Why do process industries need specific methods?

Material transformation industries, in all sectors and of all sizes, are often forced into trial and error approaches at the technical level. The impact on development times and costs, the instability generated in industrialization or non-conformities are sometimes far from negligible.

When we take a closer look at these approaches without considering them, which is often the case, as inevitable, we realize that the usual industrial methods paradoxically lead to reinforcing the empiricism that they aim to reduce. Could it be that the technical operations of the transformation of matter put the usual methods at fault?

What is the industrial transformation of material?

The fundamental principle of any material transformation activity is tomake changes to the structure, shape and functionality of one or more materials by the action of processes implemented by machines.

Transformation can concern different levels of phenomena within matter (chemical, physico-chemical, physical, biological, etc.), that the action of a system of elements that mix, pump, heat, dose, coat, spray , etc., makes it possible.

Transformation can concern different levels of phenomena within matter (chemical, physico-chemical, physical, biological, etc.), that the action of a system of elements that mix, pump, heat, dose, coat, spray , etc., makes it possible.

The result of the transformation thus generally depends not less on the composition than on the conditions of implementation. For example, the flavor of the cake depends as much on the ingredients as on the temperature and the cooking time.

Likewise, the drying of a powder by atomization, the manufacture of a part in thermoplastic resin or a lip balm will depend both on the nature of the material and the conditions imposed on it.

Proof of the couplings between materials and conditions of implementation by the burnt cake

The methodological paradox of coupling

Therefore, the transformation of material intrinsically consists of a coupling of the material(s) via implementation processes to make products with given properties. The men and women in the field who, from R&D to application, deal with its complexities and hazards on a daily basis are fully aware of this fundamental technical principle of material transformation.

However, surprisingly, at the level of technical organization, the role played by these couplings in the performance and the difficulties encountered do not seem to translate into a methodical approach. The usual methods act “as if” such couplings did not exist or played a clearly secondary role.

The usual methods act “as if” such couplings did not exist or played a clearly secondary role.

“Go through the process”

In the vast majority of manufacturing industries, R&D approaches focus on the product and its functionalities, without really taking into account implementation issues other than “because it has to”.

The influence of the process will be studied "in situ", during industrialization, that is to say on a scale greater than the laboratory scale, with industrial-type means, but on a reduced scale compared to the final production scale. It is a question of adjusting the process conditions to achieve the targeted functionalities from the product conditions fixed in R&D, which is not without difficulty, sometimes forcing a review of the formulation.

It is not uncommon for these difficulties to also appear at the production level, for no clear reason, leaving many with the feeling of “going through the process”.

Couplings as a universal root cause?

The root cause of such problems, whatever the material or the process, is unambiguous: with fixed “material conditions”, the modification of the implementation conditions modifies the nature of the couplings and therefore the final properties.

Situations in which it is not are unfortunately the exception and not the rule. This is precisely the challenge of bringing a process under control: limiting the impact of inevitable variability on the properties of the products.

Without control of these couplings, there is no chance of avoiding variability that risks generating nonconformities. Without understanding the influencing factors of these couplings, there is no chance of mastering them other than “by chance”.

Rethinking development logics

Industrial methods are essentially derived from assembly industries (see our article “Quality and transformation of materials”), in which the couplings between material and conditions of implementation seem less complex - less non-linear to speak as a scientist. This largely explains the coupling paradox mentioned above.

To recall that the couplings between the materials and their conditions of implementation are the heart of any technical activity of material transformation, it is simply to suggest that everything in the practices, the industrial methods and their tools ignores this state in fact has a good chance of going the wrong way. In particular, automated tools have no chance of solving these problems if the data on which they rely are blind to these couplings.

[…] anything in practices, industrial methods and their tools that disregards this state of affairs is likely to be on the wrong track.

Towards a “profound knowledge” ?

William Deming, a great promoter of statistical control methods in the 1950s, called, in the second part of his career, organizations to develop a " profound knowledge of their (dis)functioning to improve their workings and ultimately their performance, flexibility or capacity for innovation.

It is to an approach of this nature that we also invite us at the technical level. Awareness of the criticality of the couplings between materials and implementation in material transformation processes constitutes an important first step in our eyes, central in all our methods.

Last Updated on September 15, 2022 by Vincent Billot