The recent UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) brought together leaders from across the globe to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement. The event continued to highlight the situation facing our planet and the urgency for us all to respond. Without question, the climate crisis has forced industry to put sustainability front and centre of its priorities, with multiple decarbonisation strategies set out by the UK Government. The key question? How industry can deliver against net zero targets, while remaining competitive.
Industrial gas is used extensively by a range of industries – from medical oxygen in hospitals to being used in the production process to manufacture chemicals, electronics, and metals. According to a 2020 report, the global industrial gases market was valued at more than $92million in 2019, and it is set to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.5 per cent between 2020-2030. Its critical position at the heart of industry presents an opportunity to better track, monitor, and assess gas usage in order to reduce industry’s environmental impact and boost its efficiency.
While there has been a large reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the industrial processes sector in the UK, with an overall decrease of 83 per cent between 1990 and 2019, there is still plenty of work to be done.
Never has there been a better time to tackle the climate crisis. We need action, and we need it fast – this is where digital technology can help. Once we monitor existing action or behaviour, we can then assess its impact and gain a more informed understanding, before making sustainability-focused improvements. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is changing the face of industrial process efficiency and providing exciting opportunities for improvements that can directly affect environmental impact.
So, let’s explore how smart technology can be used to track, monitor, and assess levels of industrial gas usage, in order to reduce carbon emissions and save energy, while also preventing disruptions to supply.
An interesting example of this is the ever-increasing benefit telemetry provides to companies using industrial gases as part of their operations. Understanding how much gas is available has traditionally been monitored using a simple pressure gauge connected to the cylinder – hardly an exact science. As this method isn’t refined enough to accurately track usage, gas could be wasted, as manufacturers are unsure of their supply and therefore unable to manage their inventory accurately. This means suppliers are working reactively to customers’ needs rather than proactively.
However, this has changed. A process now exists that places a sensor inside the cylinder that transmits data on the amount of gas available via Bluetooth. This instantly allows customers to get more granular information, which they can access remotely via a mobile device. Before, someone could estimate whether a cylinder was full, half full or nearly empty. Now, they are able to accurately read how many hours or minutes they have left before their supply runs out.
The improvements to efficiency bring a range of benefits. Workloads and ordering can be more accurately planned, which in turn reduces the number of deliveries and the related carbon emissions, and at a touch of a button companies can find out how much gas they have available, how long it will last and when they’ll need to reorder.
Another benefit is that once a sensor is in place, any issues with connection leaks can be spotted almost instantly. For some bigger organisations who use gas tanks that are equipped with telemetry, an alarm will sound should a leak occur. Whereas in the past, any leak on a cylinder or storage tank without telemetry on a company’s site was unlikely to be detected until someone came to use it and found it empty. Thanks to new technologies, any abnormally high consumption would generate an alarm – cutting down on wastage and improving on-site safety.
As valuable as these advances are, this seemingly small piece of technology is facilitating a much greater change, as gas cylinder sensors can now be managed remotely. This has proven to be particularly useful during the pandemic. Social distancing and restrictions on movement led to reduced numbers visiting workplaces, including industrial sites, but remote access has meant that gas cylinders have continued to be in use and receive regular monitoring.
Users can accurately track inventory, monitor usage, predict when new deliveries are needed and the quantity required, or identify any gas loss. Using all of this information, suppliers can factor in customers’ needs, calculate their own schedule accordingly and maximise efficiency.
This level of detail, for example, allows suppliers to schedule ‘just-in-time’ deliveries and reduce their fuel consumption through less frequent deliveries.
Telemetry is nothing new, and its advances are perhaps not the most high-profile change we will see during the Industry 4.0 revolution. It has also been heavily used throughout the pandemic and has played a crucial role in the critical supply of medical gases to hospitals across the UK; the technology has provided greater precision in monitoring liquid gas levels, which helped to ensure that hospitals remained operational throughout the pandemic.
However, its growing influence has the potential to turn the supply chain on its head, change the way businesses operate, and create a more efficient industry.
One example of telemetry being used by industry to detect gas levels, reduce energy losses, and decrease carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions can be found in the aluminium sector.
Aluminium is an important asset to many industries, not least due to the way its sustainable and lightweight properties can reduce environmental impact. As the metal is 100 per cent recyclable, it can therefore contribute to the circular economy; recycling aluminium also uses 95 per cent less energy than producing primary aluminium, making this ‘secondary aluminium’ an increasingly popular option. However, manufacturers must also consider the carbon footprint of the aluminium itself, and this is being increasingly scrutinised to ensure it is as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible. For secondary aluminium production, this includes enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of remelting furnaces with oxygen enhanced combustion technology – which can be further improved thanks to Industry 4.0 technology, by helping to identify and overcome challenges, ensure continuous improvement, and deliver sustainable solutions.
Working closely with the secondary aluminium industry to improve this increasingly popular remelting process, a range of oxygen enhanced combustion technologies has been developed aimed at improving efficiency and reducing environmental impact.
As part of this, we’re now seeing the beginning of the end of being heavily reliant on an operator’s skills and experience to predict when the aluminium has reached tapping temperature. This, combined with the significant variability that is inherent in the remelting process, can often lead to suboptimal performance and inconsistent results, contributing to longer cycle times, reduced energy efficiency and increased aluminium losses. To address this issue, accurately predicting when the aluminium has reached tapping temperature can prevent the metal overheating, which can save time and energy, as well as improving yield. Melting performance can also be improved by reducing the number of times that the furnace door is opened in order to check melting progress, resulting in lower energy losses and less idle time.
Embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution
The focus of the aluminium industry is to use Industry 4.0 technology to help achieve efficiency targets, while improving the triple bottom line: safety, productivity, and environmental performance. For example, smart technology can be used to log key performance and operational parameters over time, creating a ‘digital twin’ virtual representation (or model) of the equipment or melting process to improve efficiency and reduce maintenance time.
A digital twin model uses the data to determine the efficiency of the melting process and calculate when the metal inside the furnace has reached its optimal yield conditions. Real-time closed or open-loop feedback is provided, to either automatically shut-down the burner or to alert the operators that the metal has reached the required temperature for pouring. As new data continues to feed into the model, machine learning technology improves its predictions over time. Accurate end-of-melt prediction, combined with timely burner shutdown control, can provide significant benefits, including improved yield, increased productivity, energy savings and reduced CO2 emissions.
Working in Tandem with Tandom
In an industry first, a digital twin of the melting process is a development that has been explored by Air Products, a world leading industrial gases company, and Tandom Metallurgical Group to monitor the impact of using Industry 4.0 in achieving greater efficiencies and savings. The Cheshire-based company, which produces aluminium alloys, master alloys and recycles aluminium products, scrap and dross, took part in a 10-month study with Air Products to test the technology.
A digital twin model was developed and implemented on a tilt rotary furnace (TRF) used to remelt aluminium dross materials. The data collected was analysed to determine aluminium oxidation losses over a large number of cycles, and regression analysis showed an exponential relationship between yield loss and metal tapping temperature. Baseline data was compared with data from cycles that were completed using the digital twin, which found that an accurate model of end-of-melt prediction, combined with timely burner shutdown control, provided significant benefits in production and yield, as well as energy savings.
The importance of tapping temperature on aluminium loss was also revealed during the study. For example, tapping liquid aluminium at 900°C (1,652°F) as opposed to 750°C (1,382°F) for a charge material with 80 per cent aluminium content, will lead to an additional yield loss of about 3 per cent.
“smart technology can be used to create a ‘digital twin’ virtual model of the melting process to improve efficiency and reduce maintenance time”
An intelligence system was used to better predict when the material inside the furnace is ready to be tapped, thereby reducing tapping temperature and improving aluminium yield. More than 1,400 cycles were analysed and compared with base data from over 1,000 cycles, and the overall average tapping temperature was successfully reduced by 44°C – where some materials improved more than others. The average reduction in temperature corresponds to a yield improvement of 0.5 per cent.
As a knock-on effect to reducing the metal tapping temperature, there was a dramatic reduction in energy consumption, with an average reduction of 15 per cent. The analysis was carried out as a weighted average for like-for-like materials that were used during both the base data collection period and during the 10-month study.
These materials comprise 77 per cent of the materials used during the 10-month study and are therefore an accurate representation of the data.
Energy usage goes hand-in-hand with carbon dioxide emissions and 15 per cent energy savings is equal to the same reduction in CO2 emissions.
Furthermore, an average time saving of 5.7 per cent was also achieved, due to the implementation of the digital twin, where it was found that some materials performed better than others. Certain materials also showed a reduction in melting time of more than 10 per cent, where the digital twin model dramatically reduced the variability in the results.
Reducing Liquid Nitrogen Wastage
It’s not just the metals industry that is benefiting from using telemetry technology to detect and monitor gas levels. In addition to furnaces and metal processing, smart technology is also being used in the food processing sector to capture current and historical data, in order to remotely monitor the performance of industrial freezers. This helps them to make their production process more efficient and reduce gas wastage.
Thanks to the advanced sensors and wireless communications technology, a new smart digital system has been developed that provides real-time data via an easy-to-read dashboard.
This panel can be accessed remotely, enabling the user to review performance together as necessary. The technology has recently been integrated on the cryogenic freezers of a major seafood producer in the UK, where they can now remotely look at current day and historical data, ensure high traceability for consumers, or use fault trees to identify, solve and monitor issues, among other features.
It’s early days for this technology, but it is already allowing users to optimise cryogenic freezer use, improve efficiency, productivity, and sustainability. For example, this is done by reducing excess liquid nitrogen wastage, as the intelligence system reacts when the freezer is in run mode but there is no product on the belt.
The IIoT has opened up a whole new world of possibilities and we’re already seeing how smart technology is helping food manufacturers and processors to become more efficient and productive, as well as reduce the amount of product or gas loss. It’s an area that will only continue to evolve.
It’s incumbent on all of us across our industries to deliver improvements to efficiency, embrace technological advances, streamline our work and ultimately reduce the environmental impact of our activities.
We’re continuing to explore how we can use digital twins and IIOT technology to improve more industrial processes, including further reducing tapping temperatures, leading to greater yield benefits, as well as continuing to reduce energy and gas usage.
The benefits of introducing Industry 4.0 technology into industrial processes are clear. By embracing the use of data, the industry can be empowered to make more informed decisions to improve processes and drive efficiencies. The net result: more sustainable performance, heightened productivity, better quality products, reduced energy usage, lower emissions, and less landfill. That’s the sort of future we all need to invest in.
Mike Dines, Director, Tandom Metallurgical Group, said: “As a major recycling business we are always looking to add more value to our supply chain and sustainability is an essential part of that. Continuous improvement is part of our philosophy and only by measuring and setting sustainable improvement targets can we meet our objectives.
“We wanted to find a solution that would enable us to achieve greater efficiencies, while also making sure that we could achieve as high a yield as possible. We collected a substantial amount of base data, before the 4.0 technology was added to the furnace, to see the impact of using the equipment. We were really pleased with the result, as it not only improved our yield, but also reduced our energy usage too – reducing carbon emissions by 15 per cent and achieving the same amount in energy savings.”