“How can we build the most advanced paints and coatings plant in the world?”
That was the challenge AkzoNobel posed to Siemens. The answer? A bespoke, highly automated, integrated control system that manages every manufacturing process with precision - allowing everything from product orders to shipping to be initiated without operator intervention.
But it’s not the whole story.
Behind the technology lies complexity, collaboration and ingenuity. This is how Siemens' proven project management model helped AkzoNobel turn the production wheel of 3500 paint varieties in only two weeks and put the global chemicals manufacturer a generation ahead of the competition.
Siemens tailors every project to the client, according to the following stages:
- Scoping- Defining goals and initial knowledge gathering
- Discovery- Immersion in the challenge and bringing on board the relevant specialists
- Process and plant design- Determining how the site will function, coordinating teams and staying open to new priorities
- Engineering and commissioning- Developing and remotely testing software to align with the construction timeline and minimise downtime
- Testing-Ensuring all solutions are fully functional and fulfil their objectives
- Lifecycle support-Ongoing maintenance and continuous optimisation
Step 1. ScopingDefining goals and initial knowledge gathering
The first step in any project is immersion in the client's operations and objectives.
AkzoNobel wanted to build an entirely new site in Ashington, UK. One so sophisticated it would future-proof its operations and become the prototype for all global locations. So Siemens visited AkzoNobel's established sites in Slough, Stowmarket and the North East to understand existing practices and begin to explore opportunities to refine - or revolutionise - the paint production process.
Over 3500 different products are produced at Ashington. Traditionally that could take up to three months; at Ashington it takes just two weeks.
AkzoNobel needed to maintain batch complexity while dramatically increasing productivity to meet increasing customer demand. Furthermore, the plant had to ensure compliance with safety regulations and support the manufacturer’s sustainability goals of reducing waste and reusing energy and solvents. This meant establishing an unprecedented level of automation - and an operating environment in which the right information is made available to the right people at the right time. Precisely the kind coordination it would take to make the site a reality.
At the project's peak, over 40 Siemens specialists were working on the Ashington plant, including engineers, technical architects, solutions architects and automation experts. How do you successfully manage an undertaking of this scale and complexity? Ask Russell Crane, who headed up the Siemens project management team:
"This wasn't just new territory for AkzoNobel; it was new territory for the chemicals industry," said Russell. "We were embarking on something that had never been done before. We had to trust each other."
As the sole supplier, Siemens’ collaborative approach would prove just as critical as its technical capability. Russell and his team were a constant presence, from pre-build to completion and beyond. He quickly established a close working relationship built on honesty and mutual respect.
“AkzoNobel respected our advice because we asked the right questions - and listened to the answers. The whole process was finely tuned to their needs,” explained Russell.
At the project's peak, over 40 Siemens specialists were working on the Ashington plant
Step 2. DiscoveryImmersion in the challenge and bringing on board the relevant specialists
Discovery workshops enable Siemens to extract as much information as possible from clients, define requirements and assign responsibilities. The process is identical for both greenfield and brownfield sites, and Ashington was no exception.
At this stage, Siemens began discussing potential solutions with the client, identifying opportunities and challenges to overcome, and laying the groundwork for the next phase.
“It’s about getting the right people in the room to share their expertise and take ownership, ensuring the process is coordinated from the outset,” said Russell.
Step 3. Process and plant designDefining how the site will function, coordinating teams and staying open to new priorities
Every design phase is a mutual learning exercise to some extent. But in this case, the requirements were so unique that Siemens and AkzoNobel had to collaborate very closely to scope and prioritise each process. Flexibility was essential.
“Our project management model is rigorous but not rigid,” said Russell. “With a project of this scope, you have to allow things to evolve. It’s about having the systems in place to respond to unexpected challenges-and seize new opportunities when they arise.”
Project delivery at Siemens is a milestone process in time, quality and budget
The proposed processes were divided up and worked on by teams of two. These teams scoped all aspects of their assigned tasks, which allowed AkzoNobel to re-prioritise their objectives partway into the project. For example, an initial requirement to clean the paint production system after use evolved into a thorough investigation to develop the most efficient way to clean during production; organising paints into cleaning groups from light to dark and minimising the use of water and chemicals.
The scale of the project required two technology platforms and international collaboration between Siemens divisions in the UK and Italy.
In the UK, Siemens Digital Industries used Process Control System SIMATIC PCS 7 to fully automate all processes and provide digital interfaces for ease of operation. They worked closely with their Genoa-based colleagues at Siemens IT, who controlled the Manufacturing Execution System (MES) SimaticIT Classic (previously called SimaticIT Production System) to deliver vertical and horizontal integration of each process - including scheduling, quality, and manufacturing intelligence - and interactive dashboards for analysis of production data.
Step 4. Engineering and commissioningDeveloping and remotely testing software to align with the construction timeline and minimise downtime
After design, comes the all-important build and implementation of the technology. The goal is seamless processes, seamlessly integrated.
Siemens developed its software to align with the overall construction timeline, carrying out extensive visualisation and simulation tests before each part of the factory was commissioned. Remote testing streamlines construction on greenfield sites like Ashington and dramatically minimises downtime on brownfield sites.
Step 5. TestingEnsuring all solutions are fully functional and fulfil their objectives
An essential part of any project. Siemens tailors its testing programme to customer requirements and the demands of each site.
Once in place at Ashington, the technology was thoroughly assessed to ensure it reliably met all requirements. The project team and Siemens engineers were on hand to support with teething issues and ensure any concerns were swiftly resolved.
Step 6. Lifecycle supportOngoing maintenance and continuous optimisation
Project management doesn't end when the project ends. Siemens provides full lifecycle support to manage essential site maintenance and ensure systems retain their value, as well as continuous improvement packages that deliver incremental efficiency gains and raise production output.
Russell and the team remain in close communication with AkzoNobel to keep the plant running smoothly and identify opportunities for further modifications or enhancements.
The Ashington plant has revolutionised the paints and coatings production process.
A single integrated control system manages all manufacturing technologies within the plant. Every activity - from the ordering of raw materials to the shipping of finished products - can be initiated without operator intervention.
The highly agile production system reduces the carbon footprint of each litre of paint by up to 50% compared to conventional plants and produce 3,500 paint varieties in just two weeks, transforming the UK&I supply chain.
“All of this was made possible by Siemens’ world-leading technology and dedicated project management,” said Russell. “I’m incredibly proud of the team. Together with AkzoNobel, we’ve coordinated a highly ambitious, complex project to deliver a true industry first.”