FEW: Increased efficiencies driving plant profits

By Dave Nilles | June 02, 2008
Fuel ethanol producers continue to tweak production processes in order to maximize efficiency and boost the bottom line. While the industry has always done so, it now has the option of specialized optimization techniques, including software programs and technology. Several industry experts discussed the importance "data visibility" plays in the industry at the International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo on June 17 in Nashville, Tenn.

Data drives financial performance, according to Brandon Henning, global industry manager of biodiesel for GE Fanuc. "It's critical in today's space," he said. Henning was one of four speakers in a workshop panel aimed at improving production efficiencies. The panel's goal was to discuss how the smart usage of data impacts the plant from management to operations to controls.

Maina Macharia, manager of project engineering for Pavilion Technologies, provided a step-by-step glimpse at how a Colorado ethanol producer implemented a plant-wide optimization program based on advanced process control (For more information, visit http://www.ethanolproducer.com/article.jsp?article_id=4277). Sterling Ethanol is a 42 MMgy plant that started up in November 2005. Macharia said the facility was an early adopter of advanced process control, and the benefits are showing it was worth the move. He said the plant's goals include improving yield, throughput and quality, while reducing operating costs. "It's a balance game," Macharia said. "You're trying to run the plant hard while watching your constraints and making sure the fermenters don't run too long."

Macharia said a properly executed control system allows plant managers to view near-real-time operating margins. This also allows managers to view and define specific impacts to operating margins. Then they can assign a dollar amount to events in the production process. Making operators aware of these events allows such things to be alleviated or eliminated.

Macharia said it's critical to make sure the plant's instruments are taking repeatable readings prior to implementing a system. Instrument error ranges must also be defined for accuracy. Sterling's control system reduced overall batch time by two hours and added an overall 18 percent increase in throughput.

Henning summed up the industry challenges as maximizing plant efficiency to meet increased demand while best utilizing a facility's equipment and energy inputs. He said that a survey of more than 200 manufacturers across a wide swath of industries showed great value in installing production management software to provide real-time visibility into operations. Overall equipment effectiveness increased 10 percent. The average unscheduled downtime decreased 4 percent to 6 percent. The average scheduled downtime decreased 2 percent to 4 percent, and the average waste rate declined 4 percent to 8 percent. It adds up to significant improvements for ethanol producers. Henning said a 1 percent increase in fermentation yield generates $1 million in incremental revenues at a 50 MMgy plant.

Production management software and process control systems are the "Rolls-Royce" of data collection tools, according to Jesper Frickman, customer solutions and biofuels scientist with Novozymes North America. However, other data-tracking options are available that don't require extensive research and costs. Regardless of how data is collected, Frickman said baseline information should be accumulated when the plant is running well. From there, the producer can set accurate control limits for process variables. It also helps to determine why a plant is running well or poorly. "If your ethanol [throughput] is going up and a month later it is going down, you have no idea why it was going so well, so it's still something that should be investigated," Frickman said.