Discussion Central

Manufacturing in the time of COVID

  • 1.  Manufacturing in the time of COVID

    Posted 11 days ago
    Edited by Phillip Westmoreland 11 days ago
    Much of manufacturing cannot be done without people on-site, but I'm not hearing much public discussion of that issue or how best to operate.  That includes the chemical process industries, from refining to pharmaceuticals to food processing to making hand sanitizer. Do you have best practices to recommend?
    Our digital connectedness does help a lot of virtual activities to go on in management and administration. Companies that share cloud-based data and tools can carry out many functions effectively, even from offsite through VPNs and other secure routes. In continuous processing, you can operate for long periods and just monitor. With computer-based automatic control, you don't have to be at a valve to open it when conditions change.

    Unattended control rooms and "lights-out manufacturing" aren't the norm, though. Moreover, people-free manufacturing is out of the question when things aren't working right or need maintenance or just careful examination. Process engineers and operators and craftspeople are in the thick of it. Operating the supply chain has its own challenges, too. As one example, manufacturers don't use autonomous forklifts as much as warehouses and distribution centers may, and truckers work with a lot of people in doing their jobs.

    Some ordinary steps are helpful in the near and long term. One approach is to rely more on skeleton crews as the number of infections increase. Shift work naturally limits the interpersonal contact from shift to shift. Heightened attention to hygienic practices helps, too. Although the duration isn't as long, there are clear analogies to operational changes during shorter-term weather events.

    Still, I expect the worldwide ChE community could benefit from your observations and suggestions about how to operate manufacturing sites and altered workflows in the face of COVID-19 -- and other possible future disruptions.

    Phillip Westmoreland FAIChE
    Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
    North Carolina State University, Raleigh NC