Achieving a Sustainable Manufacturing Advantage

An innovative IT solution can dramatically improve the operating environment and the bottom line at ethanol plants.
By Charles A. Horth | September 23, 2010
Ethanol manufacturers that want to achieve a sustainable manufacturing advantage and effectively compete in the fuel market will appreciate the help of an innovative information technology (IT) known as a manufacturing execution system (MES), also called a manufacturing operations management (MOM) system. This IT solution allows plant managers to make decisions quickly as market conditions change because it delivers real-time and accurate information about various systems in an ethanol plant. An MES helps a plant reach its optimal performance, resulting in improved revenues and profits.

In the pulp and paper industry—another commodity industry that has faced challenges similar to the ethanol industry's— MES was embraced with major success by many mills. In fact the mills that deployed an MES prospered in a very tough environment while those that did not implement an MES were challenged to survive and in some cases had to close. The ethanol industry today is facing what the pulp and paper market has faced for the past 15 years. Following this roadmap for success, an MES would be the next step in invigorating plants and operations in the ethanol industry.

Some ethanol manufacturers might not be familiar with the term manufacturing execution system, a generally accepted term for a software system that integrates business and plant operations data. An MES provides real time and historical data that generates reports and key performance indicators for plant managers and operational staff to effectively manage their plant(s) and improve quality, efficiency and productivity."

An MES is an information and control system that manages and monitors work-in-process, data on production infrastructure, control monitors and employee activities. The end result is a real-time view or a digital map that displays the entire manufacturing enterprise, activities and processes—providing vital information at a glance.

In the past, an MES operated as a self-contained system. Today's MES systems are increasingly being integrated with enterprise resource planning software as well as a myriad of other applications such as maintenance, lab reporting and, most strikingly, financial reporting systems—a key feature of the STI Corp. MES. With a fully integrated system everyone in the plant has access to the same real time information to help maintain seamless operations. With the ability to access any piece of information, from daily corn usage to monthly income statements, plants will be better equipped to enhance their operations and, most importantly, continue producing ethanol profitably.

An MES is designed to address productivity gains, reduce energy consumption, reduce raw material costs (or increase yield with the same amount of feed stock) and increase product traceability as well as many other benefits. In addition, real-time information on key functions such as laboratory data, batch fermentation analysis, process/product traceability and material balance controls, adds to the return on investment.

U.S. ethanol plants participating in a 2009 survey by Christianson and Associates produce an average of 2.73 gallons of ethanol per bushel of corn. For an ethanol plant that produces 70 million gallons per year (an average U.S. plant) an MES can realize a very attractive return on investment. Assuming a 2.6 percent yield increase of approximately 1.79 million gallons at a 70 MMgy facility—a yield increase to 2.8 gallons per bushel of corn—and an average market price of $1.55 per gallon, that extra yield with the same amount of feed stock used results in about $2.7 million in increased revenues. This estimate does not include increased bottom line profits through decreased energy costs and other gains in efficiencies. Current corn and ethanol rack prices will determine the expected ROI. A typical MES investment for a plant producing 70 MMgy is around $600,000 to $700,000 for software and implementation. This indicates a very attractive return on investment which can be achieved in approximately six months or less.

Additionally, to improve manufacturing efficiencies and production results, plant management will have information tools and processes that generate important data about plant operations that may not be available to them without an MES. Examples include communicating production data in a standard company-wide reporting system; capturing key performance indicators (KPI) for quality control; identifying and scheduling maintenance needs; extending production runs by minimizing start-up time and maximizing uptime; and supplying process monitoring tools for research and development. An MES system can also help a plant react and respond quickly to changing markets and customer needs through the improved ability to optimize batch results through traceability.

Resolving Pain Points
An MES system should provide detailed information on the following critical processes that in many cases present "pain points" that need to be resolved.

Process traceability is necessary for production staff to be able to diagnose issues and optimize processes. The system must allow for full traceability of all operational activity, producing records of real time operational performance. An MES can even anticipate the effect of process changes by extrapolating from prior performance at the plant.

The fast access accorded by an MES provides a valid and precise picture of production. If an operational parameter is out of specification, an MES will quickly identify the production segments associated with this problem and provide the operators with instant access to the associated key performance indicators. Then, operators can begin to take corrective actions to remedy the root cause of the problem and minimize the negative cost effects of a process deviation.

An MES collects information such as flows and downtime directly from the programmable logic controller (PLC) and/or from other systems and sources. The PLC or control layer will supply the MES with an event—for example the duration of a distillation downtime—that could cause a production delay if not dealt with promptly. The equipment failure can be logged and a root cause analysis can be performed to prevent reoccurrences.

MES also provides real-time downtime tracking, identifying possible causes with automated data collection where possible. It records operational parameters associated with production performance that can be tracked by various parameters such as throughput, operator, shift, etc. The MES publishes efficiency information and reports to the entire plant.

MES also creates root-cause screens that include Pareto charts and reports to identify and reduce downtime, waste and performance issues. It develops screens to display the summary of production of all shifts and fermentation batches for use by foremen and operators.

An MES will manage by-products as well as end products and manage all manual and lab data entry such as specifications management, control specifications and customer specifications (with automated certificates of authenticity). Recipe management of raw materials and process conditions, alarms capability; quality alarms, set point change alarms and conditional adjustments can also be managed with an MES system. It also has statistical quality control capability, document management for the lab allowing technicians to consult online work instructions, quality tracking of manual entries and control systems data, by both time and by events. Simple and complex calculations can also be executed.

Market feedback indicates the three most important attributes of an MES are the ability to integrate with financial reporting systems, report data on a real time basis and measure overall equipment effectiveness. EP

Charles A. Horth is founder and CEO of STI Corp. Reach him at or (819) 373-3332.