British Science Week

A lot of people might think that a manufacturing and packing organisation might not be involved in much science and that we’re just a bigger version of those people who mix things in buckets in their garden sheds. Grotech has been involved in a lot of science over the years across many of the major disciplines including chemistry, engineering, technology and mathematics. Through our work we have taught elements of science to our staff, to visitors and to internship students, teaching those individuals how and where science can come into the things that we do every day.

So where does science come into our work? The obvious place to start is the lab. The lab is involved in product formulation; this often involves checking materials for their compatibility – are they going to react, are they going to be stable, are they going to do what the customer wants them to do? Getting the answers to these questions involves planning, research, testing and analysis. The lab performs quality control service to the business which involves testing products and materials for properties such as their pH, density, viscosity, surface tension and active contents, often using analytical equipment such as spectrometers chromatographic techniques. This is all obviously the application of science, but this is very much just one part of the story!

The lab might come up with an impressive formulation and the best means to test it, but somebody has to make it, and to make it means someone has to design a process. So where does science factor in here? Making something in the lab is very different to making something on a larger scale. Often when dissolving something in a beaker you can apply heat with a hot-plate or a Bunsen burner, how would you do this with 5,000L of a mixture? When a liquid gets really viscous like cold treacle in the lab you can scoop it out with a spatula or a spoon, but how would you get this to flow through pipes or be pumped into bottles? Raw materials are not often entirely pure and contain trace contaminants, in the lab these can be separated out with filter paper or with a centrifuge, how might you filter gunk out several thousand litres of product? The answer to these questions is careful planning, process design and engineering. It is critical that any process is effective so we can be confident that the customer will get a high quality product, it has to be efficient, so we can progress quickly and not lose time or yield, and most importantly it has to be safe and not create risks to the individuals working with the chemicals and machinery. All of this involves science starting with the maths and science learnt at school, which provides the foundation for much of the knowledge and expertise applied in designing a good process, yes even the dreaded quadratic equation – it does exist outside of the class room!

Technology also has an important part to play. At Grotech we capture a lot of data on all our processes, this can be especially useful for finding out how our packing lines are doing. We can find out the number of bottles per minute packed or the number of minutes spent waiting for new boxes or product. With this data we can determine how quickly a job is progressing against our estimates and ultimately figure out where improvements can be made, so we can do better next time. As you might imagine this data capture generates a lot of numbers. The science comes in the analysis of those numbers, determining which are important and which show the most useful factors affecting the process. The crunching of these numbers and statistics can be just as critical to good process design as the engineering aspects, as it allows us to focus on where the greatest improvements can be made. Statistics are rarely in vogue and get a bad press when misused, but when applied to real-life situations in real-time it allows our technical teams to make a real difference to our bottom line.

Our staff could tell you where science comes into their jobs with endless interesting examples and stories, but we’d be here forever! The point is that there is a lot of science behind the simple phrase “we mix and pack things”. If you ever wonder whether a lesson in school or a non-vocational course is useful in the workplace then hopefully this brief insight into some of the things we do as part of a day at work at Grotech will give you an idea.

Have a great British Science Week from the staff at Grotech Production!