Reveal and control compressed air costs with system monitoring

Nov. 11, 2021
In this episode of The Hidden Costs of Compressed Air series, Matt McCorkle and Neil Mehltretter discuss how to better manage critical compressed air assets by collecting and reviewing data.

In this final episode of The Hidden Costs of Compressed Air series, Matt McCorkle and Neil Mehltretter discuss how system monitoring can help facilities identify and control some of the hidden costs we’ve discussed in previous episodes. Keeping an eye on pressure as well as the status of compressors and dryers are a few examples of how to avoid issues. We talk about how to better manage critical compressed air assets by collecting and reviewing data and leveraging the built-in communications capabilities that most current compressed air equipment offers.

PS: Matt, let's start the conversation with you. Over the last three episodes, we've covered air quality, location concerns, and oversizing your system. You were with us for the first episode on the cost of oversizing. If someone really wanted to get a handle on all these problems, what are some things that you would recommend they do?

MM: Well, you know, I think whenever you're looking at the hidden costs of something, you really got to start by just taking a step back and consider the full implications of your decisions. So, for example, the theme on where a business is in a growth cycle, and where their equipment is in a life cycle, really depends on what the first steps will be. So, for instance, if you're on a steady growth mode, and your equipment is mid-lifecycle, the number one thing you can do is optimize. And so, when you're optimizing and you're trying to realize hidden costs and how to reduce them, it's important to just have data, and have as much information as you can in terms of how your business is using air, how much it's costing you, how much manpower is going into your equipment, and are you getting the air quality you need for production? That's where a master controller like the Sigma Air Manager comes in, so that's a big part of the optimization phase.

Matt McCorkle

But, if you're a business that's in a growth mode, or you're replacing obsolete equipment, and you're just adding equipment, or you're growing then you’ll want to take some other steps. And those might be looking a little broader at the capital expense decisions you have in the coming years, and realize where equipment goes is really critical. You want to design flexibility into your solutions and really plan to design your air quality specifically for what you're doing in your plant. No matter what you do, I think it's important to realize that in today's day and age, if you don't have the data, it can't help you make the decision. And that's where something like a master controller like Sigma Air Manager comes into play. You always have to look at how expensive air is beyond just the obvious direct costs, and look a little broader at those decisions and realize there's costs at many different stages of operating a system.

NM: Yeah, so I would definitely agree with Matt. He made a lot of great points. I think monitoring is key. You know, one thing that we say in designing systems: measure twice and cut once. And once that piece is in place, we don't think about it again. But, you really need to.

I think that monitoring that baseline, that checking in on how your compressed air system's actually running, those key performance indexes that we'll talk about today, those are really important to figure out how you're doing, and how well you're doing, and if you're ready for the future. So, yeah, I think getting a handle on it is getting that baseline either from a master controller or from an air audit or from your controllers that are there with push information. So, a lot of things are at our fingertips these days, and we just have to tap into it.

PS: Well, I'm gonna build on something that Matt mentioned, Neil, about collecting data. And now these days you've got more and more assets that have built-in communications technologies. I mean, it started with Alexa and Siri, which are now in the homes and pockets of a lot of people. You know, even some home appliances are incorporating these kinds of technologies. So, could you tell us about some of the standard built-in communication capabilities of newer compressors? Do you think there'll be a day, for example, when I turn on the compressor just by talking into the phone or a smart speaker?

NM: Yeah, Tom. It really is a great question, it puts our industry kind of in a reality check. You know, whenever I go in to wake my kids up, "Hey, Amazon," you know, "play Queen." So that's how I make sure that they're aware of my music, of course, and that, you know, "It's time to wake up, dad's here.''

Neil Mehltretter

The ability to remotely monitor data is key, and I think all this information really, again, is at your fingertips. So, to be able to open your phone and say, "Oh, compressor one, operating temperature is 200, should I be concerned?" These are things that, you know, they are coming, they are available today. We kinda push data or technology that's out there, and you have Ethernet IP, you have Modbus TCP, there's BACnet here in the U.S., or PROFINET, you know, worldwide. And we're seeing lot of call now for OPC UA as well. So those are some of the protocols that you'll see customers request depending on what kind of control system they're using today.

Whether it's an additional module you might need, or a converter box, or it's automatically included, or you have to get a release code, there's a lot of different options depending on manufacturers. But I'd say most master controllers have that capability, and they're that central nervous system of the compressed air system, pulling in information from dryers, filters, ancillary equipment, as well as compressors, and then being able to push that out to a client. So whereas you do have some remote capability to start and stop equipment or check in, get alarms, and so on, to say that at the end of a shift, I'm going to look at my phone and say, "Hey, Siri, play AC/DC, and turn off the compressed air system." You know, I don't know if we're ever gonna be quite there from a safety and operations standpoint, because you really do need to have visualization on those things. But we're definitely getting closer, so someday you may see that.

Listen to the entire interview

PS: What are some of the key benefits of remotely monitoring your compressed air system? Does that outweigh the cost of adding a master controller or a system controller?

NM: Yeah, you know, I hem and haw about this all the time. You know, what we see is that the benefits of a master controller, there's really so many things you can get. You're getting alarms, you're getting messages on the compressors, you're getting maintenance indications, sometimes you're also getting countdowns on, “Oh, maintenance is due.” It's just like driving your car. "Oh, B1 service is ready. Okay, I need to schedule that." So, you're getting those things which is a huge benefit, and those are things that you may not have seen before.

So if you're tapped in, you're getting emails, you're getting these reports, you're getting energy reports, you're getting maintenance reports, you're getting these alarm messages and warnings, I feel like you're much more dialed in to have the system running. Those KPIs are really critical so you can see, "Okay, well, am I where I need to be?" You may have to ask a compressed air consultant, "Is this specific power okay? Do I need to be lower? Is higher okay?" There are some things that you may need some support on to figure out, "Is this the right place?" But those are those mile markers or milestones that will help you get on track.

With regard to cost, the cost of a master controller can vary widely. If we're talking about a brand new system that we're putting in, so we've got CapEX for it, the cost of the master controller, if it's 10% of that overall cost, I might be surprised, depending how big that system might be. But, when you're asking for more functionality, “I want to measure more things,” or “I'm integrating some older equipment, or maybe some competitive equipment,” those modules you might need might be a little bit more. For me it's a peace of mind or it's a state of mind: “How much information do I want? And how much am I willing to spend for it?” Because, really, it's a one-time spend for a huge benefit. You know, again, I'm standing here, dare I say I'm taking a vacation, I'm on the beach, and I want to see how the plant's operating. I just pull out my phone, I have connectivity, boom, I see the plant's running, and I can check a leak-load on a weekend. You know, that's a huge peace of mind that we didn't have access to maybe 10 years ago. I think that's really key, and you have to ask yourself, "How much am I willing to pay for that?"

MM: Yeah, I think when it comes to return on investment and evaluating the cost-benefit of master control, I liken it to the flip-phone versus the smartphone, in the sense that a smartphone costs you more in every facet, you have to pay for more service because you're using more data, and your plans cost more than the old flip-phone where you just had texting and phone calls. At the end of the day, you can make phone calls and text and communicate with a flip-phone, but, nobody is going back to that because of all of the convenience and the power of the modern smartphone. You're able to make the most use of your time, you're able to just be so much more efficient. But there's not necessarily a direct ROI to it, in terms of just specific dollars and cents. Yes, the flip phone is cheaper. So, yes, not having a master controller may be cheaper in dollars and cents, but are you maximizing the use of your personnel? Are you maximizing the use of your equipment? Are you taking advantage of all the capabilities of your personnel and the equipment? That's to me where the master control comes in, it really helps you just operate put your business at a much higher level. That's where the ROI comes in, even if it may not be direct dollars and cents.

PS: I hear you both loud and clear on that. Matt, for the last question for today, I will key in on an issue of people's time, and what they have time to monitor and watch. You know, we've spent a lot of time during this series covering the many ways that hidden costs add up over time and over the life of the compressed air system. Plant managers, operations, engineers, they're all busy, crazy busy, and many don't have the capacity to monitor one more thing. So, as a final question for the podcast series, what are some of the more crucial data points that you'd recommend our listeners monitor and collect data on for their systems?

MM: Well, I think the most critical contributions to hidden costs are related to availability or reliability and your air quality. Those are the things that cost you more than you realize when you have an issue, and those are the things that through monitoring, you can help prevent. In terms of availability, on a frequent basis, probably on the daily or potentially hourly, being able to check, what is the status of the equipment, and what are my key indicators in terms of equipment health? Things like temperature, and then your message history. Those are, again, at your fingertips, so it's not like it takes a lot of time, you don't have to go anywhere specific to check it, but just having the process to check those availability metrics.

And then in terms of air quality. So, your pressures, that you haven't had any minimum pressure events, and that your air treatment is all operating as designed so you're not getting additional moisture, or oily condensate down in the line causing potential rework or scrap. Those are the real-time monitoring things that are most critical to reducing hidden costs to an absolute minimum.

And then, in terms of a quarterly basis or possibly monthly basis, looking at your overall consumption and costs. So, when you're looking at your consumption profiles, really seeing, you know, have maybe different operators, are they operating equipment differently causing higher costs than other operators? Is consumption changing across different product lines? Are different products costing you more in air? That's something that can be done in a more periodic basis. Those are the things I would check, and I think with the master control, it enables even the busiest of folks to be able to check that, stay on top of it, and really minimize those hidden costs.

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