Pathways to energy-efficient production

22 August 2023

Climate targets and high energy prices are forcing the industrial sector to reduce its energy consumption, making it necessary to make greater use of digitalisation and automation to make production more energy efficient, argues Jonas Harant and Christian Schiller.

Industry is still responsible for 30% of global CO2 emissions and 37% of global energy consumption, according to the World Economic Forum, and this is putting industrial companies under increasing pressure to act in an era of energy and climate crises. 

When it comes to energy consumption and costs, the pressure is especially intense, but there are ways to alleviate this – digital solutions that increase sustainability range from optimised product development and the efficient design of production facilities to holistic energy management for the entire production process. These solutions can, in some cases, significantly reduce energy consumption and costs.

The goal is always to increase cross-system data transparency through digitalisation and to connect the real and the digital worlds. For example, having a digital twin can make it much easier to develop and optimise products by realistically simulating their appearance and properties using computer simulation. 

Suppliers to the automotive industry can use digital twin technology to develop gripper arms for production robots without having to produce prototypes on a large scale. This saves material, energy, time, and ultimately costs. 

The combination of this technology along with new manufacturing methods also makes it possible to invent completely new product designs. For example, additive manufacturing can be used to produce variants that cannot be realised by conventional methods – using the automotive gripper analogy, for example, it would consist of fewer parts, which means that it can be assembled in just one-fifth of the previous time. This reduces production costs by more than 70%, and the CO2 footprint is 82% smaller. 

Savings potential is also offered by energy-efficient design for the entire production plant. For example, highly efficient motors can save up to 6% on electrical energy. By using coordinated motor and converter systems for the variable-speed operation of pumps, fans, and compressors, energy savings of up to 30% can be achieved.

Today, state-of-the-art digital solutions are able to collect real-time data from all consumers and make it available for analysis. By recording the operating condition and energy consumption of machines, this makes it possible to perform a detailed energy-efficiency analysis of a single machine. Energy efficiency can also be evaluated for an entire production plant.

Overall, energy savings of up to 60% are feasible in existing plants. And when redesigning a plant, companies can potentially use the digital twin to find out whether production planning pays off from an energy point of view. This may mean cutting back on production when energy prices are high and ramping it up again when cheap energy from wind power and photovoltaic systems is available. In addition to looking at potential savings, plant operators also need to consider the consequences. Although a reduced motor speed decreases energy consumption, in individual cases it can lead to stronger vibration in the system – also called resonance – and therefore shorten the service life of the components involved.

So, every energy-saving measure needs to be considered in its entirety. If parts have to be replaced sooner, this doesn’t protect the company's balance sheet or the environment. Replacing old systems with more efficient ones may seem at first glance to save energy – but a considerable amount of resources are consumed for production and procurement. A decision always needs to take into account the remaining service life of the existing systems. This is one way that digitalisation helps determine the condition of the systems and define appropriate measures.

Jonas Harant is Head of Co-Creation and Sales Enablement Digital Drivetrain at Siemens; Christian Schiller is Product Portfolio Manager SIMATIC Energy Management at Siemens.

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