Integrating pneumatic controls for greater sustainability, productivity

Pneumatic controls can lead to energy efficiency, cost savings and improved overall equipment effectiveness.

By Franco Stephan April 25, 2024
Figure 4: Pre-engineered in preconfigured, the Emerson Compressed Air Manager includes proven AVENTICS AF2 airflow sensors, PACSystems edge gateway and advanced software and makes it easy for plants to start monitoring pneumatic systems. Courtesy: Emerson

 

Learning Objectives

  • Understand how pneumatics can improve energy efficiency and overall equipment effectiveness (OEE).
  • Learn how technology advances can help pneumatics improve a plant’s automation and efficiency.
  • Learn how pneumatics how can reduce a facility’s overall costs and improve profitability.

Pneumatics insights

  • Pneumatics is an effective and cost-competitive technology for plant automation and is applied from very simple to highly complex control solutions, directly impacting overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) of a machine or production line when sized and designed properly.
  • Today’s pneumatics can address primary industry concerns, including sustainability, the labor shortage and competitive markets, by providing valuable insights and monitoring.
  • Pneumatic controls address plant concerns by offering energy-efficient solutions, OEE improvement, predictive maintenance and cost savings in the field, as well as in the design phase of machines.

Today’s plants are being held to ever-greater standards while using fewer resources and less skilled labor. To help them reach net-zero targets and produce more in greater varieties using the staff they have, many organizations are incorporating the latest control technologies, including pneumatics.

Applied from very simple to highly complex control systems, pneumatic technologies remain popular, effective and cost-competitive automation solutions. And with good reason. The pneumatic controls a machine or production line uses can directly impact overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), sustainability and costs.

The latest pneumatic technologies are designed to support the future of automation — and its innovations and challenges — from the component level up. As more facilities digitally transform, many pneumatic technologies can help provide seamless integration to higher-level control systems via the use of Fieldbus technology, embedded sensors and electronics.

In this way, they can help provide valuable insights and real-time monitoring, so the right team members receive the right information about important factors from energy use to performance levels at the right time.

To achieve the full promise pneumatics offers, it’s critical to understand the technologies available, as well as how to size and design them for maximum sustainability, productivity and cost-savings.

Figure 1: Pneumatics is an effective, fundamental and cost-competitive technology for plant automation.

Figure 1: Pneumatics is an effective, fundamental and cost-competitive technology for plant automation. Courtesy: Emerson

Pneumatics save energy

As more organizations set corporate sustainability targets, plants are pressed to identify waste and optimize energy use. Due to the high-energy intensity of compressed air, many factories are implementing programs to reduce compressed air consumption. By helping operators minimize or prevent leakage and improve inefficient processes, pneumatic pressure sensors, flow meters and control solutions are playing an increasing role in these initiatives, as well as supporting the implementation of energy management systems according to ISO 50001 via adequate monitoring.

Pneumatic controls and advanced smart sensors can provide both direct and indirect information about the energy consumption of a system. If combined intelligently with industrial hardware and software for higher analytics, the overall solution can help detect leaks in their early stages and balance pneumatic devices to help reduce energy use.

This level of insight also can empower staff with key performance indicators (KPIs) and trends to make data-driven decisions that can improve energy savings, reach sustainability initiatives and reduce pneumatics maintenance intensity and air audits.

For example, there are fully assembled compressed air monitoring cabinets that include smart airflow sensors, edge hardware and connected software. The integrated solution collects and analyzes the constant inflow of data from the sensor via OPC UA and allows deeper understanding of consumption trends and possible leakage, as well as offering insight on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions impact. Plants can directly connect multiple smart airflow sensors to the cabinet and scale as needed. Pre-engineered and preconfigured, these cabinets make it possible for plants to install and deploy the monitoring solution to start visualizing and benchmarking compressed air consumption for a machine or production line.

In addition to the visibility and control provided by real-time pneumatic monitoring and insights, the design of pneumatic controls can help save energy. Some pneumatic control solutions are designed to allow air recycling in actuator movements, saving compressed air in each return stroke of pneumatic cylinders.

Where possible, placing pneumatic control valves in proximity of the actuators or pneumatic cylinders can further reduce compressed air. Adding pressure regulating valves to reduce pressure to the necessary levels in many applications can help save compressed air, too.

Figure 2: The latest pneumatic solutions can help plants save energy, improve OEE and reduce costs in the field as well as in the design phase of machines.

Figure 2: The latest pneumatic solutions can help plants save energy, improve OEE and reduce costs in the field as well as in the design phase of machines. Courtesy: Emerson

Improve a facility’s OEE through data access

Today’s factories face a combination of production challenges, including unplanned machine downtime, high scrap rates, unstable product quality and machine performance issues, as well as labor and skill set shortage. Pneumatics can play an important role in driving higher productivity by addressing many of these factors. It all starts with access to pneumatic data.

To maximize plant efficiency using the equipment, labor power and skill set that an organization has, it’s important that teams receive analytics and actionable insights about the pneumatic systems in machines and lines. This real-time information can help personnel across skill levels identify component health, reasons for scrap rate, product quality levels and more.

By adding smart airflow sensors to a pneumatic system or incorporating smart pneumatic devices that include embedded sensors, plants can gather and access key process and application data. Using an industrial PC, edge device or in the cloud, software can then perform analytics on gathered data points.

Operators can access resulting analytics and insights via a dashboard, gaining better visibility of and control over performance. For instance, they can adjust and optimize machine variables as needed, reducing cycle time while maximizing machine uptime, improving OEE.

The right personnel can receive this information right when it’s needed, regardless of skill and experience level. Operators can establish thresholds on key parameters, such as cylinder speed, position feedback and pressure level, and the analytics software can send alert messages when the pneumatic system operates outside of those limits.

Once received, the right personnel can take the appropriate action, preventing possible failure and minimizing unplanned downtime. In this way, taking the right action at the right time over and over again can improve overall efficiency and productivity.

As most edge gateways are prepared to work with OPC UA or message queuing telemetry transport (MQTT), accessing data from a pneumatic system in these industry-accepted formats is key. Pneumatic controls and sensors that connect via Ethernet, providing OPC UA or MQTT communication to an edge gateway for analytics, can be integral to achieve an organization’s desired plant/machine monitoring solutions.

However, implementing IO-Link is becoming a widely accepted standard. IO-Link-ready sensors and devices can be an advantage in the design and rollout of industrial internet of things (IIoT) solutions in factories due to their easy commissioning and reliable communication. IO-Link Masters allow data exchange between IO-Link-capable transmitters, sensors or devices in an automation system and are fundamental for bringing this information to the control network architecture or to the edge for further analytics.

When pneumatic valve systems are installed within a machine or located somewhere out of reach, commissioning and performing diagnostics can be inconvenient and time-consuming. A pneumatic valve system with Fieldbus technology and auto recovery module (ARM) makes it easy for technicians to perform pneumatic valve system commissioning and diagnostics from a Wi-Fi-enabled mobile phone, tablet or laptop, regardless of where the valve system is mounted. This helps manufacturers reduce production downtime, simplifies valve system commissioning and creates a path for using diagnostics for analytics.

At the component design level, proportional valves are a great example of pneumatic controls that can impact plant efficiency. Precise control of liquids and gasses makes it possible for plants to optimize machinery and processes. This can increase efficiency with production throughput as well as reduce raw material use and energy consumption.

It’s important to look for proportional valve technology that can quickly adjust output pressure or flow in relation to variable operating conditions. This technology also can provide greater flexibility of system design and operation.

Figure 3: The AVENTICS Series 615 Sentronic TWIN from Emerson is a compact, 3-way proportional pressure control valve that accurately adjusts pressure to control air and inert gas media via ATC software.

Figure 3: The AVENTICS Series 615 Sentronic TWIN from Emerson is a compact, 3-way proportional pressure control valve that accurately adjusts pressure to control air and inert gas media via ATC software. Courtesy: Emerson

Reduce overall costs with pneumatics

The benefits of pneumatic monitoring are clear. By helping to minimize waste and increase productivity, pneumatics naturally helps plants reduce costs. Yet, pneumatic technologies can provide significant cost-savings in other ways.

There are well-known advantages of pneumatic technologies, like lower installation and maintenance costs. Pneumatic controls are relatively easy to maintain, and worn parts can be replaced using prepackaged spare kits. Pneumatic components have high reliability and are easy to install, lowering commission time as well. The lower capital expenditure of pneumatic systems is often an important factor for choosing this technology over others in many automation applications.

There also are less obvious ways pneumatics can help plants reduce costs, such as during the specification and machine design process. Pneumatic systems, if properly designed and sized, present reliable lasting solutions lowering machine downtime, hence providing overall cost savings. Online tools can make it easy to size actuators and valves and confirm the results of manual calculations. Additional original equipment manufacturer (OEM) tools, like cylinder finders, allow for selecting an optimal actuator series for the given parameters. Online energy consumption applications help to review the energy impact of specific configurations or selections.

More machine designers also are maximizing the advantages of pneumatic and electric technologies and incorporating hybrid solutions. In hybrid systems, electric actuators are coupled with pneumatic cylinders. By adding pneumatic cylinders with the proper pneumatic control to maintain force balance, machine manufacturers are able to size for smaller electric actuators. These hybrid solutions capture all the benefits of each technology and can present significant cost-saving opportunities.

Figure 4: Pre-engineered in preconfigured, the Emerson Compressed Air Manager includes proven AVENTICS AF2 airflow sensors, PACSystems edge gateway and advanced software and makes it easy for plants to start monitoring pneumatic systems.

Figure 4: Pre-engineered in preconfigured, the Emerson Compressed Air Manager includes proven AVENTICS AF2 airflow sensors, PACSystems edge gateway and advanced software and makes it easy for plants to start monitoring pneumatic systems. Courtesy: Emerson

Moving automation forward today — and tomorrow

The advantages of pneumatics are well known; however, new innovations are making this highly reliable, cost-competitive technology even better. The latest pneumatic solutions can help plants save energy, improve OEE and reduce costs in the field as well as in the design phase of machines. By integrating advanced pneumatic control solutions with real-time monitoring and analytics, plants can reach sustainability goals, empower their workforce and continue to remain competitive today and into the future.


Author Bio: Franco Stephan is director of product marketing, factory automation at Emerson. He has more than 20 years of experience in product management and product development in the fluid power and automation technologies space. Over the course of his career, he has helped shape and define competitive product portfolios for customers in the factory and machine automation industries. Prior to his current role, he has held positions in business development in the food and packaging segment.