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  • Writer's pictureJesse Hill

PC-based Control Cures Medicine Production Woes

The German pharma company Engelhard Arzneimittel leverages fully integrated process and building automation for a massive plant expansion

Rüdiger John, Head of Engineering at Engelhard Arzneimittel
“Even during the initial process of planning the new production plant for our liquids, I loved the flexibility that PC-based control, TwinCAT 3 and Beckhoff Systems Engineering brought,” says Rüdiger John, Head of Engineering at Engelhard Arzneimittel.

Engelhard Arzneimittel is a leading manufacturer of over-the-counter medicines. Its well-known products, which include the cough medicine Prospan, are sold in more than a hundred countries worldwide. To keep up with global demand, the pharmaceutical company has constructed a new production building and production facilities for liquid medicines. These infrastructure investments lay a firm foundation for sustainable production using PC-based control and engineering support from Beckhoff.

Founded in 1872 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Engelhard Arzneimittel remains a family-run company, now in its fifth generation of ownership. Around 450 people work at its site in Niederdorfelden near Frankfurt, with about 100 of them in production. In 2019, Engelhard responded to the immense increase in demand it faced with the construction of a new administration building and production building.

Efficiency and sustainability were among the focal points in the process of planning the buildings. Completed in the summer of 2020 and spanning an area of around 110,000 square feet (10,000 square meters), the production plant in Niederdorfelden is designed for producing all liquid pharmaceuticals.

Beckhoff Control Panel in pharma manufacturing environment
Engelhard Arzneimittel relies on PC-based control and the expertise of Beckhoff Systems Engineering for its liquids production at its plant in Niederdorfelden, Germany.

“It handles Prospan cough syrup and other liquids, which are sold in packaging formats like small pouches, and we also use it to produce cough drops,” says Rüdiger John, Head of Engineering at Engelhard Arzneimittel.

The production building's energy footprint falls below the maximum stipulated by the KfW 55 standard for new buildings in Germany. And the new liquids production facilities are powered entirely by green electricity. The company also has its own solar energy system that contributes around 20% of the electricity required.

John is responsible for all automation projects from liquid production planning to implementation and commissioning. The support of Beckhoff Systems Engineering – in particular, collaboration with group team members Stefan Massmann, Andreas Wieners and Jürgen Bolte – has been critical in these implementations.

“Even when we first started using Beckhoff technology in our old plant back in 2014, I loved the flexibility of PC-based control,” John says.

Additionally, Engelhard’s products include mouthwashes for dentists, including chlorhexidine, and suspensions for infants, such as Velgastin. “We are currently analyzing whether it would make sense to produce these products in the plant as well,” says John.

Every time production changes over to a new product, extensive cleaning cycles are set in motion – and this is where one of the plant’s first special features comes in. “We created various cleaning cycles and recipes for producing liquids using TwinCAT control software, and they are then brought to life in the recipe management system, which was developed using TwinCAT HMI,” states Massmann, who has been working with Wieners and Bolte to provide support for the automation project since its initial planning stages.


A dose of automation for cough syrup, drops and other liquids

In Niederdorfelden, Engelhard produces and packages pharmaceuticals for the global market. The storage and production capacities of the new production plant are designed to reflect this scale: The five batch tanks alone comprise two containers with a volume of 10,000 liters each and three with a volume of 5,000 liters each. There are also additional tanks for basic ingredients and intermediate storage. This production area predominantly uses IP67-protected EtherCAT modules, which collect numerous signals from the sensors and actuators.

Beckhoff EP modules for remote I/O
In areas such as the tank storage facility and pigging systems, the signals are collected via EtherCAT Box I/O modules with an IP67 protection rating.

To ensure that the processes run smoothly, John relies on PC-based control from Beckhoff, due in large part to his experience while the production hall itself was under construction. In this case, Elektro Beckhoff (a Beckhoff Group company) carried out the majority of the electrical planning and installation work.

The quality work by Elektro Beckhoff “greatly simplified the work we needed to do to integrate the building technology into our process automation,” Wieners says. “During the process of designing and optimizing the control engineering, it was – and continues to be – an advantage that the various technical systems are automated with PC-based control, including TwinCAT.”

For one example, look no further than cough syrup production, which requires process heating and cooling. The assemblies used to achieve this are located on the roof or in the basement and are linked to the plant via heat exchangers. Naturally, they also provide air conditioning in the production halls themselves and in the offices. Mastering this balancing act is not easy, but flexible PC-based control helps.

Electrical panel with Beckhoff intrinsically safe ELX terminals
Sensors and actuators in hazardous areas are connected via intrinsically safe ELX terminals.

“With the exception of a few smaller components and subassemblies, the entire control technology for production comes from Beckhoff, including software and engineering.”

This might be a quick summary of the equipment, but the units and assemblies involved actually make up a massive structure. To give an idea of the scale, the process automation includes:

  • 335 drives (valves and pneumatic actuators)

  • 17 pumps and agitators

  • around 240 measuring points (for pressure and temperature, as well as mass flow meters, ultrasonic flow meters, level sensors, and so on)

  • 13 trace heaters

Also integrated into the technology are subassemblies such as the purified water supply, product transfer via four pigging systems, wastewater treatment, a central exhaust system, a nitrogen and argon supply, and ethanol storage, which is needed for producing alcohol-based cough drops.

Numerous EtherCAT Terminals from the ELX series for explosion protection applications are used in this part of the plant, covering a wide range of process variables. The entire control technology is networked via EtherCAT and various I/O terminals distributed in several control cabinets and out in the open via IP67-protected EtherCAT modules. In total, about 460 EtherCAT devices are installed at Engelhard, including several IO-Link masters for integrating RFID read/write heads.


Process reliability and product quality come first

A Beckhoff Control Panel on pharma process equipment
A total of 16 control panels and panel PCs have been installed for process control in the plant, including one in the team management office.

The video monitoring system integrated into the tanks is one of the standout features. “This allows us to monitor foam formation in the tanks and check fill levels for plausibility without having to open them,” says John, adding that this approach prevents pharmaceutical contamination.

A total of 16 cameras plus lighting are integrated into the plant visualization system via TwinCAT HMI. If required, each operator can view the live images on one of the 16 Beckhoff Control Panels and Panel PCs distributed throughout the plant. John even has a CP3716-1076 Control Panel installed in the team management office.

“This gives managers full access from the office without the need to connect the office IT system to the production network,” he explains.

Each operator station has an RFID reader that production workers must use to log into the system before they take any action. In addition, the operators’ RFID chips have been retrofitted with RMD ASICs, making them compatible with the system that controls building access. “The tags don’t just allow the employees to log in at the operator stations and receive authorization – they also provide access to the building and the production areas approved for the employees,” says John.

Working alongside the Beckhoff Systems Engineering team, John defined 10 user profiles based on the tasks associated with each and implemented them in TwinCAT HMI. The profiles cover everything from packers and plant operators to systems engineers and laboratory technicians.


Manual station integrated into the automation system

Beckhoff and Engelhard engineers
“With Beckhoff, everything just works – you have technology, flexibility, professionalism and the human factor,” sums up Rüdiger John (center), Head of Engineering at Engelhard Arzneimittel, shown with Stefan Massmann (left) and Andreas Wieners (right), both from Beckhoff Systems Engineering.

With regard to safety, John developed a special host station for a sensitive area of the plant. Although everything else is almost completely automated, these various containers are still connected manually using hose connections. It is another area in which the automation engineers rely on RFID technology to reliably detect incorrect hose connections or missing end closures. Tags on each hose and RFID readers at the line connections identify all the components and their position in the process, ensuring consistent quality and process control.

Beckhoff Control Panel in pharma manufacturing environment
All the control and automation technology was designed and programmed by Beckhoff Systems Engineering using TwinCAT 3.

For each production process, the visualization and control systems store all the hose connections that employees must handle manually. This approach is comparable to recipe instructions (e.g., “take hose 5 and use it to connect nozzles four and eight”). Only when all hoses (tags) are located at the correct nozzles (RFID readers) does TwinCAT enable the next process step: for instance, pumping a batch to the storage tanks for the filling and packaging lines one floor below.

“We can even use the tags on the hoses to make sure we’re only using the ones that are suitable for the media and have been cleaned beforehand,” explains Massmann.

If an employee does happen to make a mistake in connecting everything, TwinCAT recognizes this immediately as an invalid tag ID. Then it interrupts the process step until the employee has made the correct hose connection and acknowledged it.

The plan is to install some of the 50 RFID readers in the hose station. “We want to tackle that in the near future,” states John, looking ahead to the next stages of expanding production. His roadmap also includes areas such as linking production planning to campaigns and demand forecasts from the higher-level ERP system. “At some point, we want to implement recipes from within SAP,” adds John. In his view, the open and flexible PC-based control platform will also make this integration a breeze.


Ready to begin a digital transformation in your process-industry applications? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.


Jesse Hill, Process Industry Manager of Beckhoff Automation

Jesse Hill is the Process Industry Manager at Beckhoff Automation LLC

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