Agrarian, Engineering and Material Sciences

Process systems engineering: planning to optimize

A group of researchers at the PLAPIQUI develops tools to improve time and costs in industry.


Broadly speaking, a process is a group of linked activities that add value to a supply. Process systems engineering focuses on the development and solution of mathematical models to optimize the performance of the processes.

Alberto Bandoni, CONICET principal researcher at the Planta Piloto de Ingeniería Química (PLAPIQUI, CONICET-UNS) and area coordinator, explains that in Argentina there is no mass incorporation of tools for process systems engineering, with the exception of the petrochemical industry. For this reason, the researcher and his team study the development of research and transference projects for other industries such as the chemical and the food one and even systems of biomedical interest, health and agricultural care.

The most important petrochemical pole of Argentina is located in the city of Bahía Blanca, province of Buenos Aires, where some of the most important companies of the country work alongside with the researchers of the PLAPIQUI.

“Between the years 2000 and 2008, the majority of these companies decided to implement computational tools consisting of models to optimize the running of the plant hourly. We work as consultants and helped to develop the models that are currently used in the company”, Bandoni comments.

The petrochemical industry has used process simulators for more than 40 years. Nevertheless, in the last few years, there has been a tendency to promote the implementation of the theoretical context and the methodology of these systems to other areas.

For Bandoni it is always necessary to make decisions in all aspects of life, including science, industry and society. The aim of the research team is to develop computational tools based on mathematical models to add knowledge and provide support for the decision-making process.

For his part, Aníbal Blanco, CONICET associate researcher at the PLAPIQUI and member of the team, adds: “The support provided during the decision-making process is a cross-cutting need for almost any activity, from the industrial one to the management of public issues, such as the healthcare system. The most traditional industries have been modernized and they are aware of the need to improve this aspect. As the organization grows it will demand such tools”.


Solutions for agronomy

Together with researchers of the Universidad Nacional del Sur (UNS), Bandoni’s team work on two research lines: one is the planning of irrigation and fertilization of crops, and the second is weed control to be used in the southeast region of the province of Buenos Aires, where there is intense agricultural activity conditioned by the semi-arid climate.

Blanco explains that the objective of one of the projects is to develop a system to define the ideal programme of artificial irrigation and fertilization for the agronomic season taking into account environmental and soil factors. The idea is to optimize the economy of the agricultural endeavours and reduce the environmental impact of the interventions. In the case of the weed control projects, they are trying to determine the best timing to apply herbicides.

“Sometimes, to increase fertilization or irrigation does not necessarily translate into a greater economic benefit because the additional costs of these operations are not offset by the possible increase in the crop productivity”, the researcher comments.


Solutions for fruit industry

Bandoni’s team also seeks to transfer the developments in decision-making planning for companies located outside the local areas of the city of Bahía Blanca. For instance, for the region of Alto Valle de Río Negro, the researchers have studied fruit processing plants and adjusted all the value chain, from its packaging to its exportation. The advantage of this model is the possibility of the constant incorporation of information to enhance the estimates and obtain optimum management of the business.

Likewise, the team assists juice producing companies. “It is difficult for us to relate what we do through the mathematical models to the problems that arise every day. For this reason, we decided to work on short case studies, “demos” of the problem; then we develop the model and implement it in software and make interactive interfaces in a spreadsheet to operate the model”, the engineer explains.


Solutions for healthcare

Process systems engineering provide knowledge to the health public system to improve its efficiency. Together with the Health Economy (Economía de la Salud) of the Economy Department of the UNS, Bandoni’s team study the production of models to enhance decision-making regarding sanitary problems.

The team works at the Hospital Interzonal General de Agudos “Dr. Jose Penna” to plan the use of use of operating rooms, resources shared by all services of the institution.
“Our model allows people to enter data on the estimated potential demand for surgeries and optimizes the system to assign surgeries to the available operating rooms. Besides, it determines when it begins and finishes each task apart from accounting costs and identifying bottlenecks”, Bandoni adds.

Regarding this, the researchers work in the same way as they did it with the Sanitary Region I to study the mammography systems used in prevention studies in the cases of local women between 35 and 70 years of age to improve public access to this service.

  • By Cecilia Leone.
  • About the research:
  • Alberto Bandoni, principal researcher. PLAPIQUI.
  • Aníbal Blanco, associate researcher. PLAPIQUI.