 years of service. During his career with Texaco, he worked first in process development and later was in charge of the Process Demonstration Section at the Austin Labs. The section manufactured products during the transition from research to large-scale plants.

Pierce holds a BS degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Texas in Austin. He is the holder of eight US patents and twelve foreign patents.

Contact Information:

Pierce Burns

12109 Shetland Chase

Austin, Texas 78727

512.258.2158


Article # 0017         TEST QUESTIONS

1.  When a new chemical product requires a new plant and a new process, there are numerous research and design jobs to be done prior onset of manufacturing. Some of these are:

  1. Cost and Profitability Study

  2. Chemical and Reaction Data

  3.  Process Development Data

  4. All of the above

2.   Process Development Data would include the following:

  1. Reaction rates

  2. Environmental impact data

  3. A marketing plan

  4. All of the above

3.   According to the author, which of the following is an advantage of semi-commercial production?

  1. The production can be ramped up slowly and problems solved without the considerable expense of running a large plant.

  2. Any adverse regulatory issues may surface and can be addressed during this time.

  3. Quality issues may be resolved with little expense

  4. All of the above

4.   According to the author, which of the following problems can arise during initial commercial production?

  1. The reaction by-products may not be reusable.

  2. Foreign competition can reduce or eliminate profit margins.

  3. All of the above

  4. None of the above

5.  Which of the following is a means of accomplishing semi-commercial production?   

  1. The research laboratory can be expanded to make more product.

  2. The use of existing commercial equipment to make the product

  3. All of the above

  4. None of the above

6.   What is a reason for a chemical process to not work on a plant scale

  1. changes in government regulations

  2. unexpected byproducts

  3. microbial contamination

  4. All of the above

7.    If the new product is very similar to one already being produced, then ...

  1. the market is probably already saturated.

  2. the molecular weights will be similar.

  3. it is easier to comply with government regulations

  4. None of the above

8.   Per the article, what could cause the products cost to be too high?  

  1. unreasonable customer expectations.

  2. shorter than expected equipment life.

  3. higher utility costs.

  4. All of the above

9.   The use of existing commercial equipment to make the product has the advantage of ...

  1. low investment costs.

  2. known product to waste ratios.

  3. reduced time to market.

  4. All of the above

10.   Why would a product not meet the customers needs?   - This can happen when the product is somewhat different from what the customer evaluated from lab-scale equipment or perhaps there is a contaminant that cannot be removed. The customer may also be developing a new product and must make changes in raw material requirements.

  1. When the available quantities are insufficient.

  2. When there is an unusual odor or color

  3. When the product is somewhat different than produced from the lab-scale equipment.

  4. All of the above

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