If there was ever a place where manufacturers can save energy using compressed air and make measurable gains toward sustainability, it’s with pneumatics that power a seemingly infinite variety of machines and processes.
And industry leaders like Festo Corporation are helping them get there thanks to continued developments in pneumatic solutions. Advancements give manufacturers the ability to overcome long-standing barriers to compressed air efficiencies, one of which is the lack of easy-to-use in-house tools to optimize pneumatics. Another includes systems that automatically monitor airflow and ensure machines are operating with the optimum pressure versus over-pressure situations that wastes energy.
It all has to with continued breakthroughs in digital pneumatics and the evolution of Artificial Intelligence (AI) that work together or individually to achieve compressed air efficiency and lower energy consumption – and better position manufacturers to improve on their sustainability efforts.
“Smart pneumatics have been used for many years, but increasing intelligence is being built into the devices,” said Frank Latino, Global Product Manager with Festo Corporation, based in Esslingen, Germany. Festo USA (www.festo.com) recently celebrated its 50th anniversary of operation in the United States. “Artificial Intelligence is also starting to emerge and we’re seeing a lot of interest in it from end users.”
Increasing pneumatic intelligence helps manufacturers reach their sustainability goals.
Pneumatics Getting Smarter
Increased intelligence essentially means smart pneumatics are becoming smarter, said Frank Langro, Director – Festo Product Market Management, Pneumatic Automation, North America. Today’s smart pneumatics, he said, are radically different than conventional pneumatics.
“When I look at traditional pneumatics, I don’t really consider anything very smart about them,” Langro said. “You have a cylinder that extends and retracts with air supplied to the appropriate cylinder port,” he said, adding, “a pressure regulator really just does what you tell it to you do. And a valve shifts from one position to the other based on the signal it gets.”
What makes pneumatics truly smart, said Langro, is the ability of the device to gather information and subsequently act on it. He cites Festo’s line of energy efficiency modules as an example. Each module combines a pressure regulator, on/off valve, sensors, and fieldbus communication for relaying information to higher level control equipment or data collection systems.
Unlike a traditional pneumatic solution, the module can monitor and control the supply of compressed air based on machine-specific parameters versus waiting for an operator to gather and analyze data after the fact to identify areas for efficiencies and then implement appropriate steps.
“It detects the machine’s state whether it’s in operational mode or idle mode. If it’s idle, the device will do something such as reduce pressure, or maybe it shuts pressure off,” Langro said as examples of how the modules can improve compressed air efficiencies.
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Apps Deliver Control
Software applications are another way in which pneumatics have gone from being “smart” technologies to “intelligent” devices that control compressed air parameters.
Langro references an advanced valve terminal that essentially serves as a computer with sensors to offer functionality tailored to each machine. The device, called the Festo Motion Terminal VTEM and built into production machines, integrates valve electronics with pressure and temperature sensors. The terminal’s on-board processor controls the software app functions.
The Festo Motion Terminal VTEM incorporates multiple components, including an on-board processor for controlling pneumatic software apps.
One such app is known as ECO Drive, which among other capabilities, operates actuators with the minimum amount of air pressure to move the load.
“Normally, when a cylinder extends you still continue to pressurize that volume until you get up to line pressure. But many times, you don’t need to continue to pressurize that system,” Langro said. “The module detects that the motion has been made and basically shuts the valve off and stops the pressurization of that volume so you’re consuming less air.”
Another compressed air-saving app controlled by the Motion Terminal detects volume leakage due to any number of issues, including aged tubing or sudden leaks. If a leak is detected, it notifies operators, so they take appropriate action.
“The app learns the pressure profile based on several cycles it has run through,” Langro said. “Once the parameters are learned, it monitors the profile and detects if there is an improper profile, indicating leakage.”
Langro said apps like ECO Drive can deliver exponential energy savings given the numerous cylinders and valves powering typical machines and improve overall machine reliability since problems with performance can be spotted early.
“It’s tough to quantify the exact energy savings because it depends on the pressure and volume of air in your system, as well as things like tubing length,” said Langro. “But we’ve seen up to 70% compressed air reduction with the ECO Drive app on one cylinder. If you multiply that over and over with multiple cylinders on one machine and multiple machines, the savings can be quite substantial.”
AI Offers Actionable Insights
While smarter pneumatic devices can go a long way toward helping achieve compressed air efficiencies, so too can AI, which has evolved to let users more readily gather critical data and make immediate corrections or map out strategies for ongoing energy-saving measures.
Artificial Intelligence solutions help users better manage compressed air powering pneumatics.
Latino points to the Festo Automation Experience AI platform as an example. The software uses algorithms and machine learning to determine in real time whether a smart, or traditional pneumatic device, is in a “healthy state” based on specific parameters. If not, it notifies the user and provides a recommended course of action. Through algorithms and user inputs, the software learns over time whether an anomaly is acceptable based on conditions deemed “healthy” or whether it’s something like an air leak that needs attention.
“Whether it’s standard data from cylinder switches and coils that trigger a basic on and off action, or more sophisticated data like pressure and flow from a smart pneumatic device, AI collects that data so users can make good use of it,” Latino said. “If you start to see airflow increasing, leakage could be a factor. The users can then address it before it gets too bad.”
A major advantage of AI is the ability it provides to better manage compressed air leaks when compared with traditional leak audits, said both Latino and Langro. The capability is worth noting since 50 to 70 percent of compressed air leaks occur on pneumatic circuits of production equipment.
“With sensors correctly deployed in the system to catch this, it’s far superior to doing a leak audit once a year or something like that,” said Latino, noting how AI takes leak auditing to a new level.
“I agree,” said Langro. “Even after audits are done many people don’t implement what’s been recommended because the machine is still running, or whatever. But when you have a system that provides notifications based on live data, it’s natural to go fix it as opposed to saying, ‘Okay, we’ve got our audit report. Let’s look at it next week.’ ”
AI platforms are also making data more readily accessible, said Latino, since Festo’s platform can connect with the plant’s own network servers, or the cloud, with access to user-friendly dashboards. The technology supports the desire of manufacturers to develop proactive strategies for compressed air efficiencies.
“Everyone is moving toward the ability to simplify this collection of data and make things easier for users. AI is emerging and it will only improve over time,” Latino said.
Access to actionable data for pneumatics and compressed air use continues the trend toward easier to use systems.
End Users Drive Change
Whether it’s widespread use of smart pneumatics or the adoption of pneumatic AI solutions, Latino and Langro note the increased desire on the part of end users for machines designed with pneumatics that can help them better manage compressed air and save energy.
“End users are saying they want to operate on lower pressure levels. That is definitely happening,” said Latino, as an example of needs expressed by manufacturers. “If their machine is designed to work sufficiently on lower levels, our products will work at those levels.”
Latino said OEMs and end users are also showing growing interest in AI as a way to achieve energy-savings and productivity goals.
“We’re seeing more of that from end users right now, but it’s growing on the OEM side as well,” Latino said. “End users are saying they want to deploy some kind of predictive analysis, whether it’s to achieve energy or maintenance goals.”
Festo guides OEMs and end users on pneumatics best practices, but Langro thinks manufacturers should specify to OEMs what they want from pneumatics when it comes to compressed air, such the ability to operate at lower pressure versus the traditional level of 90 psi.
“They’ve got to demand that from the OEM because the OEM is going to take the easier, standardized design path if it’s left up to them,” Langro said.
All photos courtesy of Festo Corporation.
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