Optimizing manufacturing and operations in the face of the energy crisis

“Modern economists do not get their rewards and awards for being preoccupied with energy, and modern societies become concerned about it only when the supply of any main commercial form of energy appears to be threatened, and its prices soar,” How the World Really Works, Vaclav Smil

Digital transformation and Industry 4.0 best practices are helping many industries cope with the current energy crisis. Many manufacturers could not have survived the increased cost of electricity and gas without automation and digitally enabled power management.

Industries are now using more robots, dark factories, and occupancy sensors. Also, smart factories equipped with the latest wireless technology can remotely manage machinery and transportation. Additionally, many factories now have solar panels, photovoltaic windows, occupancy sensors, and other power-saving technologies.

The Rise of the “Dark Factory”

The phrase “Dark Factory” indicates a manufacturing facility in which people who require light for their work are not present, and could theoretically be operated without lighting, i.e., in the dark. This is known as “Lights Out Manufacturing.” Behind this is the idea that a fully automated production can occur purely by implementing emerging technologies, e.g., cloud, machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), and digital twins.

Dark Factories are fully automated and require no human presence on-site. The whole production process — from the delivery of the raw materials at the factory to the delivery of the finished products — is carried out entirely by automatically controlled machines.

Image Recognition and Machine Learning Save Power and Cost By Optimizing Quality Control and Production

New AI technologies such as machine learning and edge computing help detect quality issues and production disruption. Image processing using machine learning is proven to be much more efficient and accurate than traditional human inspection. This helps reduce downtime and product waste, therefore saving time and energy.

Also, pairing circular economy principles with information generated by billions of connected, intelligent devices allows for innovation and sustainable use, extending product lifespan and helping create a secondary use for them.

Renewables Are Helping but Changing the Traditional Disrupting Energy-Saving Operations

Until recently, it was common practice in heavy-energy-use industries to operate during off-peak hours to benefit from lower electricity rates. Many factories that use a lot of power choose to work at night to benefit from cheap electricity rates. In some cases, utilities were paying those industries to use surplus power that would otherwise be wasted.

Because of the pandemic and current energy crisis, this has dramatically changed. Nowadays, especially in Europe, the cheapest electricity rate could happen any time during the day.

One of the reasons is the increased generation using solar power. As solar panels only work during daylight hours, their influx into the grid makes prices go down and, at night, they go up again. Furthermore, the same situation can reverse in places with a large capacity of wind turbines.

Therefore, to optimize the opportunity of benefitting from the cheapest rates, factories must be highly efficient and flexible in their operations.

Using TSN vs. Wireless Communication

Connecting machines, vehicles, buildings, and operations is one key pillar of Industry 4.0. Monitoring and remotely controlling all aspects of the manufacturing process helps improve efficiency, predict failures, improve safety, and enable predictive maintenance.

However, while highly efficient and reliable, relying on new technologies such as 5G private networks can substantially increase power consumption. If wireless is the only option, LPWAN standards such as LoRaWAN or Zigbee are much more power efficient than cellular networks.

While wireless communications are now praised as the fastest way to connect many devices, machinery, and other assets in the factory, the key to energy management is using high-efficiency DC/DC solutions, ensuring that processors are in a low-power standby mode as much as possible, and reducing wireless communications to the minimum.

Currently, Ethernet is replacing fieldbuses due to the explosion of sensor nodes required for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Ethernet, however, has a disadvantage; it adds latency and is not deterministic. IIoT requires a deterministic system — the solution is Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN). It provides a high-priority path for time-critical data. TSN could prevent machine damage with real-time communication, avoiding downtime and saving money.

Furthermore, TSN can provide broadband connectivity and guaranteed packet transport with bounded low-latency, low-packet delay variation, and low-packet loss over a single twisted-pair Ethernet. TSN creates a standardized basic technology within the framework of IEEE 802.1 for guaranteed quality of service (QoS) and increased demands in Ethernet. This only affects the OSI Layer 2 communication and not the user interface.

Distributed Manufacturing and 3D Printing Allow for Further Energy Savings and More Sustainable Production

3D printing for industry allows the production of many geometric structures and simplifies the product design process; it is also relatively environmentally friendly. 3D printing can decrease lead times and total production costs in low-to-medium volume production.

Unlike traditional manufacturing, the cost per unit is not dependent on volume. 3D printing also allows the same parts to be produced with exactly the same specs anywhere in the world, thus saving the additional cost and energy use of transportation, making production more sustainable. Also, as industrial 3D printers become cheaper and faster, the need for storage and large inventories becomes less critical, as parts can be manufactured on demand.

According to HP, production runs of fewer than 100,000 units of the same part can be 3D-printed locally without incurring additional costs, saving time and allowing for quick changes. It is also a much more sustainable way to manufacture products, as 3D printers use only a fraction of the energy compared to traditional injection molding processes.

“The fact that Industry 4.0 economically enables distributed manufacturing means that you can change the way that you build and distribute products,” said Ramón Pastor, Vice President and General Manager, 3D Printing, HP, in an interview with IoT Times. “There are some estimates that up to half of the fuel — fossil fuel, in this case — consumed in the world is used to transport products from where they’re produced to where they’re consumed. In this sense, the combination of Industry 4.0, digital manufacturing, and 3D printing enables us to change this paradigm and go to distributed manufacturing, which is basically, you manufacture what you need at the moment that you need next to where the demand is.”

During the last century, thanks to fossil fuels, our world has enjoyed the most extensive industrial growth in history, fueled by unlimited access to cheap, although polluting, energy. Today, as we are facing the effects of climate change and new regional conflicts, it is critical that we switch to clean energy sources and reduce power consumption.

Traditional industries urgently need to embrace Industry 4.0 best practices and technologies to tackle the energy crisis to compete and survive.


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