When corn is turned into clothing

Polyamide is essential for many everyday objects, from garments and shoes to car parts. In its digital factory, Cathay Industrial Biotech Ltd. in China now produces the popular material from renewable biomass.

Producing the popular raw material polyamide from corn is tricky. That’s because the organisms used for this are complicated and mutable. Fully mastering all the subtle details of the conversion process is difficult, and the relationship between different strains, reaction conditions, and the yield are complex.

“With big data, we can learn more about the laws guiding production,” says Liu Xiucai, Chairman and CEO of Cathay. “In fact, the efficiency of bio-manufacturing can only be improved by integrating the whole production chain with hardware and software control; collecting, processing and analyzing data automatically; and then feeding the analysis results back to production.” 

Although polyamide is traditionally synthesized from fossil raw materials in petrochemical plants, Cathay Industrial Biotech Ltd. is pursuing a completely new approach. In its digital factory, the company produces polyamide from corn and other renewable biomass. Making yarn out of corn creates fiber with a CO2 footprint of only 50 percent compared to fiber made from oil. A major enabler is digital factory technology from Siemens.
“Conventional petrochemical industries are faced with the risks of resource depletion as well as the problem of carbon dioxide emissions. Compared to chemical processes, bio-manufacturing offers many benefits, including the use of renewable resources, mild reaction conditions, and environmental friendliness,” says Liu.

But how does the digital factory at Cathay actually work? Here’s how digitalization is making individual areas in the plant even more productive.

A boost for R&D

Every year, the researchers at Cathay examine more than 500,000 samples, looking for strains of microorganisms and fermentation conditions for industrial production. They are supported by the Simatic SIPAT software featuring Process Analytical Technology (PAT). Sipat helps the researchers to directly identify the relations between some important parameters and the yield through digital analytics, reducing the number of processes required. 

Uninterrupted operation

Once bioproduction has started, it cannot be interrupted. As a result, this requires seamless integration of the automation system. While the Simatic PCS 7 distributed control system from Siemens ensures continuous production, the Comos plant asset digital management system builds unified digital models. There is a digital twin for a wide range of plant assets, including processes, electrical systems, instruments, automatic control and pipelines.

Stable and efficient production

The Siemens manufacturing execution system Simatic IT ensures stable and efficient productions at Cathay. The system sends electronic work orders to operators every day, evaluates work quality and records it accurately. Production cannot proceed to the next step if any ingredient is not in place, or if any seed fermentation has not yet been completed. 

In addition, automation programs replace many production steps, thus reducing operation costs and error rates. Real-time feedback from the digital system also makes a direct contribution to improving efficiency. The secure storage of the process parameters ensures confidentiality of such things as the raw materials, formulas, and process conditions. Simatic IT is even able to automatically match the formula with the raw materials.

Building a digital factory in Wusu, Xinjiang, Cathay will be able to yield insights from big data that improve the production process. This is the strength of digitalization.
Liu Xiucai, Chairman and CEO of Cathay

Integrated maintenance

In the digital factory, maintenance becomes digital as well: Comos automatically develops maintenance plans based on equipment status and provides an up-to-date overview of the condition of each individual device in the factory. In case of a fault, Simatic PCS 7 sends an alarm immediately, which triggers Comos to generate and send a repair order to the responsible party. When the fault is fixed, an electronic record is generated automatically that can be used as a reference for future maintenance work and efficiency improvements. 

The new factory in Wusu is not just a modern manufacturing site; in Liu’s opinion, it is also defining the future of biotechnology: “Biotechnology can be used to manufacture better materials, to work more cost efficiently than the petrochemical industry, and also for mass production.” 

October 2019

Founded in 1997, Cathay Industrial Biotech Ltd. is the industry leader on the Chinese bioproduction market. In recent years, it has realized commercial-scale production of innovative products, including bio-based polyamide and bio-based 1,5-pentanediamine.

Siemens is helping Cathay to build a digital bioproduction facility in Wusu, located in the Xinjiang region of China. Digital solutions from Siemens cover the entire lifecycle of the process. After commissioning, the plant is expected to produce 100,000 tons of bio-based polyamide annually. In addition, 50,000 tons of bio-based 1,5-pentanediamine and 30,000 tons of long-chain dicarboxylic acid will be used as the source materials for the production of many products, such as perfume, lubricating oil, and medications.

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