A smart approach to flow control

ILS Automation makes the transition to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) easier with Alicat mass flow controllers.

Specializing in process integration for bioreactors, ILS Automation supplies precise control hardware and software to the fermentation, cell culture, and biofuel industries. When ILS needed highly accurate and reliable mass flow controllers that were easy to integrate, it found the ideal solution with Alicat products.

Flow control for bioreactors

Many pharmaceutical and agricultural products, biofuels and biochemicals are produced in a fermentation process similar to the way beer is made. Biotech and chemical research companies that make such products need to accurately control the amount of each gas that is fed into the process. Volumetric rotameters have in the past served this process when using a single gas like air, but they are too imprecise when multiple gases need to be fed into the bioreactor at precise ratios.

Mass flow controllers (MFCs) enable chemical, biochemical and process engineers to precisely control the amount of each gas they are feeding into a bioreactor during fermentation. As a simple example, if a bioreactor full of organisms is designed to generate carbon dioxide as an off-gas, separate MFCs can control the feeds of gas molecules to get the right balance as the organisms multiply: two oxygen atoms for every carbon atom. A mass flow meter placed on the outlet in this example can then quantify the total amount of carbon dioxide that has been produced.

The challenge: reliable control that is easy to integrate

One challenge for OEM and systems integrator ILS Automation has been to find high-quality MFCs that are reliable and perform accurately. With biotechnology being an expensive, time-consuming endeavor that has many operational issues, ILS and its end users need to be confident in the accuracy and performance of their MFCs.

It is also important to ILS that the MFCs they use can be easily integrated into their customized bioreactor systems. For ILS, there is no such thing as a “standard” solution; it specifies each system to meet the individual requirements of the particular bioreactor vessel and process being used by the customer. The vessels used can range from two-liter glass vessels to stainless steel tanks that can hold thousands of liters. Similarly, vessel operating pressures vary, with biotechnology customers tending to need lower pressures and the chemical sector needing higher ranges. Beyond gas control, ILS systems maintain temperatures to within 0.1 degrees while also controlling pH, dissolved oxygen levels and other parameters specific to each customer’s recipe.

A partnership that drives innovation

In 2009, ILS was looking for MFCs that could be controlled by Batch Expert+, its sophisticated SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) software. ILS found the ideal supplier in flow and pressure control specialist Alicat Scientific, and the two businesses have worked together ever since. Today, Alicat supports a variety of industrial communications protocols, including DeviceNet, Modbus-RTU and TCP/IP, Ethernet/IP, EtherCAT and PROFIBUS. By keeping up with technology in this way, Alicat has helped the transition to the Industrial Internet of Things, a concept that ILS has been exploring for many years as it seeks to integrate and connect to smart devices in a smart way.

ILS prefers digital communications to analog signals, because digital protocols can handle the multiple parameters reported by Alicat instruments – pressure, temperature, volumetric and mass flow rates, plus optional flow totalization. Alicat Scientific has supported ILS in more than two dozen unique designs over the past few years, using digital interfaces to communicate with the programmable logic controller (PLC).

“Alicat solutions always work, and we have lots of happy customers as a result.”

According to ILS engineers, Alicat’s equipment is easy for them to integrate and easy for their customers to operate. An integrated LCD display allows for visual verification of the instrument’s activities without having to dig through the PLC’s data. Alicat’s products provide increased reliability and accuracy, enabling customers to easily conduct successful experiments and production runs.

Jeff DeCicco of ILS Automation with a bioreactor

Jeff DeCicco of ILS Automation with a bioreactor

Since many customers rely on ILS to make recommendations about which vendors to choose, ILS can confidently offer Alicat and its mass flow controllers as quality, custom components. Jeff DeCicco, an engineer at ILS, said that the ultimate goal is to help customers improve their processes by providing the right hardware and software. DeCicco explained: “As customers develop and commercialize a product, they need solutions that meet their performance and operational expectations, and we recommend Alicat equipment to customers as an intrinsic piece of the solution. Alicat solutions always work, and we have lots of happy customers as a result. They know that we stand by what we sell and that we wouldn’t recommend anything that could possibly cause us problems later. We trust Alicat, as it always delivers.”

Like ILS, Alicat is always engineering ways to make products better. Each instrument is built to meet the customer’s particular process needs, and these close customer relationships help make Alicat’s products better and easier to use. Together, ILS and Alicat share the belief that what matters most is making a difference to customers –  both are driven to make better and better products and to help their customers do amazing things with those products.

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