Johannesburg, 22 Jan 2024
Stratus Edge Computing is a paradigm shift for the modernisation of Chemi’s pharmaceutical plant
- Ensuring business continuity while upgrading the DCS system and IT infrastructure.
- Ensuring data integrity and validation.
- Adopting standard and high-performance technologies for all facilities.
- Ensuring operational autonomy for operations.
- Implementing a system suitable for future expansion.
- Adoption of Rockwell Automation’s PlantPAx DCS.
- Environment suitable for ThinManager.
- ftServer 4910 with VMware virtualisation.
- Standardised fault tolerant DCS infrastructure for all facilities.
- Flexible utilisation and optimal performance of the production lines.
- Transition from old to new system in just three days.
- Immediate usability of the new application.
Chemi, a subsidiary of the Italfarmaco Group, is a prominent pharmaceutical company with multiple facilities in Italy and worldwide. It specialises in manufacturing and marketing active pharmaceutical ingredients and ethical pharmaceutical products, which it also produces for third-party clients.
Chemi’s Patrica site in Frosinone, Italy, recently upgraded its production control system as part of a modernisation project. The existing distributed control system (DCS) had undergone several process implementations over the years and had become limited and obsolete. Chemi chose to replace this outdated system with a next-generation architecture that could deliver improved performance, adhere to good manufacturing practice (GMP) guidelines and align with the requirements of a modern smart factory.
The project was managed by STB SYS Automation, located in central Italy, which has extensive expertise in developing, integrating, installing and maintaining industrial automation equipment and systems. Primarily serving central Italy, the company benefits from solid expertise that enables it to select the most appropriate architecture based on the application and specifications of each project.
Renewal based on diverse IT infrastructure
The project originally aimed to enhance the technology and performance of existing plants. The Stratus ftServer platform proved to be the ideal choice for this.
“Upon discovering Stratus, we were impressed by the technical capabilities of their solutions, specifically designed to ensure business continuity of critical applications,” explains Francesco Cecconi, CEO of STB SYS Automation. “While we had previously relied on virtual machines configured on server clusters, once we understood Stratus’ technology, we quickly decided to adopt it for the Chemi project.” During the planned upgrade activities carried out by STB SYS Automation, a significant portion of the automation hardware within the plants was retained. The main focus of the project was on rewriting the control program while preserving the functionality of the existing logic.
However, the IT infrastructure underwent a complete overhaul as well, leveraging the capabilities of the Stratus ftServer. The ftServer is a fully integrated and continuously available fault-tolerant edge computing platform, which guarantees uninterrupted execution of critical software applications, even in the face of component failures, with no risk of data loss.
Renewal and innovation
The project began in early 2022, outlining a roadmap divided into three phases, each focused on activities in the three synthesis departments of the Patrica plant. These three departments are highly adaptable and can be configured freely to handle various types of production. The production environment’s agility allows the 14 multifunctional reactors to process batches of different substances.
After the successful completion of the first phase of plant work, the project schedule faced an unexpected revision due to Chemi’s decision to construct two new plants.
Consequently, Chemi decided to equip the new facilities with an additional DCS control system. This led to the postponement of the second phase of the project, which is now expected to be completed by the end of 2023.
From Unix to ftServer, a real paradigm shift
The Chemi plant previously employed field controllers that communicated with supervisory systems based on a Unix platform. The IT architecture was supported by a cluster of three servers and several Unix terminals, which operators used in different plant areas, operating in a client-server mode. Over time, this architecture encountered evident technical challenges, such as high latency and declining system performance year over year. Additionally, the difficulty of sourcing appropriate spare parts for maintenance added to the complications.
The implementation of the new technology infrastructure with the Stratus ftServer brought about a revolutionary paradigm shift. This robust architecture is built on standard operating environments, offering modular scalability and the potential for future integrations.
According to Cecconi, the new management environment running on Windows Server 2019 is entirely hosted on the Stratus ftServer and comprises 12 virtual machines, all operating in fault-tolerant mode. These include dedicated machines for SCADA, Terminal Client, Historian, reporting and SQL Server. Additionally, there is Audit Trail, which monitors all system activities, engineering, development and various tools: all applications are hosted on virtual machines, in redundant pairs, including a domain controller and the server administration module.
System switch: From three weeks to three days
The transition from the old to the new architecture had no adverse effects on Chemi’s operations. “The experience has been very positive,” Cecconi notes. “Thanks to ftServer’s features, we commissioned the new infrastructure with significantly reduced timelines. What was initially budgeted to take three weeks for installation and final commissioning was accomplished in just three days – an astonishing achievement considering the complexity and criticality of the client-server architecture implemented.”
The ftServer platform, arriving mostly pre-configured, facilitated a rapid installation process. The new terminal clients were installed within a corporate network configured using VLAN. These clients, equipped with 27-inch screens, enabled users to connect to applications in remote desktop mode, each with a dedicated Windows licence. This user-friendly environment, operating in classic PC mode, ensured immediate usability and accessibility for all types of users.
The combination of redundancy and the use of standard operating environments has proven to be a remarkable strength of Stratus’ ftServer, allowing for innovation and substantial performance improvements while still maintaining the old DCS active on the network to address specific requirements
Full redundancy and high availability
The new system has received a highly positive response due to the remarkable performance improvement, the range of valuable features, including simplicity, security and autonomy, and the easy installation and management. This has resulted in ensuring continuous software availability and a high degree of automation, making a modern and smart factory accessible to everyone.
“Robustness, reliability and standardisation have been particularly appreciated by the company’s IT staff. Additionally, the OT staff has welcomed the new fully secure access during their work, along with the improved performance,” adds Cecconi.
Chemi was quickly in full control of the system, smoothly navigating through the validation phase required to maintain complete operational traceability. Configured as a central node with outstanding performance and availability, Stratus’ ftServer is equipped with redundant power supplies and two separate UPSes, connected through a fibre-optic ring network located in the data centre.
Benefits of investment and comprehensive support
At the technical level, utilising an open and innovative technology like Stratus’ ftServer offers numerous advantages.
For Chemi, protecting virtualisation with a fault tolerant edge computing platform has provided flexibility, life cycle management and security. Additionally, the new architecture provides secure, centralised configuration and deployment of applications and content to every PC, thin client, mobile device and user by simply adding ThinManager.
For system integrator STB SYS Automation, adopting the Stratus solution has led to a more efficient allocation of its resources, allowing them to spend less time addressing IT system issues and instead focus on meeting customer requirements.
“Compared to the previous system, even individuals with basic IT knowledge can now independently make minor adjustments and perform certain maintenance tasks without needing to involve developers,” notes Cecconi.
Virtualisation played a crucial role in enabling innovation and expediting development, motivating Chemi to embrace the new system early on, even for the two newly constructed plants.
Throughout this journey, Stratus support played a vital role. “The expert support from Stratus has been of paramount importance – from the initial hardware sizing to the deployment phase, including the ftServer configuration and set-up, and through the operational phase, where they have quickly and proficiently addressed our support inquiries,” emphasises Cecconi.
Multiple benefits and a solid future
"Looking ahead, our collaboration with Stratus has opened up exciting new possibilities for us. We will undoubtedly know which architecture to choose for similar projects in the future," emphasises Cecconi. He concludes: "The Stratus solution has proved to be a great investment."
The ftServer Edge Computing platform effectively addressed many requirements and considerations. For Chemi, it has provided a high-performance, scalable and highly available validated and standardised infrastructure. STB SYS Automation benefited from a state-of-the-art, flexible, agile and rapidly deployable solution, while the operators enjoyed a user-friendly and secure experience.