Automating Your Hazardous Fluid Process

Many companies involved in laboratory scale handling of hazardous fluids for research and development eventually transition from manual processes to automation as the production needs grow.

This transition promises reduced costs while increasing volumes and quality. Often, the researchers who have an excellent knowledge of the process do not have the automation expertise to create the equipment themselves.  Partnering with the right automation professionals early in the process will help ensure a smooth path to a successful project.

Key Challenges:

  • How to translate an existing manual process into an automated system that is safe and reliable, and able to meet production and quality needs.

Recommendations:

  • Begin with a formal definition phase to the project. The outputs of this phase should include a Safety Risk Assessment, a Process and Instrumentation Diagram (P&ID) of the envisioned process, and a Functional Specification.

INTRODUCTION

Processes utilizing hazardous fluids on a small scale are being developed at an ever-increasing rate in laboratories across the world for a wide variety of products for biotechnology, pharmaceutical, and semiconductor companies.

hfp-lab-processMost of these processes are developed in a laboratory setting. The processes are performed and controlled by a human. At some point, the process begins the transition from research to product. The volume of production must be multiplied by orders of magnitude. Although the volume of chemicals involved is still very small compared to the traditional chemical industry, the labor involved or the level of control required with increased production makes automating the process very attractive from both economic and quality perspectives.

Working with automation professionals during this definition phase brings the knowledge from your company together with the expertise of the automation professionals to create a smooth path for the project. Each team will ask questions the other may not have considered. Research will cover the regulations, codes, and permits that will apply to the proposed equipment. A formal iterative FMEA (Failure Modes and Effects Analysis) will be performed based on the P&ID and the above knowledge and update the P&ID accordingly. The project is now ready for the design team – design layout, engineering calculations, component sizing, and CAD design can begin!

fluid process automationEQUIPMENT SPECIFICATION STEPS

Chemicals

The automation team must acquire a clear understanding of the chemicals involved in the process, the hazards of each chemical, and any potential interactions between chemicals or other materials. Defining compatible materials for the valves, piping or tubing, pumps, tanks, process chamber, etc. has a huge effect on the design. The process team usually has a good grasp on the chemicals and compatible materials and can communicate the main body of the information to the automation team. In addition, the automation team should review the SDS (Safety Data Sheet) for each chemical and do some research into the material compatibility issues and hazards of each chemical as well.

P&ID

The Process and Instrumentation Diagram is used to lay out the process in a manner that visually represents the process and identifies all the major functional components involved.

The scientists, engineers, and technicians that have developed the process are critical to developing the P&ID. They know the critical parameters of the process such as flow rates, temperatures, and sensitivities to items such as exposure to oxygen in the air, moisture absorption, contamination, bubbles, and even vibrations. They know what makes the process fail. They understand the hazards of the fluids they are working with. Their knowledge is critical to creating a successful automated system, and their knowledge must be shared with the automation team.

“The P&ID is the root of the design process.  Not only does it lay out the required components and functions, but it also gives a unique identifier to each component that prevents confusion when discussing components.  The P&ID is a living document throughout the design phase, and it typically goes through many revisions before any CAD work begins.”

Process and Instrumentation Diagram

Safety Risk Assessment

After understanding the chemicals involved and laying out the basic process in the P&ID, performing a formal Safety Risk Assessment is an ideal way to start a project. Bring together your process experts with the automation team to ensure everyone has a clear picture of the system and the hazards to be mitigated. The overall system may include the actual process equipment and a chemical supply system.Questions to consider include:

  • Are the chemicals flammable? Toxic? Corrosive? Heated?
  • Will the chemicals react with each other if mixed or leaked?
  • Can an explosive fume cloud be created by a pressurized leak?
  • In what ways could the chemicals or the equipment harm a person or cause the machine to fail in a dangerous manner?
  • What volumes are involved?
  • What are the codes and regulations the design must meet?

“The Safety Risk Assessment should be revisited and updated at every step in the design process.  As the equipment design progresses, new safety questions must be asked and answered.”

hfp-lel-monitorOut of the initial safety discussion will come design questions. What level of ventilation is needed for the area where the equipment will be? Where is secondary containment and leak detection needed? Are LEL monitors or hazardous gas detectors needed? Is extra fire detection and suppression equipment warranted? What happens to any waste? Does effluent need to be treated or routed to appropriate containers for disposal? Do tubing runs for reactive chemicals need to be separated? Where are the chemical supply and waste lines going in the facility? Are hazardous fluids being routed overhead in an occupied work area?

Functional Specification

A Functional Specification is a written document that defines what criteria the finished system must meet. It defines the operating parameters that are not communicated on the P&ID, such as fill times, flow rates, and temperatures. How accurate does a dosing pump need to be? How much time is required for a reaction to run? How many recipes does the system need to be capable of running? What happens with the process data and the lot numbers? Who has access through the HMI to what functions of the equipment? There are many questions that will be asked by the design team that need to be definitively answered in a Functional Specification.

Regulatory

Identifying the regulations, codes, and permit requirements that will apply to your system is probably the most overlooked area of the design requirements. How are your chemicals classified by NFPA 497? How does that affect your equipment design? Not knowing these up front can have a devastating impact on the tail end of a project.The worst case is to have an inspector block the equipment at installation.

Does your process utilize flammable liquids? Talk to your local fire marshal up front and identify the fire codes you will need to follow and the permits you will need to apply for. You will find special NFPA codes for your process with flammable fluids as well as local codes, permits, and even zoning issues. Is your equipment going to be replicated in Europe? You need to understand the impact that CE marking of the equipment will have on your design and your costs. Is this a product that will require compliance with FDA codes such as CFR 21? There may be a large impact on your control system and data storage requirements. How does OSHA apply to the proposed equipment? Is there a seismic zone that requires structural design by a registered engineer? Does your exhaust system require a permit from the EPA and monitoring of chemical loads?

The automation team should have experience in a wide breadth of regulatory environments, and can involve experts in these regulatory fields up front to avoid investing time and money in the wrong design path.

compliance logos

Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA)

Now that a preliminary P&ID and Functional Specification exist, and the chemicals involved are understood, the next step is to identify potential failure modes. Depending on the complexity of the system, the FMEA is frequently divided into two sections, a Process FMEA and a Safety FMEA.

By stepping through the P&ID one component at a time and asking how that component could fail and what the effect of the failure could be, the FMEA process is designed to guide the team to mitigate and minimize the risks by taking a structured approach. Items like relief valves, secondary containment, ventilation, drain valves, flush valves, and other peripherals that are critical to the success of the project but perhaps not immediately necessary to the process itself come to light during this process. This phase often identifies facilities changes that are needed as well.

Skipping this exercise before the design phase begins may set the project up for failure with an artificially low scope, schedule, and budget for the project. For example, if facilities modifications required for ventilation and waste handling are not identified up front, but are only discovered after the design investment is nearly complete, the project is in real trouble. It is much better to budget for the needed equipment up front than to be surprised by the needs later in the project.

The results of the FMEA lead to revising the P&ID and iterating the FMEA until the risk levels are acceptable.

Partner for Success!

Creating a clean definition of your fluid handling automation project before beginning design is critical to budgeting, scheduling, and the overall success of the project. Partnering with automation professionals during the project definition phase can help ensure a smooth path forward for your project and fewer surprises along the road. Andrews-Cooper is ready to help you be successful!

hfp-equipment-spec-diagram

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