Improving Sustainability with Automation and Controls

April 2, 2015
Designing automation and control systems to conserve energy and reduce resource use results in “greener” manufacturing.

As I wrote in my last blog post on sustainable manufacturing, it’s easy to think of going green in terms of facility improvements such as better lighting, reduced water consumption and treated chemical run-off. We don’t usually think about the impact that automation and controls can have.

But if we consider the way the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) defines sustainable manufacturing, we’ll see that those of us who design and build automation and controls can have a big impact.

The DOC defines sustainable manufacturing as production using processes that:
1. Minimize negative environmental impacts;
2. Conserve energy and natural resources;
3. Are safe for employees, communities and consumers; and
4. Are economically sound

Last time, I wrote about minimizing negative environmental impacts. In this post, I’ll focus on conserving energy and natural resources.

Each component of a machine consumes natural resources in its creation and most require energy to operate. When automation and controls are designed to include fewer components, the environment benefits.

Flexible systems are key to this strategy. For example, single-function exhaust leak testers each have their own PLCs, pin stampers, bar code readers, printers and energy consumption. But when these automated systems are designed to work with a docking station, multiple leak testers can move in and out of a dock that includes a single PLC, pin stamper and bar code interface. The leak test system is mounted on a wheeled base and hooks up to the docking station with quick-connects. Natural resource and energy consumption is considerably lower than with multiple single-use systems.

Capacity utilization can be optimized through the use of flexible systems, reducing floor space and power requirements.

We design our assembly line fixtures and automation to work the same way. Our battery-free AGVs are designed to accommodate virtually any part with a quick fixture change-out. The controls that power the AGVs can also be quickly changed to reflect changes to part, process or line path.

Motion control can be another way to conserve energy and resources. While traditional braking systems can lose 100 percent of their power in wasted heat, dynamic testing systems with electrical and mechanical regeneration recapture up to 80 percent of their power to be reused in testing. We do a lot of work with Siemens to understand their energy conservation products  that use this technology and insert them into our engineering designs (see examples of Siemens regenerative drive technologies).

Automation and controls engineers don’t often think of themselves as agents for sustainability, but we are. By designing flexible, consolidated, energy regenerating machines, we can play a significant role in moving our companies to become greener.

Here’s our info on sustainable manufacturing. It’s a big part of who we are. If you’d like to talk more about taking a broader view of sustainable manufacturing, please feel free to email me at [email protected] or call me at 734-454-0500.

Rod Emery is vice president of integrated assembly systems at RedViking Engineering, a member of the Control System Integrators Association. Visit RedViking’s profile on The Industrial Exchange.

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