Identifying sustainability quick wins

20 March 2023

Suzanne Gill looks at the role that control engineers have to play in helping industrial plants become more sustainable and explores some of the most easy to implement sustainability projects.

Because the control system is at the heart of a production plant, control engineers bear the responsibility for the process running efficiently and safely. They also have a key role to play in ensuring more sustainable production, according to Jeremy Kivi, Director, Product marketing – Operations Control at AVEVA. He said: “Increasing operational efficiency to avoid material losses and to reduce emissions is the first step to drive sustainability in an industrial plant. Control engineers can investigate, recommend and implement digital tools to complement the control system and improve operations. Improvements can be related to simply keeping the plant stable and avoiding losses but also optimising operations to take production to the maximum efficiency levels.”

Kivi believes the quick wins when it comes to sustainability can be obtained by increasing the operational efficiency of existing systems before compromising CAPEX and committing to complex design and engineering projects. “Sustainability is a very broad scope. Within the four walls of a manufacturing plant we can address it as eco-efficiency,” he said. “The top key performance indicator (KPI) of operational efficiency at plant level is overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). Traditionally OEE incorporates efficiency of assets (availability), materials (quality) and throughput (performance). Now we can also track OEE by incorporating sustainability KPIs in this approach, which are basically the efficiency of energy and water usage – among other resources – depending on the production process.”

According to Kivi there are some field proven digital solutions that can help improve operations and energy efficiencies. He argues that digital solutions will typically offer quick payback, good ROI and low risk. Solutions that can drive fast results to improve sustainability KPIs include:

Advanced Process Control (APC): For continuous processes, APC has been used for decades to reduce process variability and optimise set points according to an objective function. The APC action is constrained by pre-selected variables that must be kept within a certain operational range. Those variables can be selected and adjusted to improve sustainability KPIs, typically lowering emissions and energy consumption.

Batch optimisation: Industrial plants that mostly rely on batch and semi-batch process must ensure operations execution is properly managed. Most companies struggle to consolidate real production and resource consumption with inventory. This is usually done as a manual reporting process that takes time and is not reliable. Batch optimisation systems enable users to perform data reconciliation (DR) and find the optimum balance between production performance (delay accounting, production reporting, and knowledge management) and inventory (inventory management, grade control and tracking, and material accounting). Today, these systems combine efficiency and productivity with sustainability by adding additional parameters to the model: water and energy loss accounting, environmental event root cause analysis (RCA), and consumption versus production reporting.

Switch it off!
Dr. Stephan Middelkamp, General Manager Quality & Technologies at Harting Technology Group, argues that operational efficiency and sustainability should go hand-in-hand. “Control loops between quality sensor data and process parameters will enable more efficient production processes with respect to material, energy needs and cycle time,” he said.

He suggests that the most obvious sustainability quick win would be to switch off machines and infrastructure utilities whenever possible. “In too many cases the amount of energy being used, even when production is not running, is substantial,” he said. “Another large energy consumer is compressed air. Here optimisation of the compression rate, the generation and distribution or the change to electrical solutions can bring about big improvements in energy efficiency.” 

Experience matters
Steffen Zendler, Heavy Industry Strategy & Marketing Manager - EMEA at Rockwell Automation, explained that process efficiency is very much reliant on the experience, skillset and insights of control engineers. “Through smart planning, designing and development of modern infrastructure, new processes and systems, engineers have an essential role to play in creating solutions that can affect value creation on multiple levels – from cost savings, process efficiency, throughput optimisation and sustainable change.  Implementing Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) platforms to monitor, control, automate and optimise current processes require engineering expertise at all stages of solution implementation.” 

Momentum to implement new legislation around emissions taking place at Government-level, alongside the need to deal with energy pricing volatility, lends a deeper perspective to the pace at which transition technologies need to be implemented. “Against that background, having an exact overview of utilities (energy) utilisation and waste management (emissions quantity and profile) is the first step to becoming more sustainable,” argued Zendler. “We cannot manage or reduce what we don’t know.” 

Many existing processes based on fossil fuels are moving in the direction of electrification, which requires newer controls and electrical hardware, combined with historic knowledge of the process. Within the steel industry, for example, the transition will require migration of the complete process from a traditional blast oxygen furnace to a direct reduced iron furnace with electric arc furnace. “Implementing carbon-capture storage and utilisation across heavy industries will be heavily reliant on engineering and commissioning expertise from control engineers,” explained Zendler. “Additionally, the successful combining of operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) infrastructure, to make process data easily accessible, requires a clear understanding of how to approach convergence and the objectives of the same.

“So, implementing new technologies to facilitate sustainable outcomes will need multi-level expertise and buy-in from all the relevant stakeholders in the bottom-to-top direction, starting at the grassroots engineering level and moving to the top in terms of strategic alignment and ROI reporting.”

Considering some of the quick wins for sustainability, Zendler pointed out that the concept of a ‘win’ in terms of sustainability will vary among organisations and across industries. He said: “A win needs to consider financial impact – both in terms of investment required and savings recognised. There are also the verticals of overall efficiency, throughput optimisation, energy efficiency, waste management and the potential to incorporate circular economy models. The industrious use of raw materials as feedstock and conscious reuse of materials and resources to implement closed-loop processes, for example, can contribute significantly to the sustainable use of resources.”

Nevertheless, implementing an energy management solution can be considered a quick win in any industry. “Energy management as a solution provides the visibility required to rearrange utilities demand where possible, to balance energy flows during peak and off-peak periods, and to buy energy during non-peak demand times,” explained Zendler. “Additionally, waste reduction and continuous and stable production, by connecting different machine segments of production with identifying bottlenecks, can achieve quick wins.”

In an all-encompassing context, it is important to consider is that sustainability should not be considered as just another vertical or an isolated endeavour. It needs to be embedded in the work across organisational departments to identify opportunities, create solutions and drive success. 

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