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Linde makes strides in Industry 4.0 and automation in the gas industry

Linde & Industry 4.0
November 2017, The Linde Group has spent more than 50 years in Malaysia, and now supplies 80% of the Malaysian industrial gases market. But the German gas giant is not resting on its laurels, and is now banking on its highly-skilled local engineers and technicians to bring its plants -- 60 across Peninsula and East Malaysia -- into Industry 4.0.

To recap, Linde Malaysia has invested RM1 billion in the last two years to increase automation and efficiency at its plants. 

Two of the largest initiatives in the group’s move towards Industry 4.0 in Malaysia has been its regional remote operating centre (ROC) in Shah Alam (since 2014) and its semi-automated cylinder filling plant in Banting (since early 2017).

A delegation from MITI, MIDA, and InvestKL recently visited Linde’s operations in Banting and Shah Alam to get a closer look and the company’s plans to move its plants towards more smart manufacturing.
Leveraging local engineering talents
According to Linde Malaysia head of packaged gases and products Johnny Goh, his division accounts for RM200 million of the group’s RM1 billion total revenue in Malaysia expected in 2017.

At Banting, Linde Malaysia’s semi-automated cylinder filling plant is the first of its kind in South Asia and Asean, with a maximum cylinder filling capacity of over two million cylinders per year. It is one of 11 cylinder filling plants in Malaysia, and serves as the depot for the majority of Linde’s industrial gases clients in the Central Region, although its cylinders can go as far as Pahang and Terengganu. 

Initially, Linde’s cylinder filling plant was located in Petaling Jaya, where cylinders were tracked, emptied, refilled, and painted manually, accounting for a lot of man-hours. In the latter part of 2016, Linde Malaysia’s homegrown Malaysian engineers proposed and developed an Operations Management System (OMS) that would be able to track every cylinder in the plant via individual barcodes, fill cylinders with accurate gas mixtures, while monitoring cylinder pressure, temperature, and quality to specifications.

This high level of traceability using Linde’s Trackabout system translates into complete cylinder stock optimisation, both filled and unfilled, as the operations office can set targets for individual gases or mix types for the shop floor to fulfill. These targets can be tracked and adjusted to customer demands on short notice.

This traceability is pivotal for accountability and quality control (QC) as Linde Banting has as many as 20,000 gas cylinders on site at any given time onsite, and moves 3,000 to 4,000 cylinders in and out daily. Similar to smart parking technology, the OMS can identify available space on site as well as pinpoint the location of filled and unfilled cylinders.

Moving forward, Linde may expedite this process further by introducing RFID to automatically detect the types of gases in the cylinders instead of manual scanning.
Productivity, capacity gains
Though reporting tools have yet to be put in place for the Banting site, the increased productivity and accuracy is clearly demonstrated by its semi-automated cylinder filling process, where 18 filling racks refill multiple cylinders simultaneously while calculating the correct recipe or mix of gases.

This process is applied to all industrial gases with the exception of medical oxygen, and accounts for 60% of the plant’s daily output of 3,000 cylinders. The medical oxygen cylinders are filled separately, to avoid contamination with other gases. 

Some cylinders are also filled manually if they are odd-shaped or sized too small for the rack.

Goh said the previous manual plant in Petaling Jaya needed five blue-collar technicians to oversee the filling plant, including one or two more experienced workers to ensure the accurate recipe of gas mixtures. 

Now, with the new filling racks, there only needs to be two technicians to load and unload cylinders off the racks or scan them. The numbers of racks needed has also been reduced to 18 from 30 previously, with the same 3,000 cylinder-per-day capacity.

Linde Banting also uses powder coating to paint cylinders, which means more durable colours, easier identification of safety defects, while being more environmental than brush painting.

The use of anti-gravity manipulators also reduces manual handling to move cylinders and leads to a faster turnaround of cylinders.

These productivity gains have changed the mix of Linde Banting’s 70-strong site staff as well, to favour more white-collar engineering talents. Its blue-collar hires are also expected to have a basic knowledge of IT, as the group looks to adopt more Industry 4.0 capabilities onsite.

The OMS will also enter phase 2 of implementation in December 2017 with the introduction of forklifts on the shop floor, and engineers are planning for an eventual 3rd and final phase where reporting tools will be introduced to measure the plant’s productivity gains.

Remote operating APAC
While Linde Banting’s OMS system gave operators a bird’s-eye view of the shop floor, the system is only site-specific.

The group’s regional ROC in Shah Alam however, has a bird’s eye-view of a whopping 125 production plants across Asia Pacific (sans China). It is one of only 10 Linde ROCs worldwide, with another planned for Shanghai in 2018.

In 2014, Linde Malaysia relocated its APAC ROC from Singapore to Shah Alam and received MSC status. At that time, it oversaw 46 plants across Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, The Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

In early 2017, the ROC added more than 70 plants to its roster from Australia and New Zealand, and  Linde ROC head of project head of projects and commissioning Lam Chee Hong is planning to end 2017 with 128 plants across APAC under his wing.

With the inclusion of two Air Separation Units (ASUs) from Petronas’  Refinery and Petrochemical Integrated Development in Pengerang next year, Lam expects the number of plants under his team of engineers to rise to 135 in 2018.

Currently, the Shah Alam ROC controls 75 (66%) of 117 plants across South Asia and ASEAN, as well as 51 (94%) fo 54 production facilities in Australia and New Zealand. These plants account for 15,000 tonnes per day of gases produced from ASUs alone.
Complexity in skillsets
The ROC’s 170 staff include 62 highly-skilled engineers, of which 80% are Malaysian. These are often chemical or electrical engineering graduates, who work on 12-hour shifts as the centre runs 24/7.

To add to their engineering expertise, more senior and experienced ROC staff also have to take into account market dynamics, business needs, and customer requirements when operating plants.

For instance, in Australia, electricity prices can swing erratically in different parts of the country in the summer. 

At some plants, high electricity prices would make continued production unprofitable and unviable and thus engineers have to shut down plants when electricity prices or temperatures rise too high.

Supply reliability in certain countries like India and Pakistan meanwhile, mean engineers at the ROC have to be vigilant for power outages that may affect production capabilities and remotely start up plants.

ROC the new norm
The degree of control the ROC has is to the extent that engineers in Shah Alam can remotely start up a helium plant in Darwin, Australia or an ECOVAR plant in Kolkata, India.

Most plants the ROC oversees often have only one technician on site, and on some days, none at all. Here in Shah Alam, one engineer has his or her eye on more than 10 different plants at any given time.

The degree of high-level technology and process automation put in place to achieve this level of remote control speaks to Linde’s strides towards Industry 4.0. 

As the group’s human resources are shifted to more high-level production planning and programming, newer plants will be built to be operated by the ROC and require less human intervention onsite.
Lam expects the Shah Alam ROC to oversee almost all of Linde’s ASUs and other production facilities across APAC.

On Linde’s end, it has committed to invest an additional RM100 million every year into ROC since relocating to Shah Alam in 2014. 

In fact, the group will invest another RM150 million to build a new ASU next to its Shah Alam ROC. The ASU is expected to be completed by 2018.

After investing RM1 billion in Malaysia over the last two years, Linde is now looking to invest another RM2 billion across the country as part of the company’s 5-year plan, to cater to higher demand for industrial gases in the country.

Source: InvestKL