Looking ahead to a ‘smart’ future!

Published:  28 March, 2018

BCAS Board members spoke to Aaron Blutstein to discuss some of the keys issues and trends facing the compressed air industry.

With the growing push for businesses to aspire to a smart engineering vision, there is little doubt that the 'smartening' process of manufacturing is going to change the face of global industry forever. David Gillies, Ingersoll Rand UK & Ireland Country Leader – Sales & Service, says significant developments have been made in the industry over the past 12-18 months including advancements in remote monitoring, use of modelling in R&D and rules based analytics. He adds that major challenges continue to include cyber security, employee skills, clear use of data, lack of standards and speed of change. Compressed air users, according to Gillies, will see significant benefits including greater productivity, increased efficiency and reliability as the industry accelerates progress in this regard.

Mark Ranger, Oil-Free Air Business Manager, at Atlas Copco believes that Industry 4.0 now has a greater exposure and understanding across the wider manufacturing spectrum. The challenge is now, he explains, is to integrate intelligent remote monitoring technology within customer/end user visualisation packages such that the user benefits from the suite of technology enhancements available” Without doubt the compressed air user will ultimately gain through better operational efficiency and system reliability, whereby his compressed air provider has the potential to offer continuous productivity improvement, without compromising his compressed air supply and quality.”

However Tony Wilson, Business Unit Manager, Parker Hannifin Manufacturing Limited, is concerned that the industry is only just waking to the potential opportunities of Industry 4.0. He highlights that traditionally manufacturers in the compressed air industry have a development resource based heavily around mechanical engineering and are not necessarily equipped to develop "IoT" technologies. Also many end users, according to him, will be unable integrate such technologies into their customers facilities without major cost/ infrastructure upgrade/ training (distributors may also need to employ engineers from adjacent industries, not their traditional mechanical engineers).

James Maziak, managing director of Maziak Compressed Services reiterates this sentiment by commenting that the biggest challenge will be to get people to invest in new machinery that is capable of communication with new BMS/Industry 4 control systems.

The Smart era

Many in the compressed air industry believe the Smart era will change the industry.

But as Gillies says the use of IIoT and big data analytics has the potential to increase the productivity and efficiency of how we develop, operate and service our customers compressed air systems: “The implementation of smart devices is a part of our everyday individual lives and this change is also starting to occur with industrial customers. Speed of product development, increase in service responsiveness, maintenance intervals based on real time analytics versus rule based time intervals and how our customers access information will provide substantial benefits to our customers in improving the overall operation of their compressed air systems (asset availability, efficiency, reduced costs, etc)”

Ranger believes the ‘smart era’ will drive faster response times, whether via human or intelligent system intervention, or a combination of both. It is conceivable, he explains, that routine service interventions could be undertaken remotely from the customer premises in the not too distant future: “3D and 4D remote visualisation software and tooling technology is already out there, it won’t be long before the compressed air industry looks at how this technology can be used.”

Mark Scot, at Compressed Air Solutions emphasises that the Smart era will particularly affect servicing: “Having the ability for the incumbent service provider to dial into an installation and control/interrogate the equipment offer huge savings to the end user. With this type of feature not only is there the prospect of eliminating expensive callouts, but it can also reduce travel which taken as a whole reduces our carbon emissions.”

Colin Mander, Regional Director, Industrials Group, Gardner Denver, also believes that preventive maintenance will be easier ”with compressors fitted with service indicators that will be sent messages to the provider’s phones/tablets so you are aware of maintenance requirements”.

Maziak also believes that remote monitoring and telemetry in the industry is becoming more prevalent, and because of this service, suppliers can be more proactive regarding condition monitoring (Oil levels, bearing temperatures) and therefore can be more proactive in their maintenance and overhaul planning.

Increasing servitization

The ‘value added service ladder’ continues to grow, according to Ranger, providing the user with a greater choice of service cover and added operational value. The challenge, he explains is to quantify the genuine value verses cost to the user process: “The Facility Management model works for many end users – although compressed air generation and air quality cannot be compromised if this model is considered. Buying air alone remains an enigma as it creates many operational and commercial challenges, but enhancements in remote visualisation and monitoring packages are making this option a viable consideration.”

Jason Morgan, managing director HPC explains that trends seen within the German Market shows a marked development towards replacing the traditional sale of the compressed air equipment with a service package whereby the customer buys the air produced at agreed rates. The equipment and service is the suppliers responsibility with the customer providing the electricity.

However he highlights that the UK market place has a traditional “owner” mentality, and movement towards this model has been slow with minimal uptake. But he says it is raised by customers more and more during compressed air requirement discussions and is likely to be an area of growth with the UK Market.

Scott believes that most of the traditional compressors manufactures have been on a transformation journey - developing the capabilities to provide services and solutions that supplement their traditional product offerings, the most obvious ones being; clean-up equipment, pipework and Nitrogen Generation.

Developments

Over the last 12 months, Morgan, believes there have been moves towards true predictive maintenance as opposed to the traditional time based maintenance schedules. He also highlights the advancement in the control algorithms to monitor both the history of compressed air demand and predict the future demand to ensure the maximum efficiently of the compressed air station, utilising highly intelligent compressor selection, operating optimal speeds and pressures to gain efficiency advantages.

Ranger also says that customers have realised the benefits to having real time operational monitoring, both in the compressor room and/or the distribution network. Whereas not too long ago they were reluctant to have such technology looking at their processes. This acceptance has enabled compressor service providers to up their game with faster response times to system events and delivering more ‘first time’ fixes, thanks to real time data measurement. He believes that going forward better predictive maintenance interventions can be foreseen, thus increasing operational sustainability further.

Brexit

Most manufacturers have moved on from the debate about Brexit actually happening, to the reality that it is clearly going to take place, but the arguments of how to implement it in a way that will ultimately benefit the UK economy are far from clear. David Gillies says we are entering the big unknown. He believes that in some respects Brexit will be positive: “Businesses will invest to remain productive and competitive in markets outside the EU. Businesses dependent on imports may look to manufacture in the UK rather than the unpredictability around exchange rates that impact their bottom line adversely.” However he explains that in the short term, decisions to purchase new equipment are being delayed until the terms or Brexit become clearer unless there is a pre budgeted, pre-planned purchase or a purchase due to an urgent need such as something that will effect production.

Ranger also states that uncertainty remains the short term concern, which has been consolidated further following the Government’s reduced majority in the General Election and what effect this will have on their mandate to push through Brexit policy without objection. However he also highlights that the weak Pound has stimulated investment, adding a cautious note by questioning what will happen if (or when) the Pound strengthens again? Maziak comments that Brexit may mean the UK will have to start producing more at home, therefore increased investment/ opportunities could be created.

Ultimately though as Ranger concludes, post formal Brexit negotiations in 2019 will provide a better picture of how our manufacturing climate will be effected in the longer term, in the meantime there is likely to be a period of sustained uncertainty.

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