Flexible thanks to modular production

In order to respond to ever-faster batch changes, new production facilities have to be flexible and effective. Merck and Siemens are seeking to fulfill these requirements in their efforts to develop a modular filter plant – and they are also working together to promote the agile standardization of modular production.

by Moritz Gathmann

These days, manufacturers bring new smartphones to market every year. As a producer of liquid crystals and OLED materials for displays of all kinds, pharmaceutical and chemical group Merck KGaA is having to step up its efforts to remain flexible. “Product life cycles are getting shorter and shorter,” explains Christian Schäfer, head of Merck’s Automation Technology team, at a meeting with his colleagues from Siemens in the Smart Automation Test Lab in Karlsruhe.

Joint pioneering work

“Over the past three decades it went like this: You decided what you wanted to make, and then you ordered a specialized automated plant that would then operate for a number of years. But that doesn’t work anymore,” says Schäfer. The market demands smaller and smaller batches produced more and more quickly. Does that mean you have to build a new production plant for each batch? Impossible, especially for Merck with its small volumes manufactured in the usual high-production facilities. New plants have to be flexible and efficient. “Our response to Industrie 4.0 is modularization,” explains Schäfer.

Our response to Industrie 4.0 is modularization
Christian Schäfer, head of the Automation Technology team at Merck KGaA

To this end, he’s joined forces with his colleagues at Siemens, where modular automation is an equally hot topic. “In this case we’re cooperating as product pioneers to tread new ground in terms of standardizing modular automation,” explains Mathias Maurmaier, Engineering and Automation Project Manager at Siemens Process Industries and Drives.

Connecting modules in serial, parallel, or both

Soon a specialist firm in Switzerland will be supplying Merck with a new filter plant comprising a wide range of different modules that can be connected in serial, parallel, or both, depending on the product. Each module is equipped with a Siemens control system, and it can be operated individually.


More than that, within NAMUR, the User Association of Automation Technology in Process Industries, there have been discussions on norms for modularization for years. Siemens and Merck want to be among those spearheading these efforts. “If we can present a common front on that platform and can show, for example, that the Human Machine Interface (HMI) facet and services that we have developed function, we’ll naturally enjoy a whole different standing,” explains Schäfer.

Plug and produce

The people at the Smart Automation Test Lab in Karlsruhe demonstrate how it works. The modules can be docked with the backbone, just like a space station. The magic term is plug and produce. Production installations are put together from different modules, but with minimal engineering time. This requires physically plugging in the modules. But they also have to be interconnected digitally, which is a different matter entirely.

It’s important for the control system to be able to orchestrate the modules. For this to happen, they all have to speak a single standard.
Dieter Ziegler, Key Account Manager, Siemens AG

“The real know-how lies in the IT,” explains Siemens Key Account Manager Dieter Ziegler. Each module has a digital Module Type Package (MTP), which contains information on what the module can do. “Then it’s important for the control system to be able to orchestrate the modules. For this to happen, they all have to speak a single standard.”

Agile standardization

For years these standards have been the focus of work at NAMUR and the Association of German Engineers (VDI). But Siemens and Merck don’t want to wait for final approval of the standards before they get going. Instead, the partners are putting a kind of agile standardization into practice themselves. “We no longer wait until a standard has spent years in a committee being honed to completion; instead, we work in parallel with the committee to develop initial solutions to be used in customer projects,” explains Maurmaier. This way, Siemens customers benefit from the new standard early on.

The switch to modular production is also designed to facilitate the transition from batch to continuous production. “Alongside higher productivity, bigger process windows, and greater process stability, this closed approach naturally means more safety for our staff,” says Schäfer.

The courage to innovate

Christian Schäfer is obviously excited to be doing pioneering work, and convinced that in Siemens he’s chosen the right partner to do so. “Siemens is one of Merck’s standard suppliers,” he explains. “They provide a full range, are closely aligned with our processes, and know our needs. This makes it possible to reconcile complex requirements,” says Schäfer.


Moritz Gathmann

Picture credits: Siemens AG / Martin Leissl

Merck is a leading science and technology company in healthcare, life science, and performance materials. Since its establishment 350 years ago in Darmstadt, Germany, Merck has become a truly global company, with 52,000 employees in 66 countries working on breakthrough solutions and technologies.

In the United States and Canada Merck operates as EMD Serono in the biopharma business, as MilliporeSigma in the life science business, and as EMD Performance Materials in the materials business.

With origins going back to the year 1668, Merck is the oldest pharmaceutical and chemical company in the world.

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