Sustainability Drives Innovation in Plant Automation

Sustainability can be extremely rewarding for industrial users whether it is an effort to reduce environmental waste, provide a safe working environment for employees, or reduce the consumption of natural resources. From a purely financial standpoint, there are a number of state and federal incentive programs including tax credits, rebates and even funding. Other benefits of sustainability include the potential for greatly reduced operating costs through efficient manufacturing methods and more efficient use of energy. Due to the rising cost of energy, operating more efficiently can be a very powerful incentive on its own.

Globally, industrial users account for approximately 27% of total energy consumption. Omitting energy used by the Electrical Power sector and transmission-related losses, the industrial sector accounted for approximately 52% of total energy consumption in 2008 (Figure 1). Although, electrical energy ranks third among energy sources for industrial users, it is among the fastest growing form of energy and is expected to remain so through 2035. This makes finding ways to operate more efficiently from an electrical perspective extremely attractive.

Total world delivered energy consumption by end-use

Figure 1: Total world delivered energy consumption by end-use sector and fuel, 2008-2035 (Energy Information Administration).


The growing interest from industrial users has resulted in a number of innovations from automation control manufacturers. One such innovation comes in the form of highly functional, low-cost electrical energy measurement devices that can easily be integrated into existing and new systems alike. The main benefit for users is a cost-effective means of gathering electrical energy usage data at a more granular level. This complements other data they may already be gathering such as pressure, temperature and flow for consumption of other energy resources (e.g., oil, gas, air and water). Monitoring each of these data points can be a great indicator of the overall efficiency or condition of a user’s facility and is part of what is often referred to as condition monitoring.

Another form of condition monitoring is the measurement and analysis of vibration data associated with a given process. From a sustainability standpoint this offers a number of benefits:

  • Increased process uptime by detecting component wear before a failure occurs, thus preventing unscheduled downtime.
  • A condition-based maintenance approach allowing users to get the full lifetime out of components, as opposed to a schedule-based maintenance approach which may result in a components being removed from service before it is necessary.

In the past, the cost of measurement equipment and the required expertise to analyze the data limited the use of vibration monitoring to very large pieces of equipment (e.g., large pumps, generators and mills). However, new low-cost solutions with on-board intelligence effectively remove the need for the user to have the know-how to analyze the data. This enables vibration measurement to be incorporated into a much wider range of equipment and applications. For example, vibration data can now be used by controls engineers to improve processes, machine performance, and product quality.

Of course the ability to collect consumption data (electric, liquid fuels, natural gas, oil, etc.) or other data that may indicate machine operating efficiency (e.g. vibration or temperature) is only part of the equation. Effectively using the data is just as important for industrial users to achieve their sustainability goals. New energy management solutions are available that collect and store data from several condition monitoring devices, presenting the data in meaningful ways (Figure 2) to help users understand their energy usage and its cost impact.


Energy management system

Figure 2: Energy management system


Armed with this information, measures can be put in place to manage usage and costs, and measures can be taken to reduce emissions to evaluate their impact on operations. Finally, the energy management system can be used to document savings both from an internal standpoint and for external purposes such as credits issued as a result of reduced emissions or energy consumption.

One of the most important sustainability goals of industrial automation is to provide a safe working environment for employees. When it comes to machines commonly used in manufacturing, being able to safely operate these machines while maintaining maximum productivity can often be a daunting challenge. New programmable/networked safety systems are available that can help users achieve both (Figure 3). These systems provide safety functions and capabilities that allow a machine to remain operational in a safe manner, perhaps even in situations requiring operator or maintenance intervention. This translates into increased productivity, removing the operator’s incentive to bypass safety measures to achieve their productivity goals.


Networked/programmable safety.

Figure 3: Networked/programmable safety.


These systems also have extremely fast reaction times, allowing protective guarding to be placed closer to the machine while still ensuring the safety of personnel working around the machine. Many of these new safety systems use open safety protocols (e.g., openSAFETY) that can be used on any number of fieldbus network systems. This, in turn, allows machines with different safety control systems to exchange safety data over a network connection. Now a safe operating mode of a machine can easily be communicated to both upstream and downstream machines ensuring the entire production line responds in a safe manner.

B & R Automation is a partner member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA).

More from Sustainable Plant

Add a comment

You cannot post comments until you have logged in, and have an appropriate permission level. Login here or register for a new account.