How to connect air compressors to the cloud
Distributed low-cost electronic data collection and communication devices monitor and control air compressors and dryers
A newly developed compressed air monitoring and control system developed by Ecoplant, a compressed air technology company based in Israel, has recently been awarded funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Israel’s Ministry of Energy (MoE) under the Binational Industrial Research and Development (BIRD) energy program. The approved project is a joint partnership between Ecoplant and Louisville, Ky.-based Atlas Machine & Supply, and will focus on applying compressed air system monitoring and control to improve the efficiency, air quality and reliability of selected U.S.-based food and beverage companies.
Unlike typical programmable logic controller (PLC)-based compressed air system monitoring and control systems, the Ecoplant design uses distributed low-cost electronic data collection and communication devices to monitor and control air compressors and air dryers. Using cloud-based data analysis and control, this design communicates directly with compressed air components in the device’s native communication protocol (e.g., Modbus). Directed by data processing and artificial intelligence (AI), the system is dynamically controlled and has the capability of automatically adjusting control characteristics based on changing conditions, rather than using inflexible preprogrammed algorithms common to traditional PLC-based systems. This dynamic characteristic ensures the system is always optimized, even with no outside intervention by service personnel.
Atlas Machine & Supply, a fourth-generation company founded in 1907, is one of the largest heavy-capacity industrial machinery engineering, manufacturing and remanufacturing centers in the U.S. The firm also designs and repairs industrial compressed air systems, compressors and related equipment and offers full compressor rebuilding, rental and engineering services.
“We have customers throughout the United States, as well as in other countries,” said Richard Gimmel III, Atlas Machine and Supply president. “We’ve developed a solid reputation that dates back to the 1940s as a distributor of compressed air products and associated services. We offer a comprehensive line of compressor products and perform engineering and optimization services for compressed air systems.”
“I have been in the manufacturing world since I can remember,” said Aviran Yaacov, CEO and co-founder of Ecoplant. “Since the age of 10, I’ve heard my dad, one of the company’s founders, talking about how much he had saved and improved compressed air efficiency for industrial plants. The story would always begin with, ‘This week, I saved $100,000 for the factory after I lowered their air pressure, identified leaks and turned off a compressor, and they didn’t feel it at all.’”
Yaacov has leveraged 15 years of information technology (IT) experience and hundreds of data processing projects into a unique optimization tool for compressed air systems. Noticing in recent years that cloud solutions that use artificial intelligence have become simpler and more accessible, he recognized these capabilities could be used to collect hundreds of key compressed air system parameters, interpret what these indicators were telling and use this information to make the system run more efficiently and reliably, while producing cleaner and drier compressed air.
“Four years ago, when we founded the company, we felt that there was a huge opportunity and potential in the market to make a real revolution — a revolution that looks after the customer’s real needs, avoiding wasting of energy and unnecessary maintenance costs and most important, giving peace of mind,” Yaacov said. “It is important that the customers know that they can produce their compressed air while minimizing unplanned downtime. We’ve assembled a bunch of industry-leading people, along with brilliant tech minds, to produce the product called Ecoplant, which enables data access, real-time alerts and the most advanced AI-based dynamic control capabilities to help the customers meet their needs.”
“We are highly interested in the Ecoplant product because the product represents one of the few remaining opportunities to innovate in the compressed air space,” said Gimmel. “Most current compressor airend designs [the airend is the part of the machine where the actual compression takes place; it is the heart of the rotary screw air compressor] are already well optimized from a mechanical perspective, so we think the data and analytics space is where we will see the most industry innovation in the coming years. We want to be leaders in that.”
The strength of this partnership, and the promise of ground-breaking innovation, has persuaded the BIRD Foundation to grant a significant investment in this product. The BIRD Foundation works to encourage and facilitate cooperation between U.S. and Israeli companies in a wide range of technology sectors.
Low-cost system hardware
The most important aspect of the Ecoplant system is the unique data collection and control modules. Unlike most readily available compressor control systems, the Ecoplant design uses a system of interconnected industrial grade mini PCs called EcoBoxes located within the plant and situated at every major system component. These devices are used to collect information and to send control commands, should that capability be desired by the customer. The EcoBoxes are inexpensive and flexible; they can be used to integrate with any make and model of compressor and air dryer and interface to any electronic instrument with an output signal to measure pressure, flow, temperature or dew point, among other parameters (see Figure 1). The Ecoplant system needs no expensive central PLC. The main data processing takes place in the cloud, making installation affordable.
“The system is built on the cloud and designed so it can scale to any size system,” Gimmel said. “And you are not going to have the inherent static issues that you have with a hard-wired central controller. Ecoplant has a much lower upfront cost than our in-house Atlas Control Energy Solutions (ACES) system. It offers us a lot of pricing flexibility to be able to go onsite to a customer, install it, let them pay for it monthly and if they are not happy with it we can use that same hardware somewhere else if we want.
“Worst case, we are out a couple thousand dollars, not $25,000 or $30,000. We put it in for you, we will monitor, simulate and let you know what the savings will be and if you want us to flip on the control module of the system, you can start paying for it past the trial period. And if you ever find out you are not realizing those savings, or getting value out of the solution, then let us know and we can come and pull it out and figure out how we can get better to keep your business and add more value.”
The Ecoplant system has many proven benefits, the first of which is providing real-time monitoring of the compressed air system with data collection. Most compressed air systems have a limited set of generic monitoring points, mostly tracking system pressure and compressor temperatures. Some do not even save data for future analysis. It is rare to see power or flow monitoring capability installed in the average plant, meaning the system operators are usually operating blind to the real system efficiency and operating costs.
The Ecoplant system collects key system data and places it into a database. It also displays selected important system parameters on a web-based dashboard, allowing system operators to view current system status, and immediately see system pressure and system efficiency with the click of a mouse (see Figure 2). Using power and flow data, the system tracks pressure, power and flow and then calculates the system specific power, an indicator of how much compressed air is being produced for every kilowatt consumed. The parameters are shown on the dashboard along with a comparison of where each parameter fits within a range of normal to abnormal conditions.
System alerts are set up based on rules set for any parameter or set of parameters collected by the system. Whenever any monitored parameter varies beyond a certain threshold, an alert can be sent by text or email to predefined contact personnel so they can investigate and make corrections.
The Ecoboxes communicate digitally with any brand compressor controller in the controller’s native communication protocol. This gives the data collection system access to the available variables stored within the controller, enabling it to be used for predictive maintenance and alarming. For example, using lubricant temperature monitoring from a compressor controller, the Ecoplant system was able to alert a customer to an abnormal condition caused by a clogged lubricant filter. Once the filter was changed, the system was used to confirm correction of the problem when the lubricant temperature returned to normal.
Using data taken from within the compressor controllers, the system builds an equipment profile and stores it in the database, assessing which compressors and dryers are the most efficient to use under certain conditions. The profile helps to identify anomalies in the system where one or more compressors in a system may be poor performers and should be subject to repair or replacement. Should the system control module be activated, this information is used to select the proper combination of devices for optimal operation under varying conditions.
Typically, the system is installed in a one- to two-day time period and immediately starts collecting data for a baseline. Data is captured for a sufficient period of time to form a reliable base against which future measurements will be compared after optimization takes place. In this period of time, the system learns about the system characteristics and creates the equipment profiles.
Then, with permission from the customer, the optimization module will be turned on, and the EcoBoxes will send automatic commands to the compressor controllers to alter the characteristic response so that the compressors work better together. For example, the system might change the order of compressor operation, or shut down a compressor if it is not required to support system pressure. The system will control the system pressure on any desired pressure signal, for example, if the operating pressure at a certain critical machine needs to be at a certain level, the system will monitor the remote pressure transducer and control the compressors in a way to keep the pressure constant, but as low as possible to save energy.
Once the optimized system runs for a sufficient period of time, the system energy consumption for this new mode of operation is compared to the initial baseline to prove the savings (see Figure 3). To date the Ecoplant system has been responsible for significant savings in the 30% range for existing customers.
Should communication be lost to the main data server, the EcoBox controllers maintain autonomous local control until a connection is restored. This enhances reliability for the system so that optimum efficiency can always be maintained.
Air quality module
The focus of the BIRD funding is the development of a new air quality module. Air quality is important in food and beverage manufacturing plants because compressed air often contacts or comes near food products.
“One of the biggest challenges facing food and beverage factories is the quality of air the compressed air system produces,” said Yaacov. “Oil or moisture leakage into production lines can contaminate the production operation and even disable an entire plant in some cases. Many food and beverage production processes are required to meet strict air quality standards defined by the FDA.”
To ensure high quality moisture, oil, particle and germ-free air is supplied to critical locations, sensitive instruments will be used to monitor the level of contaminants on the downstream side of the air dryers and filters. Plans are to develop air quality monitoring and system rules that will raise alarms or even automatically switch out equipment to alternate components if a problem is detected.
“Based on our strong partnership with Atlas, we expect the use of our technology will reduce our customer energy spend by 30%, eliminate the air contamination incidents to near zero, reduce systems maintenance cost by 20% and improve overall system reliability by 50%,” said Yaacov. “We expect to quantify and verify these values based on our fully developed cloud-based continuous monitoring and control platform and reporting tools. The system will monitor the compressed air system baseline and continuously compare it to the ongoing optimized system. We expect to see major improvements. After the initial pilot and installations, we expect to scale up and fully deploy our solution to the service area and beyond.”