Few ‘get rich quick’ guides, or online lists promising ‘seven tips to transform your business’, begin by imploring people to conduct an audit of their industrial blending equipment. Yet in the highly competitive process engineering industry, at a time of political crisis and economic uncertainty, more and more firms are seeking out the advantages of more effective and efficient ways of combining ingredients.
While all manufacturing sectors have their unique challenges, companies in all of them are ultimately trying to get ahead of their rivals in some way through their product. This might be by making something taste better, feel nicer, cost less, materialise quicker or carve out a benefit in any number of other variables.
Customers are increasingly willing to make changes to improve their product or their productivity, whereas in the past the attitude was more one of if it ain’t broke don’t fix it
Chris Ryan, marketing manager, Silverson Machines
Producing a new material or ingredient is one way of doing this – if you have the expertise and patience – but otherwise you’re likely to be using the same raw stuff as everyone else. So looking at the process by which you blend them is going to be key. Buckinghamshire-based Silverson Machines, which has customers around the world, has seen growth in the volume of manufacturing companies looking to hone their mixing and blending processes.
Ready to mix it
“We operate an in-house test centre,” says Silverson’s marketing manager Chris Ryan. “Over the last year we have had clients from many industries – food, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, chemicals – visiting us to carry out trials.
“We feel the trend is that customers are increasingly willing to make changes to their process or formulation to improve their product or their productivity, whereas in the past the attitude was more one of if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”
Ryan relates a story of one client who was using pectin – a naturally occurring substance used to make jams and jellies – in a process to manufacture a solution for market. By making changes to the kit used in mixing the pectin with other elements, the process engineer was able to reduce the amount of the ingredient it required.
“They were using far more pectin than they needed, to compensate for wastage due to lumps they couldn’t remove with their existing set-up,” says Ryan.
“This amounted to a significant cost as pectin is one of the most expensive raw materials in the formula. The company came to us to see whether they could improve their process – and the trials proved they could eliminate the waste altogether with a high shear mixer.”
Process plant managers and specifiers are becoming much more knowledgeable about blending kit, Ryan says, and relying less on supplier or consultancy advice.
Boost in the machine
“More and more enquiries are coming to us from people that have viewed our videos – both on our own website and through sources such as YouTube.
“For us this means enquiries are very specific as people have gathered a good amount of information before contacting us. It reflects how the process industry is increasingly well-informed.”
Peter Brown, managing director at Derbyshire-based Maelstrom Advanced Process Technologies [pictured], agrees that more process manufacturers are looking to their mixing machinery for an advantage.
“The need for doing new things with process equipment mainly comes from the large process companies,” he says. “Many of these are household names, but there are also quite a few in various industries you will never have heard of. They are normally either looking for competitive advantage in producing a new product or they are trying to solve an existing process problem.
“Nowadays, an increasing number of them are also chasing improvements in process energy efficiency and environmental protection, as they come under ever-increasing scrutiny to improve.”
In contrast to Ryan’s experience, Brown finds his customers are relying less on their own knowledge and putting the onus of solving their problems more on to suppliers.
“The most challenging aspect of addressing these needs from the equipment supplier’s point of view is the need to change its relationship with the process industries,” says Brown.
“The traditional approach relied on the knowledgeable customer trying to pick the correct machine for the application from a standard catalogue. These days we are s eeing customers increasingly presenting the equipment supplier with a processing challenge that might be solved by a standard selection or might require some extensive modification or customisation for success.”
This gives the machinery seller a chance to create its own competitive advantage in the way it meets the requirement of the manufacturer.
It takes two
“The equipment supplier needs to start by trying to understand the process goals and materials,” says Brown. “There is a much greater dialogue with the customer, and trials are aimed at understanding the process physics and ingredients rather than simply validating a standard catalogue selection.
“Although the costs and risks of this approach might be higher, the opportunities for equipment suppliers who can address the market in this way are huge, with a much greater possibility of becoming a true process partner to their customers and delivering long-term value.”
In a bid to meet increased demand fromindustry for improved mixing capability, Maelstrom has created the ConCor Mill. This two-roll machine is designed to achieve nano-particle deagglomeration and dispersion, something that has been challenging the sector for some time.
The equipment supplier needs to start by trying to understand the process goals and materials
Peter Brown, managing director, Maelstrom Advanced Process Technologies
“By running the rolls at extremely high speeds of 20,000rpm, in opposite directions, a differential speed of 40,000rpm can be obtained,” explains Brown. “Together with roll gaps in the micron region, this generates the enormous shear fields needed to tear nano agglomerates apart.”
Research is taking place into active pharmaceutical ingredient milling using this technique. Brown believes it could be scaled up to become a highly useful tool in process factories.
“As roll diameters increase, rotational speeds can come down, so large flowrates are perfectly feasible, and performance predictable.”
Maelstrom has also developed new forms of rotor-stator mixer that combine conventional high shear mixing with multi-stage nozzle homogenisation to “get the best of both worlds”. Meanwhile, Switzerland-headquartered global mixing equipment supplier Sulzer has developed the SX chemical and steam mixer, which it says creates reliable, homogenous process liquids at low cost.
The company says mixing chemicals and pulp is one of the most important operations in bleaching.
“Good mixing provides homogenous bleaching conditions, reduces the consumption of chemicals and energy, improves product quality and reduces the environmental load. Proper chemical mixing is a key factor in the success of new bleaching sequences.”
It adds that the SX mixers have no tight clearances that could cut or curl the fibre, weakening its strength or other properties.
“A rotor in the SX chemical mixers fluidises the pulp together with the casing turbulence generators. This disrupts the fibre network and results in optimum mixing with no gas separation. The excellent mixing results can be achieved with low power consumption.”
The company says there are Sulzer medium consistency (MC) pumping systems and chemical mixing arrangements working in pulp and paper mills in Asia and Australasia.
“Customers have reported substantial chemical savings in their processes,” it says. “Savings in power and chemicals are possible when the process parameters, MC pumping systems and chemical mixing arrangements are optimised. Remarkable savings in oxygen, steam and chemical quantities can also be achieved.”
It seems that, to stay competitive, you need to be thinking ahead about how to improve your mixing processes.