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Building Industry 4.0 into a business

20 October, 2017

Thorsten Meier, managing director of BOGE, explains how his company is putting industry 4.0 technologies at the heart of its business model - and into factories.

In all but the very smallest applications, a compressed air system involves a distribution network: the pipes and valves used to deliver air from the compressor installation to the point of final use. It also involves an interconnected network of machines. An end user may have one large, fixed speed compressor to provide the base-load of air they use in their operations, for example, together with a smaller variable-speed machine that acts to meet peaks in demand. In addition, systems may include other machines such as dryers, filters or storage devices.

For these systems to work efficiently, the different components must talk to each other. An installation with multiple compressors, for example, must make decisions about which machines to switch on, and how those machines should be run to meet the customer’s requirements while minimising energy consumption and maximising the reliability and longevity of the equipment.

In this respect, our business was Industry 4.0-enabled long before the term entered common use. The control systems installed on our standard products today have a large number of networked features. The controller on one machine can act as the master for a wider network, for example coordinating the operation of multiple machines via integrated fieldbus connections. Built-in Internet links allow operations and maintenance staff to monitor machine and overall system performance remotely using a web browser or mobile app. These capabilities reduce the cost and complexity of installing, configuring and operating a compressed air system, and make it easier to keep that system performing efficiently.

Some years ago, however, we recognised that these capabilities were making use of a small part of the potential of Industry 4.0 technologies. To go further, we would need to change the way we thought about our products, our customers’ requirements and our business model.

From product to service

When an end user approaches a compressor manufacturer, they don’t really want to buy the latest compressor or the best control technology. They want a reliable supply of compressed air at the right quality and the lowest overall cost. As in so many other areas, we expect our business will shift from a product model to a service model, with customers ultimately paying only for the air that they use in their processes.

That change has important implications for equipment providers like us, providing a greater incentive to ensure that we find ways to minimise the total cost of operation per unit of air produced. Doing that calls for systems with the highest possible energy efficiency, reliability, longevity and availability. And Industry 4.0 technologies can help us to achieve all those aims.

Take predictive maintenance, for example. Today, many of our compressors use a secure internet link to share operating data with our central analytics centre in Germany. The service is inexpensive for end-users, typically free for the first year of operation and just a few euros per day thereafter. The links sends around 70 data points a second on pressure, temperatures, motor speeds and energy consumption collected from sensors around the machine.

That data is analysed using “learning” algorithms. Over time, the system gains an understanding of the normal operating conditions at the customer’s site. If it sees a condition that varies significantly from those normal conditions, it will immediately alert one of our specialist engineers. The engineer will review the data and decide if it suggests an issue with the machine or with the wider system.

If there is an issue, the engineer can contact the end user to suggest appropriate corrective actions. If the data represents an unusual, but acceptable operating condition, the engineer can teach the system to ignore such occurrences in the future.

Significantly, this monitoring is a two-way process. As it builds its understanding of machine performance, the algorithm can update the parameters inside the controller on the machine itself, allowing the machine to alert the on-site operators to indicators that might suggest a developing problem.

The continual monitoring of system performance is also transforming the kind of reporting and analysis we can offer. For any machine connected to our analysis system, we can provide a detailed annual report on its performance, reliability and energy consumption. That helps customers in multiple ways. They can see at a glance how much their compressed air system is costing them, how demand varies over time and how the operating efficiency of the system is influenced by those demand variations.

As customer operations inevitably change over time, so does their demand for compressed air. Using the data from these reports, we can show them how changes to system design or configuration could deliver efficiency or performance improvements as usage patterns change.

Continuous improvement

Perhaps the most exciting thing that industry 4.0 technologies allow today is the use of data to drive continuous improvements in the machines themselves. This can work in a number of ways. First, online monitoring allows us to build up a detailed picture of a customer’s real-world usage. We can take that data and use simulation techniques to evaluate the potential impact of changes to a machine. Doing that will allow us to show, for example, that a different type of motor will provide significant annual reductions in energy consumption. We even take the risk out of the customer’s upgrade decision. Rather than selling the motor to the end user for a fixed price, we can agree to charge a proportion of the energy cost savings in the first year of installation.

The potential for tailored product improvements go even further, however. We have made use of a number of smart technologies and approaches to radically improve the flexibility of our own design and manufacturing systems. Those changes have allowed us to greatly increase the degree of customisation available to make specific products suit particular user requirements.

Today, for example, a customer operating their compressed air system at a pressure of 7 bar may be able to adjust their processes to allow that pressure to be reduced to 6.5 bar. Any pressure reduction will provide useful energy savings, but if the customer’s compressor is optimised for 7 bar operation, some of those savings will be lost since the efficiency of the compressor will be slightly compromised.

Now, it is possible for us to design components optimised for the customer’s precise usage requirements, to simulate their performance using the customer’s real usage data, and then to use 3D printing and other digitally-enabled techniques to produce the part for installation in the customer’s machine.

And there are further developments in the pipeline. We’ve worked with technology partners to develop prototypes of self-configuring compressed air systems, in which components communicate with each other wirelessly to agree the most efficient operating sequences and parameters. Such techniques could eliminate the manual configuration work required to set up a new system, and allow networks to reconfigure themselves on the fly for optimum performance in the event of a failure in one machine.

The approaches described above aren’t just experiments, they are real service offerings that our customers are using today. When it comes to compressed air, Industry 4.0 and the smart factory are no longer theoretical and we expect to see the implementation of smart technology become the norm in coming years.

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