Leveraging the future of compressed air through automation
Automated, remote and integrated monitoring of systems and machines all play a role in the efficient “smart plant” and automating compressed air systems through remote monitoring plays a key role
- Learn how the Internet of Things (IoT) is leveraged in plant automation.
- What compressed air remote monitoring and outsourced air are and what benefits each provide manufacturing facilities.
- How and why integrating all systems in a manufacturing facility can facilitate data-driven decision making.
Compressed air insights
- Compressed air is often referred to as the fourth utility because of its ubiquitous role in manufacturing.
- Improving compressed air in a facility can be done by companies making insightful and data-driven decisions.
Big data, cloud computing, the Internet of Things (IoT) and Industry 4.0 are part of a larger movement where everything is interconnected. In business and manufacturing, IoT means connecting machinery to edge devices that collect and share data with any web-enabled device that can access the internet and has permission.
This allows businesses to leverage technology to improve products and services or streamline business processes. This includes assembly automation, process design, controls engineering, software integrations, remote monitoring and more.
With automation advances and machine learning (ML), the Industry 4.0 revolution provides companies with an opportunity to create a unified, real-time view of their business that can be used for better strategic decisions at all levels.
As budgets and workforces tighten and specialized expertise is exchanged for more generalized, jack-of-all-trades skill sets, the need for automation in manufacturing facilities and the enhanced insight has increased. From the production floor up to the C-suite, employees can now have actionable insights at their fingertips. Whether it is one system or the integration of the entire facility, the future is here and the IoT is changing how we build, design and maintain our equipment and processes in many ways.
Compressed air automation
Compressed air is the life blood of nearly 80% of all manufacturing in the world and accounts for 10% of all electricity in manufacturing in the United States according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Compressed air is often referred to as the fourth utility because of its ubiquitous role in manufacturing. Despite its important role in manufacturing, at the end of the day, most users of compressed air just want consistent, clean, dry air.
The IoT’s opportunities for automation include compressed air systems. Remote monitoring features, which are available on most modern air compressors, can help maximize the system’s efficiency and reliability in several ways:
- Capturing historical performance data. Monitoring controls collect data points on functions such as pressure changes, compressor flow, discharge temperature and run hours. Plant personnel can monitor performance and other metrics right from their computer. The data is stored, providing a historical snapshot of a system’s performance over time. This allows users to track trends and make data-driven capacity decisions as a facility’s air power needs change.
- Providing timely maintenance and service alerts. Customized alerts delivered to the user’s dashboard can signal when it is time to change a filter or perform other maintenance. Alerts also can indicate if a potential issue such as a loose bearing or reduced pressure due to dirt or foreign material in the system needs to be investigated. These alerts help avoid costly and often devastating downtime by indicating and even predicting when maintenance is needed. Because this dashboard is online, plant personnel can monitor the system’s performance while away from the plant for added peace of mind.
- Maximizing efficiency. Many systems waste up to 30% of compressed air through leaks, misuse, poor maintenance and improper system control according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Remote monitoring allows a user to see when air demand has increased without a corresponding increase in output. Users can make necessary repairs or adjustments to the compressed air system and eliminate wasted air and wasted energy.
Remote monitoring and outsourcing air
Another type of remote monitoring is managed or outsourced air. Managed services are some of the fastest-growing sectors of the technology industry. Limited skilled labor, an unreliable supply chain, uncertain inflationary pressures and the rising cost of financing are just a few factors that make managed air power an exciting and attractive option.
Managed air is different from remote monitoring because the data points and alerts on the compressed air system go directly to the compressed air supplier. The supplier remotely manages the compressed air without involving on-site plant personnel. Most importantly, the compressed air supplier delivers not only the monitoring service, but the actual compressed air machinery.
The customer pays a simple service fee each month for an agreed-upon time period (often seven to 10 years) and the equipment, monitoring and backup air are managed for the customer. If maintenance or service is needed, the compressed air supplier takes care of the repairs or service, which is often included in the air supply contract. The supplier also monitors the entire compressed air system’s efficiency and can even make recommendations on how to adjust the system as the customer’s needs evolve.
In addition to the hands- and headache-free supply of compressed air managed air provides, there is also an efficiency factor. With managed air, the compressed air supplier will conduct a thorough air audit at the start of the contract to determine the current and potential needs for the customer. They then design and install the most efficient compressed air system for that operation, which is based on data-driven analysis.
Another key difference with managed air is there is no capital expenditure required. Funding for capital expenditures and new projects can be a long and arduous process in many organizations. With managed air, the customer pays a monthly fee without having to endure lengthy approval processes, internal budging constraints and more.
Because the monthly fee for outsourced air can be classified as an operational expense, there may be tax advantages to this option, as well. What the customer gets at the end of the day is a modern compressed air system with an uninterrupted supply of compressed air without having to pay a high upfront cost.
Compressed air’s future
Compressed air monitoring and managed air’s future lies in what and how much is monitored to facilitate predictive analysis. While many key functions of the air compressor can be monitored, the next generation of compressed air remote monitoring will be in expanding what functions and to what extent those functions are monitored. Using data to go deeper into predictive maintenance to synthesize action plans, based on aggregated information will be standard in the future.
Added service alerts and parts ordering based on activated alerts are tools that will likely become commonplace with compressed air systems. Think of a car’s low gas gauge warning that prompts the driver to head to the nearest gas station. The same will be true for compressed air; monitoring systems will direct users with links to parts or to request service calls, ship filters or other aftermarket parts providing added convenience, tracking and speed.
Beyond the compressor room
When it comes to automating the rest of the plant, producing actionable machine performance data requires integrating many levels of company data from a variety of processes and machinery — not just the air compressors powering the plant. From machines on the floor up, smart factories must bring those disparate data points into a single source of truth. This can now be done by tapping into existing monitoring features and software tools, minimizing the need to make major upgrades to a system.
“Digital applications are designed to give a person a view and allow each one to make a different decision about what they are interested in seeing — bottlenecks, downtime, equipment failure. Customers want their data transformed into something that a CEO, an engineer, maintenance and more can understand in real time,” said David Vitale, chief engineer of digital solutions for JR Automation, an integrator of manufacturing automation systems.
Custom technology solutions for every application, process and industry are now the norm in modern manufacturing facilities. Once the data from the varying systems is brought together onto one screen, many improvements can be made.
Perhaps the most important is keeping the company’s operations in motion. Having access to the health of the equipment not only allows teams to quickly respond to potential bottlenecks and downtime, but engineers can also have up-to-date analysis that allows for planning repairs, improvements, expansion or upgrades.
Real-time data also opens the door to anticipating issues before they happen throughout the system.
“The ability to take raw data from the manufacturing process and turn that into insightful, proactive and perhaps even predictive capabilities has been a game-changer for the industry,” said Bob Hynes, JR Automation director of sales for digital solutions.
Benefits extend beyond the equipment on the floor. Customers integrating their data can improve their inventory control and traceability, supply chain visibility, production planning and scheduling. At an organizational level, the benefits can be significant. Companies report improvements in the overall equipment effectiveness, throughput, uptime, speed to market and asset use. It also can result in significant reductions in labor costs, energy usage and overhead requirements.
In the end, the biggest results come from remembering why those systems were created in the first place. When data and equipment are integrated, it’s crucial to know how to use it in a way that actually improves the business. This means understanding the big picture of what problem the customer is trying to solve.
From productivity improvement to quality enhancement, understanding that motivation provides better transparency when it comes to how the operator works with the equipment. This enables better use of data to resolve the issue in a collaborative manner.
Plant automation is here to stay and the future is exciting and boundless. From optimized efficiency to performance transparency and predictive maintenance, the benefits of automated systems are numerous. And the ability to make data-driven decisions has repercussions beyond the bottom line. It allows manufacturers to do more with less and do it more efficiently. IoT has made our personal lives easier and is now providing the convenience in our working lives.
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