Saturday, May 18, 2013


Innovation is not the sole preserve of managers and
engineers. Problem solving on the shop floor can be a
powerful source of ideas and innovation.

OEM’s around the world are responding to the need for equipment and processes that consume less energy, water and materials, and which generate less pollution. Organisations investing in new production capacity would therefore do well to integrate a comprehensive review of available technologies into their procurement processes, since in many instances, the price premium paid for sustainable technologies is more than justifiable by their reduced lifetime operating costs. The reality for most industrial concerns is however that a portfolio of assets at different life cycle stages has to be managed and operated. This equipment has a value on organisational balance sheets, and cannot simply be discarded in favour of more sustainable alternatives. In some cases, this equipment may be over 20 years old, and hail from an era when resource efficiency and pollution prevention were not primary considerations, with this reflected in their design and operation. If your organisation possesses such equipment, a viable question could be: "are you locked into unsustainable operation until that equipment is replaced with more modern alternatives?". The answer to that question is a resounding NO! Any equipment or process can be modified to operate more sustainably. In order for you to be able to do so, your organisation needs to focus on innovation as a tool for continuous improvement.

The steps in a typical sustainability programme or initiative are broadly as follows:

Detailed review of operations, consideration of individual elements and their interaction as a system, measurements and calculations to determine resource consumption and emissions to air, land and water, determination of risks
Determination of potential opportunities to become more sustainable through qualitative benchmarking of current operations e.g. "only standard efficiency motors are used, equipment is left running during breaks, old-style T12 lamps with magnetic ballasts are in use" etc.
Identification of alternatives, quantification of benefits and costs of implementation, risk assessment for individual solutions
Introduction of proposed technologies, work practices, new equipment settings
Measurement to confirm the actual benefits realised. This should be done immediately after implementation as well as at a pre-determined frequency to ensure the solutions implemented are sustained.

Innovation is most important during OPPORTUNITY IDENTIFICATION and OPPORTUNITY DEVELOPMENT. There are a number of standard approaches to common industrial sustainability challenges. Motor replacement, alternative lighting options, boiler excess air control systems, insulation of hot surfaces, VSD control of under-loaded screw compressors – these are examples of fairly standard approaches. While significant skill is needed to be able to quantify the benefits of implementing such solutions, they cannot be called innovative, and represent the first-order solutions that any industrial organisation seeking to become more sustainable should pursue.

What then would be some examples of the type of innovation I am referring to? This is certainly not only about technology, but also about how systems fit together and can be operated in ways that reduce resource consumption and pollution, as well as increase safety for employees, local communities and consumers. The table below outlines a few simple industrial systems and the more traditional performance improvement options and approaches used to make them more sustainable, if only on an incremental basis. This is contrasted with approaches that are more innovative.

Clean-in-place (CIP) plant used to clean pipelines in a food plant
Daily measurement of chemical concentrations, management of these to ensure they are not exceeded (which would lead to wastage of chemicals) and weekly dumping of tanks to sewer to ensure gross solids levels are maintained at low enough levels.
While better than a situation where concentrations are too high, weekly dumping means increased water use, additional energy for heating of fresh make-up water and loss of chemicals with each dump. The CIP plant is also unavailable during the dumping process.
Chemical management to remain, but instead of dumping weekly, use of a small centrifuge to remove gross solids. Viability improved dramatically if an existing centrifuge can be used.
Paraffin-fired boiler to produce steam for heating of process vessels. Poorly utilised.
Insulate steam and condensate lines, measure flue gas oxygen and reduce using damper valve, increase condensate recovery.
These options will make the boiler system as efficient as possible. However, they do not address the fact that a boiler may not be the most suitable solution to begin with, given the small heat load involved.
Use an electrical heating system, provided that power and demand charges are less than the life-cycle costs of operating a boiler.
Drying oven using hot air to remove moisture from agricultural products

Monitor oven temperature carefully and control gas consumption accordingly
The solution monitors and controls the existing process without questioning whether its fundamental energy consumption could be reduced. The mass of air is a big driver of the energy requirement necessary to achieve a given temperature. Of course, the relative humidity of the air leaving the drier also has to be considered.
Install a VSD on the fan supplying the air and use this to reduce airflow and increase temperature, install a heat exchanger to preheat incoming air using energy from the wet air leaving the drier.
Packaging line with many conveyors and equipment left running during breaks
Train operators to switch individual machines off during breaks.
The solution relies heavily on operator discipline.
Install a master switch that can be used to simultaneously switch a number of pieces of equipment off during breaks.
Cooling system serving multiple individual users of cooling water using a ring main with continuous flow from which users withdraw water
Install cogged belts for fan drives and use energy-efficient motors for fans and pumps.
These actions may reduce energy consumption, but will not eliminate the inefficiency associated with the unnecessary circulation of water
Use VSD’s on the cooling tower fan and pump motors to make the system flexible and responsive to variations in demand. Integrate with feedback from individual processes through a control system.

Innovation in industrial sustainability is typically achieved by harnessing a number of individual disciplines, technologies and work practices in concert. It is most easily inculcated in organisations by involving a broad spectrum of employees and service providers, empowering them to be creative and focusing their efforts around clear improvement objectives. While OEM’s can help, an important input to innovation in the industrial environment is an intimate knowledge of the processes being modified. This knowledge is generally only held by those who “own” the process, and who understand all of the variables that have to be optimised in order for the objectives of the process to be met. Using this knowledge prevents a situation where energy consumption is reduced, but product quality or safety is compromised, for example. That said, these process owners may not necessarily understand the dynamics of individual unit operations employed in the process, and their systems knowledge should therefore be augmented with specialist technical knowledge such as that held by OEM’s or other technical specialists. Innovation can unlock sustainability opportunities that go beyond “best practice”, and no sustainability strategy is complete if it does not address this important issue.

Copyright © 2013, Craig van Wyk, all rights reserved