Manufacturing of TPR: Applying advanced technology to improve the product, technology control and monitoring.
Affresol Ltd. is a green technology business committed to reducing environmental impact; their innovative range of products and structural buildings are made from a high percentage of recycled materials, delivering long-term savings, high estandards, with a low carbon footprint with endorsement from the Carbon Trust.
Affresol manufactures a range of products using a new type of composite material called Thermo Poly Rock (TPR®). TPR® is a non-cementitious concrete, produced from a cold manufacturing process, that uses size reduced, recycled plastic waste products and minerals. The innovative mixing process produces a mouldable compound that is poured like a 'semi-dry' traditional concrete mix; soon afterwards there is an exothermic reaction and TPR® is solid after three hours.
Having successfully collaborated with ASTUTE during the 2010-2015 funding phase, Affresol continues to strive for improvements within the company and are utilising ASTUTE 2020's expertise to develop and enhance the efficiency of the manufacturing process by adapting already existing or creating new methods that are more suitable for TPR® material.
Challenges - capturing and managing data
The main research challenge identified was to increase Affresol's current manufacturing capacity and capability by improving the monitoring and control of the manufacturing process.
The waste plastic that is being used for TPR® compromises of a wide variety of materials that differ in density and geometrical shape. At the same time, changes in environmental parameters have a strong effect on the process itself. In the case of TPR® production, there are no historical studies or documented literature available to assist the company in educating employees and production is currently based on empirical knowledge and experience to compile the designed standards.
TPR® has undergone stringent testing to the highest levels set by the British Standards Institute and also meets European Standards. The aim is to make the manufacturing of TPR® more efficient and sustainable; offering TPR® products as a more competitive and improved alternative to concrete.
The project scope was to capture data and information on the production floor to create a documented background for TPR® manufacturing. An overview of Affresol's current capacity of plant production and capability to produce a wide variety of products was the first step towards enabling change for more efficient processes, focusing on the digitalisation of the manufacturing process.
The manufacturing process of TPR® was modelled and simulated and various scenarios of scaling up the production capacity were assessed virtually by ASTUTE 2020 and Affresol's technical team. Simulating extreme production scenarios ensures that Affresol is equipped for unexpected events and has a good understanding of the behaviour of the processes when changes are introduced. Risks are mitigated more efficiently and Affresol is able to apply new ideas on the virtual factory floor without disruptions or product quality discrepancies.
Monitoring and control
Establishing industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) practices and a community of systems that exchange data and take decisions without human interface was key target for improved processes. The research was completed by introducing monitoring systems which identify key parameters throughout the process and can feedback to insightful capability choices.
Affresol's technical team and ASTUTE 2020 colleagues collaborating on the project, developed a new process to collect data that is automatically processed on one software platform or for interfacing with other systems and is accessible by authorised users through any supporting devices.
The software developed within Affresol enabled data collection to be merged, identifying and storing key process indicators (KPIs), translating technical information. At the same time, a number of sensors were introduced to key points of the production floor to monitor the product quality and process efficiency at all stages.
The collaborative project has had a significant impact on Affresol from its early stages. Affresol dedicated resources throughout the duration of the research and development project with ASTUTE 2020, which assisted the company in preparing the manufacturing facility for higher production rates by successfully implementing new technologies and methods that were identified.
The ASTUTE 2020 team modelled and simulated the manufacturing process to make it easier and safer to introduce changes in the production. This had an immediate effect as the production was reorganised in three main sections and data directly related to the quality of the product enhanced the digital production information. Examples of new capabilities that were developed during the project were creating quick responses to events that may cause disruption and traceability of quality issues.
The development and introduction of these systems combined human input with machine input and through the developed web-platforms and data analytics provided a new insight into the operations of the company. The project has created a much better capability to respond to changing production parameters and finally expanding the plant capacity.
The most significant impact that materialised from the project was the employment of six additional staff members to the production team, increasing output at higher of efficiency and organisation production setup better equipped for the future.
Affresol's technical staff benefited from exposure to new ideas and experiences, as well as state-of-the-art technologies and bespoke software in further improving the methods more suitable for TPR® material; ensuring Affresol's technical staff could fully capitalise on the project's results based on their previous knowledge.
Overall, the project has improved the manufacturing process of a product that reduces the waste plastic intended for landfill; 70% of TPR® content is plastic waste, over 4 tonnes are diverted from landfill and used as an alternative to concrete while reducing CO2 emissions from traditional manufacturing of concrete.
For more information on this research, contact Theocharis Alexopoulos AlexopoulosT@cardiff.ac.uk