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 building units (sheds, bin storage etc.) are made from a high percentage of recycled materials, delivering long-term savings to high standards with a low carbon footprint. Affresol’s ethos and sustainability commitment is supported by 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 2020 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 improving already existing or creating new methods that are more suitable for TPR® material.
Challenges - Capturing & 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® comprises 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 (BSI) 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 & Control
Establishing industrial internet of things (IIoT) practices and a community of systems that exchange data and take decisions without human interface was a 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) and translating technical information into meaningful 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 provided new insights into the operations of the company through the developed web-platforms and data analytics. The project has created a higher capability to respond to changing production parameters and led to 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, enabling the scale-up of production capacity; increasing output at higher levels of efficiency.
Affresol’s technical staff benefited from the knowledge exchange with the ASTUTE 2020 project officers as well as from access to state-of-the-art technologies and bespoke software resulting in significant improvements in the control of the manufacturing process and the consistency and quality of the finished product.
Overall, the collaboration has resulted in a more efficient and technologically advanced production process for an alternative to concrete with superior mechanical properties and less impact on the environment: 70% of TPR® content is plastic waste, over 4 tonnes are diverted from landfill and use of TPR® reduces production of concrete and associated CO2 emissions.