How modularization is transforming factory design

Dave Friar, Director of International Operations at engineering solutions provider Boulting, explores the concept of modularization and how it is transforming the design and build process both at home and abroad

As Industry 4.0 continues to revolutionize the way manufacturing and processing plants operate, many companies are also exploring how the design and construction of a facility can be done more efficiently.

Modularization is not a new concept. In fact, many factories have used it for many years to reduce the complexity of internal systems. However, more and more factory managers are now exploring the model as a way to reduce the costs of building a factory and, more interestingly, to test new markets.

The process involves the prefabrication of a plant and its components at an established production site, before shipping it to the desired location and assembling it. Each installation is made up of a number of container modules of different sizes, inside which all the necessary equipment is installed.

Drivers for modularization

The design and manufacture of off-site components ensures accurate use of materials, a controlled waste management system, and scheduled delivery. The overall result is often more sustainable and profitable, allowing the realization of increasingly complex projects.

With many manufacturers moving their businesses to developing countries where costs are lower, factories are often built in remote locations with limited infrastructure such as electricity, road access, and construction equipment. In many of these countries there is also a severe shortage of qualified construction personnel, which can impact the overall quality of a project.

Building on a dedicated manufacturing site, such as the Boulting plant in St Helens, solves these issues because the infrastructure is already in place. Experienced workers are also on hand to build, test and commission a facility prior to shipping and erection to its final location, ensuring a faster and more cost effective solution.

The location of the construction can also be an issue if the facility is in a hazardous environment or is susceptible to adverse weather conditions or extreme temperatures. For example, offshore constructions are subject to unpredictable seas as well as strong offshore winds, making these projects prime candidates for a modular approach.

With the UK on the cusp of retaining its title as the world leader in offshore wind energy, the country’s capacity has the potential to increase to five times its current level by 2030. To ensure that this capacity is extended safely and reliably, modularization may be the key.

Construction at sea can be both dangerous and expensive. Modularization minimizes risk and time spent in the hazardous area, allowing the facility to be built and tested in a controlled environment.

If it has its advantages, especially for projects abroad, some constructions do not lend themselves to modularization. If site construction is seen as routine and a sufficiently skilled workforce is available, modularization may not be the best solution.

Planning your modular construction

Each installation is unique and the construction process should be viewed in the same way. The actual planning of a modular construction is no different from that of a field construction. It all depends on the customer’s needs and wants.

The main consideration for any modular construction is the size of the plant and the equipment required. This has an immediate impact on the type and total number of containers required, which in turn can affect shipping and transportation costs.

The modules themselves come in several shapes and sizes, each with their own unique characteristics. Mega, Large and Intermediate Modules require special shipping by sea or rail. Smaller containers, such as transportable containers, mounted on tube carriers and on skids, are easily moved by large road freight vehicles. Before selecting the best module for the job, engineers should ensure that there is proper access to waterways, railways and roads.

We are currently working on an alcohol blending plant at our production site in St Helens. The plant, which will be shipped to Angola by sea, consists of eleven specially constructed 40-foot containers. The factory itself only occupies six containers, with the remaining five being used to ship additional equipment.

This particular facility is used to test a potential new market. If this proves to be successful, the modular construction will be dismantled and shipped to a new location and replaced with a fixed construction.

If the project is overseas, like the one mentioned above, the containers must follow an ISO footprint, similar to a traditional sea container. However, if the final project site is in the same country where it is prefabricated, skid mounting is a more efficient technique.

This approach is a popular method for distributing and storing machinery and involves permanently mounting the equipment to the frame or rails of the container, ensuring that the equipment is transported safely to its final location.

Although there are no specific regulations and legislations regarding modular buildings, projects must still meet legislative requirements for static constructions, including planning, building rules and good manufacturing practices.

As overseas investments continue to grow, modularization is expected to become more widely used in the coming years. With so many benefits, it’s hard to see why manufacturers wouldn’t explore the concept’s potential.

Whatever the solution, whether modular or fixed, it is important that the decision is not rushed and that all factors are carefully considered, not just the benefits.

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Leon E. Hill

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