Pilot Plants – Why and how to develop them

Playing a crucial role in the development and implementation of new projects, pilot plants illustrate a small-scale version of the project while providing controlled environments and real-world conditions. They are essential for refining strategies, determining potential challenges, and ensuring the success of the project when implemented on a larger scale.

At IntES, we’ve been proud to work on a number of wide-ranging pilot plants for our clients, some of which have been right at the forefront of modern industry and involving the introduction of innovative new processes. It’s one of the most exciting parts of our work and one of the most rewarding challenges in this business. As such, we thought we’d share some of the insights we’ve learnt along the way from our involvement in these exciting ventures, and some of our top considerations from our experts if your business is thinking about a pilot plant.

Why Invest in a Pilot Plant?

Not every project requires pilot plant development, this can be due to differences in the business purposes. Some plants/facilities are already tried and tested, so for example, when the need for increased capacity or a new location is required, it’s simply a case of replicating an already efficient system (albeit with improvements where possible). However, when it comes to a whole new business venture, a new process or product, a significant change to production/operations, the introduction of new technology, or indeed a completely new way of doing things, the importance of pilot plants cannot be denied. Why? Well, we could talk about the advantages all day, but there are three main reasons that we’ve identified, and which our clients undertaking pilot plants often consider their priorities when embarking on such a project:

  • Learning and Technology Development: The pilot plant’s primary objective is to create an accurate, real-world environment where brand new production technologies are tested, proving and increasing the TRL (technological readiness level) for large scale implementation. This facility functions as a pre-commercial production system, producing a small number of products based on the tested technology. This process helps researchers/engineers learn about the technology and limitations, then utilize the results to amend designs where necessary, affect efficiency/reliability improvements and other changes which can then be applied when it comes to the build of a full-scale production plant manufacturing a large quantity of products.
  • Risk Reduction: Technology and processes that are tested in the pilot plant possibly need changes and/or modifications to maximize the productivity and product quality. Therefore, developing a pilot plant helps identify and address technical challenges and manufacturing defects. Moreover, any design or process changes that need to be implemented are then less complex, are interesting for innovation subsidies, and cheaper compared to the full-scale project, minimizing the capital risk, and ensuring efficiency before the large-scale investment is made.
  • Data Collection and Quality Improvement: Implementing the pilot plant allows for the collection of important process data, which results from testing products in this controlled environment. The gathered data will be reassessed and considered for business decision purposes, as well as any modifications or changes, so that the product quality is improved, and the customer’s demands are met.
    In a nutshell, it can be considered that pilot plants act as the bridge between theory and practice, transforming conceptual ideas into tangible reality and facilitating the production of actual products.

How to Manage a Pilot Plant Project?

Taking an initial idea and technology development through to a functioning pilot plant requires a lot of effort and coordination among multiple parties, both within your own company as well as external parties. Let’s just think about a few of them to start with… the research and development teams, the specific OEM’s (Original Equipment Manufacturer) supplying the pilot line or equipment, permit providers, local authorities, construction teams and not forgetting the key users who will be running the pilot plant once it’s up and running… and that’s not even the complete list! All in all, there are a lot parties and a lot of factors to consider. Open, active, and transparent communication is key, as is having a dedicated central project management team to coordinate all the different parties and stages (hint – that’s what we do at IntES, as well as the engineering).

So how about the steps that are involved? To manage and ensure the success of a scale-up technology project, the development team first needs to invest their time in designing the small-scale production plans to prove the concept, gathering simulated data and extrapolating the results. This helps the development team define the TRL of the technology and where to apply their focus. Another crucial step that needs to be well undertaken is selecting the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) who will supply the pilot line or equipment used in the pilot plant. Without compatible equipment and facilities, the testing process can be less efficient and more time-consuming. Now, where will the pilot plant be located? It could be located in an industrial zone or another area that allows its operation. Of course, the engineering, procurement, and construction of the plant is fundamental. Furthermore, don’t forget that all these stages in the process of planning and developing the pilot plant will involve several teams and multiple stakeholders, all of which adds complexity during the creation of this small-scale pilot plant. The main steps in developing a pilot plant are at first glance largely similar to those of any project, but each stage will have added challenges and unique factors to consider:

1. Process & Product Development
2. FEL1, FEL2, FEL3 Studies (Feasibility & Basic Design)
3. Detail Design & Procurement
4. Construction
5. Commissioning
6. Process Verification & Product Testing

There are many, multi-faceted steps to any project, but a pilot project adds extra layers of complexity. This project is completely new in some way, shape or form; a new product, a new process, a new technology; so it can’t be replicated from anywhere, this is untested, unchartered territory. As such, your planning and engineering has never been more important when it comes to a pilot plant, and because of its inherently changeable nature, the ability to be flexible and agile in project management is vital.

That’s where we come in, we’re here to help!

At IntES, we take pride in our ability to help navigate our clients and all project partners through the complete process of pilot plant creation. We take a gated project FEL (Front-End Loading) approach, ensuring full integration of technical aspects from the initial plan (designing, setting up the facility) all the way through to managing the construction and handing over the plant to our clients’ operations teams. For each project, unique KPIs will be set, we work with you collaboratively and completely transparently throughout, becoming an extension of your own team, and as standard we prioritize the importance of safe operations without cutting corners.

In the meantime, we understand that costings and funding for pilot plants are crucial factors for making successful business cases. Therefore, we focus on the project costs, budget and its functionality at every step. Our systematic and integrated approach is designed to reduce risks to safety, budget, schedule, and quality. It aims to identify and eliminate any gaps between the parties involved, co-ordinating and providing a central point of contact, all of which contributes to meeting our clients’ expectations with a well-prepared pilot project.

Our Experience with Pilot Plants:

In recent years IntES has gained valuable experience in developing these pilot plants together with the project stakeholders. Our office in The Netherlands have actively executed many of these studies, and a few recent examples are listed below:

  • FEL 2 and FEL 3 study for Taste and texture pilot and demonstration plant for meat replacers in the Netherlands.
  • FEL 1 Study for a diaper recycling pilot plant in the Netherlands.
  • Utilities and structural engineering and design for a facilitator of circular pilot plant initiatives in the Netherlands.
  • Engineering for the pilot of a mobile RTO installation in The Netherlands.
  • Development of building, utilities, and fruit processing line equipment selection including purchase from China for a cocoa fruit juice pilot plant in Ivory Coast.

Get in touch with our experts at IntES; we’d be delighted to help you with a successful pilot project. As an EPCm partner for wide-ranging clients worldwide, we provide engineering and project management with professional quality and a sustainable approach. Feel free to peruse our projects and start yours with us!