In light of industry’s embrace of Ethernet technology on the plant floor, I enjoy retelling an encounter I had with a manufacturing engineer back in 2004 when he told me—in no uncertain terms—that Ethernet would never be an acceptable plant floor network.
Today, that attitude toward Ethernet on the plant floor seems almost as backward as thinking the Earth is the center of the universe. But the attitude highlighted by that engineer’s aversion to Ethernet on the plant floor back in 2004 still persists across industry.
Many people claim that industry’s intense focus on safety, production and quality necessitate a certain, healthy resistance to new ideas or technologies. But for many engineers, these goals have become more of a reason to maintain closed minds rather than going through the exercise of thoroughly evaluating new methods and/or technologies before coming to a decision.
During a recent discussion with Andrew Geertsen of Noren Products (a supplier of industrial heat exchangers and other thermal products), he recounted how he is facing a similar type of resistance to a new heat exchanger technology that is more cost effective than the industry standard use of air conditioning systems to cool electronics.
Geertsen himself was unfamiliar with this heat exchanger technology until recently and noted that he was amazed that the technology had not become the new industry standard.
Comparing the current air conditioning-based standard with this newer heat exchanger method, Geertsen explained that, when it comes to using air conditioning to cool electronics, the related energy costs are expensive and maintenance is a ongoing process. Many parts of the air conditioning system can fail, meaning that when there is an issue it takes time to identify and resolve it with repair and/or replacement.
A typical air conditioning unit will last four to five years at most before it needs to be replaced, explained Geertsen.“I’ve heard this echoed by many maintenance heads; so every four to five years you're buying a new A/C unit.”
Geertsen added that vortex/compressed air cooling methods run into the same high energy costs as air conditioning because the compressor is running constantly. This method also has unique maintenance issues, according to Geertsen. "The compressor air can be oily, which means you’re actually spraying oil all over the inside of the enclosure/panel, and all over those extremely expensive components,” he said.
Explaining how Noren’s air-to-air heat exchangers differ from air conditioning or vortex/compressed air cooling methods, Geertsen noted that the heat exchanger has just four elements: the housing, the core, the fans and the mid-flange seal. The core is a heat-pipe core designed to “passively remove heat through an internal chemical phase change in the pipe,” he said.
“The [heat exchanger] unit is mounted on the side of an enclosure, with a cutout for the bottom half to be exposed to the inside of the enclosure,” said Geertsen.“With the enclosure totally sealed, the bottom fan moves the internal air around. As that air moves, the heat pipes in the core absorb the heat. The heat rises into the upper portion which is exposed to the cooler, outside ambient air. The fan leverages that air to cool the heat pipe down. And, due to the seal at the mid-flange, no air or contaminants are allowed into the box.”
Geertsen further explained, “The only possible failure [with this design] that can happen is a fan going out. And these fans typically last about five to seven years and only cost about $100.”
The heat pipes, according to Geertsen, are rated to have a lifespan of nearly 100 years. Noren’s heat exchanger technology is being used in Del Monte, Blue Diamond and Frito Lay plants, as well as in water treatment and automotive plants.
Despite the technology’s range of applications and its simpler, more cost-effective approach, Geertsen said he continues to run into the same kind of resistance I encountered from the engineer dead set against Ethernet in the plant.
Any new technology or method presented for use in the plant requires a critical evaluation before use. But to dismiss a new technology or method out of hand—simply because it’s different from what you have always used before—could prove to be your company’s Achilles heel. Beyond the costs savings, you could miss out on the opportunity to better adapt your business to the future. And with today’s rapid advance of industrial technologies, the possibility of missing a key technology facilitator grows by the day.