Technological developments in automation over the past 25 years mean UK industry has never been better placed to be truly energy efficient. With smart technology developing at speed, one of the biggest challenges of the future will be translating a growing amount of data into real operational intelligence, says Jez Palmer, automation expert at Schneider Electric

The development of Ethernet-based control networks and commercial off-the-shelf hardware and software plus components and operating systems over the past decade has undoubtedly removed many of the traditional barriers to information in automation. Furthermore, the adoption of a variety of industry standards – from OPC UA to IEC 61131-3 – has played a major role in revolutionising the openness of systems, greatly improving the way they inter-communicate and provide users with flexibility, choice and predictability.

Despite these advances, spiralling energy prices and a constant need to minimise operational costs, mean there is still a major impetus on industry to achieve yet deeper systems integration.

For any industry where automation plays a major role, the ultimate goal is to deliver a single environment where production management applications such as plant asset management, performance management and scheduling can plug seamlessly into the same communications infrastructure as the basic energy management and control system functions. 

Today’s automation systems must be flexible enough to react to increasingly variable costs. Energy costs can vary significantly at different times of the day. You may be using your process automation system to manage your energy consumption but if you are using too much energy at the wrong times of the day, both costs and emissions will remain high. Modern, integrated process automation systems can enhance agility, providing the information needed to make intelligent business decisions and manage energy usage.

Combining real-time control applications and energy management with production management capabilities would go a long way to enable a company to achieve what could be termed ‘OEE+E’ or overall equipment effectiveness plus energy management, at every plant level in the production process – ultimately improving a company’s ‘green image’.

This need not be the daunting process it is sometimes believed to be.  Some businesses will have legacy systems that need to be updated to take the business forward. These systems should not be regarded in isolation by being updated piecemeal. Instead, the company should take the opportunity to look at how it links its energy management and control systems in an intelligent way.

Key trends

So what key trends are likely to emerge as organisations up and down the UK strive to achieve this goal?

As more and more smart devices and intelligent technology is introduced, operators will increasingly become overwhelmed with information which they don’t necessarily know how to interpret to maximum operational effect. This will essentially leave many data rich but fundamentally, information poor.

As end users grapple with the increasing amounts of data, we are likely to see a shift towards a focus on top end systems which will, over time, make managing the volume of information easier. Crucially, such technology will be used to translate the data to predict and pinpoint when maintenance will be required, essentially resulting in plants with more valuable uptime and less inefficient downtime. 

This same principle will translate to sub-metering, leading to increased visibility for managers as to where energy in their plant is used. Ultimately, this will be a significant aid in helping organisations become more energy efficient. 

Schneider Electric has addressed the need for the creation of collaborative systems with the introduction of PlantStruxure – an integrated process automation system environment which can support a suite of production and energy management software solutions. PlantStruxure is built on Ethernet and other open architecture technologies which facilitate transparent communication between the field, process, plant and enterprise. Once implemented, users are able to benefit from high availability of systems across all process levels, helping to meet the demands of keeping unexpected downtime to a minimum, lowering production costs, ensuring targets are met and, where safety is paramount, reducing potential harm to people, the environment and equipment.

This effectively reduces waste and eases compliance with the heavy environmental regulations which today’s automation industry is met with.  Businesses that operate an open and collaborative production environment that embraces standards can enjoy significant energy efficiency benefits.  In an industry where energy effectiveness is now deemed as important as equipment effectiveness, it is time for plant operators to look to a top-down approach to achieving what we can term a high OEE+E rating, to ensure that their systems are flexible, sustainable and energy efficient.

Schneider Electric

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