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Saving energy and money with air compressors

When thinking about cost savings on a power bill, most processing plants look towards more tangible items such as machinery and lighting. The energy costs associated with these products are easily measured and fixed – switch off a light or a piece of machinery and the power bill will shrink, right?

But what about something less tangible – like compressed air? This is a question that pneumatics specialist SMC asked itself, and came up with the Energy Saving Customer Journey concept, which it is championing in order to save its customers valuable compressed air and money on energy use.

Bill Blyth is a key accounts manager and part of the global accounts group for the company. He found that while these types of savings are not at the top of some company’s priority list, their interest is piqued when informed that their energy bill can be reduced dramatically this way.

“I guess in some respects they are curious to understand how they can save money via compressed air energy,” said Blyth. “A lot of companies have never embarked on this type of savings before, or these types of projects before. There is definitely a mixture of scepticism and believers.”

Blyth said the journey usually starts with a discussion regarding the customers compressed air use and requirements. Sometimes they have a vision to expand their current processes and they need to utilise more compressors, which are expensive to operate. And this is where the educational part of the journey begins. Because people can easily understand how switching off a light can lead to a better bottom line. But compressed air?

“It all comes down to how much air is being sucked up by components being used in the processes down on the factory floor,” said Blyth. “If somebody opens a big tap down on the floor and pumps air out to the atmosphere, it is going to open up a huge demand on the compressors and compressed air system.”

Usually a compressed air operator will regulate the pressure commensurate with the amount of force that is needed, or the amount of speed needed, to perform the particular process. In a lot of cases, factories have a standardised pressure. However, these processes might need different levels of pressure depending on the function that is being carried out.
“Reducing the pressure at certain processes – all processes if possible – will reduce the amount of energy and compressed air being used,” said Blyth. “It is about looking at the process, and products that are used in that process, and understanding them and their limitations. Then it is about adjusting the pressure of the air being used, which in turn will lead to costs savings.”

The process of generating compressed air is inherently inefficient because compressors tend to generate a lot of heat, and little air. This is why Blyth believes it is important to try and streamline the process and why the company has embarked on customer education. Although some countries with cooler climates have harnessed ways to use the heat, here in Australia opportunities to utilise this by-product are limited.

“When we talk about identifying the need, the first thing we try and understand – like with any journey – is where do you want to go?

And then we work closely with the customer to follow the course. We share with our customers the experiences we have gained. As a manufacturer of pneumatic product we understand compressed air efficiency and compressed air energy-saving solutions. So we make sure it is part of the conversations with our customers.”

A comparison, is thinking of compressed air as a bit like electricity. If a worker was to turn the voltage up on a piece of machinery, there would be ramifications if the person was not authorised to do so. This is because electricity is a regulated energy source. In other words, specialists are needed to address voltage on the machinery. An operator of a machine cannot randomly go up and adjust the current or voltage on a piece of equipment.

“But when we talk about compressed air, it’s not regulated,” said Blyth. “It’s not that it’s not unsafe, or not safer, but it’s not something people think about. Typically, with a machine, an operator can adjust the air to what they feel might be necessary. However, if you have high leakage on the machine, you might be turning the air pressure up to mask the leakage rather than fix it. All of a sudden you are using much more energy and it may go unnoticed by the engineers. This can be costly.”

Blyth isn’t talking just about saving thousands of dollars, but tens of thousands. Most manufacturing plants are highly pneumatised. This means that the use of pneumatic products onsite is prolific. Yet, because it is not tangible, it is perceived to be inexpensive. This is no longer the case.

“People started to listen because we started to consider their electricity bills,” said Blyth. “And I think when some of these bills are $200,000-$300,000 a month in compressor energy, and you can save someone 20 or 30 percent, or even 10-15 percent, it is a pretty significant contribution. In a lot of cases, it is not a daunting process to reduce compressed air energy. While there is usually a cost associated with initially reducing that energy, it’s a one-time cost. It is dwarfed by the amount of energy you would consume if you didn’t make those savings.”

It also is noticeable to Blyth that the bigger players in the market are realising the considerable savings, but some SMEs and smaller consumers of compressed air energy do not realise the benefits of these reductions.

“I’m working with a range of customers – large multi-national and national companies,” said Blyth. “We find the bigger the company, the more they are capable of embarking on this journey. They have the people, they have the time, and they have the resources.

Smaller companies often do not have the available resources for these projects, but in our discussions, they often fully understand the inefficiencies and benefits from compressed-air energy savings. Many of the opportunities for smaller compressed-air savings can be introduced cost effectively as part of the normal maintenance and repair cycles on machinery. This is where we find many of the smaller companies participate.”
Blyth has solid evidence to support his point of view.

“Trying to sell energy savings to someone who doesn’t care about the level of energy they are using is impossible,” he said. “However, when people realise that the process of generating compressed air is inherently inefficient, and we can help them save money, they start coming onboard. The answer is in the bottom line. SMC’s focus is  not only about energy saving, but more importantly reducing costs and providing a return on the bottom line while  improving efficiencies.”

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