How plants can thrive in the sustainable moment

Jan. 13, 2022
In this episode of The Tool Belt, Larry West explores how control systems and SCADA systems can help support sustainability goals.

Larry West is a sales engineer for Perceptive Controls who recently gave a compelling presentation at the 2021 RPM Symposium in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Larry's presentation, "Controls ans SCADA – How they support energy savings and sustainability," explored how a well-developed control and SCADA system can identify and solve unnecessary energy usage without affecting output. Plant Services Editor in Chief Thomas Wilk spoke with Larry, who shared some insights from his presentation, including common situations where energy can be saved in process and machine operations.

PS: For those of our audience who haven't had a chance to meet you in person, could you tell us a little bit about yourself, and something you're working on right now?

LW: Absolutely. So, again, my name is Larry West. I've been in the engineering and electrical field for industrial use for roughly 25 years. Before that, military, United States Navy, gunner's mate, missile tech. Over the years, I've been able to do field engineering work, engineering work, and I've ventured into the sales world.

PS: Excellent, and I think a lot of our listeners are going to relate to your military background, too. This field, for some reason, seems to draw an awful lot of Navy and Coast Guard veterans, in addition to other veterans, too.

LW: Yep, the Navy is a great platform for learning. I mean, because of shipboard services, so many elements of working on a ship require maintenance, so it's natural to go from the Navy into the machine world, if you will, and industrial worlds.

PS: That's a great point, and reliability when you're out at sea is critical, too. You can't afford to have more than one or two things break down, if any. The crew depends on it.

LW: That's right, if you're not steaming ahead, you're sitting in the water, just kind of going with the waves, and nobody likes that.

PS: If I could shift to your talk at RPM, you mentioned that we're in a moment – the sustainable moment is upon us. I like that you mentioned if you're not steaming ahead, you're kind of lost, that could apply to the sustainable moment too. The thing you directly said was that "the sustainable moment is upon us now, regardless of political opinion," and that's something I happen to agree with. No matter which side of the fence you're on, momentum that has been building seems to be cresting in terms of everyone focusing on energy efficiency, and recognizing that industry has to do something, anything, more than they have been, to address the sustainable moment. Can you talk about some of the things that plant teams can expect from this moment to the next couple of years, that may be different from what they're used to right now?

LW: Absolutely. One of the big things that a lot of plants have already done or are looking at, is LED lights. There's a major transformation in most plants as far as how they're lighting their business. A lot of rebates and a lot of programs have been put in place to help facilities change out their LED lights. I bring that up first because that's the one big thing that we have been able to accomplish almost nationwide for most facilities.

But we're really here to talk about industrial energy use, right? So, the same kind of principles will apply. First, look at Energy Star for appliances. That's a big one that if you bought an appliance within the last 10 or 15 years, you'll get the sticker on the back and you'll see what it says, Energy Star, and it basically rates the piece of equipment, how much energy it's going to use for the year.

You're going to see equipment, and you're going to see regulations come to be, that are going to place maybe not directly that same type of system, but something very similar, for equipment. In other words, manufacturers that manufacture equipment, no matter how unique, are going to be required to rate their system on their energy use.

Buying equipment: We've commonly bought equipment using three metrics. Do we trust the vendor? What is the cost of the equipment, and the quality of the equipment? But there's going to be a fourth: how much energy usage does it take to make each widget? Each piece of product that I'm trying to bring off of that machine? There's going to be a calculation that has to be done against energy usage.

Finally, one of the things that we're going to see change is that there's going to be a lot more emphasis on rebates and energy costs. I can even see situations where companies get a rating from one to five, one being a poor energy user and a five being a great energy user. And your cost ratio will be based upon how efficient you are with your energy usage.

So, those are some of the things that I see coming down the pipe, when we talk about industrial energy use.

PS: Interesting, we've covered a couple of companies here in Illinois who took advantage of solar energy rebates. One company was Magid Glove, and they had moved into a new warehouse, which had a very suitable roof. It was reinforced, and it was almost uniformly flat, so they were able to put a solar panel array up on top and take advantage of some of the state's rebates. Part of what we learned is that these rebates are not going to be around forever. Once certain kinds of energy sources and energy methods become more standard, those rebates may be going away. Is there a window right now in general with the states, when it comes to how soon people should look into these alternate energy sources? Does it vary from state to state?

LW: In my opinion, the energy services are really in flux right now. So, if every house put on solar panels, every business put on solar panels, what does the energy company become? They don't become an energy creator. They become a source of distribution, versus the energy creator. That's kind of where we're in flux right now, because everybody has the potential to become an energy producer. And obviously, our energy companies have been supplying energy for a lot of years. They don't want to stop, you know? So there's going to be a point where there is enough energy in the process to be able to handle the load, or the necessary need. And at that point, that's when the rebates will start to diminish.

There's a number of years that we have before that, especially as energy companies come off of coal. Some of these other energy resources, like wind and solar, have a hard time meeting the same amount of energy that these materials provide. So, the rebates should be in place for quite a while yet, but they will start to diminish in how much their value is, and then they will go away over the years.

PS: Thank you for explaining that. I'm curious about preparedness: when it comes to these rebates, when it comes to these initiatives, based on what you've seen in the field, how prepared do you see industry for the changes you're describing here? I mean, 1 being most prepared, and 10 being least prepared, do most plants fall somewhere on that scale, or are there some verticals that stand out as being more prepared?

LW: If you look at America, from what I've seen, we're not well-prepared, but we're very resilient. It's just going to take that big stick. And that big stick is a couple of things. Number one, it's social, it's people saying, "Look, I want to buy my materials and products from a company that is sustainable, that uses good energy practices."

The other is obviously government mandate and regulation, and those two things are going to be the stick that pushes us. The fortunate thing that we have, and I still believe in, is our resiliency. America's really pioneered the industrial age, and we're set to move into this new realm. It's just going to take that stick.

You know, it's the business leaders. The leaders of these businesses to push their business into this new world. Going back to when the car was first introduced, a lot of people looked at the car and said, "Yeah, that's a fad. That's going to come and go." Well, we know that's silly today, right? Because infrastructure grew. Reliability in the automobile, and trust in the automobile also grew. And those things made the automobile popular, and basically, the virtual tool that we have today.

And although it may seem like it today, it didn’t happen overnight. But the shops that just couldn't move from wagon to car, they died. And businesses today will do the same, that just cannot forecast this themselves.

PS: Interesting. It's instructive to watch silent movies once in a while on Turner Classic Movies to see just how few cars there were in some of those. And you're right, the change didn't happen overnight, it was gradual, then all of a sudden, Henry Ford comes along and makes the car more affordable, and suddenly, boom, you got the change. I think Greta Thunberg recently went on the record, Larry, as saying something similar to what you just said. She said, "Which company is going to be the one?" Which company is going to be the first to take those major steps and lead us all towards a future with less carbon emissions? She's inviting that one company to start the process, the chain reaction and get everyone going.

LW: Many companies have started. It's just not widely known yet, right? Most of them, you look at their website, they're making proclamations to what they're doing for energy. And I don't mean to say that they're not doing those things. I'm sure they are doing those little things, the little proclamations, and they're making those statements that discuss what they are doing. But there's nobody that really kind of shines in this realm, that has just the facts on the ground that shows how much energy they've saved in the last five years by implementing those programs.

We're in that stage right now. We will get some of those shiners come through, and really, it's the work. It's not the statements, it's the work. The work will prove itself.

PS: Yeah, you're reminding me, about 20-30 years ago, it wasn't all that common for plants to have zero-waste-to-landfill goals, or even succeed at those goals. But now, it's almost a commonplace, thanks to things like not just Energy Star, but also the LEED system for buildings, to help meet those zero-waste targets.

LW: Look at the recycling that we've done over the years. A lot of people, they hate recycling, they hate making those transitions, but as that has happened, companies have developed different things. You've got a bin that has a simple marking on it, and that's enough to say, "Hey, this is where the paper goes." As long as it's sitting right next to the trash can, it's easy to throw it in there. And as people start to respect it, then they don't throw the nebulous stuff, the foreign stuff that shouldn't be in there, they become more respectful.

It's hard to make these changes, and it's easy to complain about them when they first happen, but as businesses, as companies start to see where there are opportunities to be able to make life easier in these things, change does happen. And if you look at our waste management, we have really come a long way in how we take waste, how we look at those things. And it's a measurable difference.

PS: I just took out my recycling this morning, and the recycling bin was a lot more full than the landfill bin. So, point taken.

LW: And that's a great thing, Tom. If you think about everything you throw away, think about it this way. You purchased that thing, no matter what that was. It can be as simple as a cheese wrapper. You purchased the cheese, but that's what came with it. Somebody bought that for a purpose. Can we repurpose it? Some things unfortunately, just because of the way they're made and the way that they're functionally fit, they don't repurpose well.

But, as we start to look at things, those things can also change. How do we repurpose our products? I know we're getting off the subject of energy a little bit, but one of the things we look at here is when we replace a control system or do anything like that, we always take a look at the parts that were taken out. Is there any way to repurpose those parts? Is there any way to reuse them? Even if we're using those in just a kind of a working board here, to be able to showcase our work, it's still something that doesn't put that in a landfill. It gives it new life, if you will, and I'm pretty proud of that. You know, along with the energy, I'm really proud of that.

Listen to the entire interview

PS: Thank you for bringing us back to control systems, because that was really the bulk of your presentation at the RPM Symposium. It was how control systems and SCADA systems can help support sustainability goals. Could you tell us some more about that connection? I know you had a great example of the eternal running conveyor. Maybe we can start there and you can talk about how conveyors and control systems can work together to help support sustainability.

LW: I was a field engineer for better than 12 years for a manufacturer in the Kalamazoo area, and I traveled across the world, working on machinery, heavy machinery, press operations, to chemical operations, the gamut. And one of the things in almost every one of those circumstances I could find in every plant was what I called the “perpetual running conveyor.” Sometimes it was more than one conveyor, but these are conveyors, material-moving equipment, that just sits off in the corner, nobody's seeing it, and it just runs, whether the press is running, whether we're moving materials, that conveyor is just running.

And as a field engineer who is controls-minded, it was one of those things that always perplexed me as being one of those easy fixes, just like the lights. It's one of those things that, with good communication between equipment or sensors, we can pause that conveyor, let it see the material, then run the conveyor, and then pause it again when material has been pushed through. And that is one of those real easy, real quick solutions that we can look at, and that's where controls kind of fits in the process.

Now, if we expand beyond just the conveyor, you look at every machine process. Within every machine process, there's usually multiple things going on. We don't need to spin everything all the time. If we look at the machine process, and let's just say, for instance, it basically extrudes the material and cuts. Sometimes you'll have a spinning blade that just sits there and cuts, whereas if we change the process just a little bit, we can, as we extrude and cut, we can change that process so we're not spinning a motor all the time, only when it's necessary. That's a loose comparison, but it's something that people can think about in their process.

There are instances where, you do want to leave a motor run, where there's warmup time or cycle times that just don't make sense to start and stop that many times in a cycle. So, not everything needs to start and stop, but where the energy savings can be had, it should be looked at.

Moving on from the controls, I'd like to talk about SCADA for just a minute, because SCADA is that one tool that if you don't already have it, you likely don't see the need for it. You need controls to move your materials and make your products, and the controls control the machines, makes everything happen. SCADA is that different element. SCADA is that data retrieval system that basically says, "I'm going to take this information, I'm going to compile it, and I'm going to give you some data to say how you're doing." So, you really don't need data to get the product at the end, out the door, in a lot of cases.

But here's that missing link of what's going on here without it. SCADA gives you that control process, to be able to see what your machine is doing at any time, so you can compare it to previous months, you can compare it to shifts, you can compare how that machine or how that operation is working by several different metrics, to find out why it is or is not being efficient at certain times, or at certain shifts, or at certain times of the year.

For instance, if I'm a sugar producer, it is very likely, if I'm not in a climate-controlled building, that if I'm in a high-humidity area in the summertime, I'm going to have more conveyor issues. I'm going to have more operational issues, because that humidity is having an adverse effect on my sugar, and how it's being able to move through the system. SCADA is one of those things that can measure those things for you and tell you what's going on. So, if I know the humidity's getting high, I know that I’d better change my process, or turn the air conditioners on, to make sure I get that humidity out of the room, so that way my sugar will flow. Many products with powders or granules have the same effect with humidity. And that's where SCADA can come in and give you those useful tools, to tell you how good the operation is.

When we talk about energy savings, the same thing applies. So, I have a conveyor that runs in the morning at 3.2 amps, but in the afternoon it runs at 4.8 amps. What changed? Am I getting more production? Am I not? I can see those numbers, and if I'm not getting more production, then I know something has changed. I don't know what that is, but that gives me the point of the investigation to do. Without that data coming back, it's out of sight, out of mind. It's that conveyor running in the corner, with nobody looking at it. And that's what SCADA can do.

I'd like to end on this SCADA point if I could, to talk about where it's important in business. If you're not measuring your machines' capabilities, I can almost guarantee that your competition is, and you're really giving your competition a competitive advantage, to be able to exploit where they can save money, where they can save time, where they can be more efficient, and be a better competitor. They can compete against you in a way that you can't.

PS: When it comes to companies that don't have a SCADA system, and let's say they see the light after listening to this podcast and listening to your reasons for implementing the system, who can normally start that conversation to get the SCADA system deployed? Would it come from operations, to justify the operational returns? Would it come from the maintenance and reliability crowd, who we're mostly talking to today, to, from an asset management perspective? Or is it really just a project champion, who sort of ties everyone together?

LW: If I was a business leader, the first place I would go is I would go to my IT team. The reason why is because, when you talk about SCADA, you're going to be moving information through your computer system, through your network. So, the first team that you've got to get on board, and understand what you need as a process, is your IT team.

Once you have a champion in your IT team who knows what's necessary, if you have controls personnel in your building, you may be able to perform SCADA and get reasonable data through your own controls team. There's a lot of resources in SCADA like Ignition, Wonderware, and several other brands out there that can bring machine data to life for you.

We're Perceptive Controls, and we do controls automation. So, if you don't have those resources and tools, you may want to look to a controls automation resource to be able to help you with that. They likely have a team member that's very knowledgeable in the languages, and they may have some good recommendations for you to what process you want to go with. Now, I will caution most of your listeners that, keep in mind that most automation houses have a specific brand that they like to use, and they're going to lean you toward those brand specifics. Do your own research, because literally each offering has better features, depending on what you're trying to do.

For instance, a new way to transport data is MQTT, if you have heard that. And if you haven't, look it up. MQTT is basically a way to assign data, and basically send or receive, depending on what you're doing. As we've grown our SCADA line, one of the things that we like about MQTT is just the ease of use and that it captures the information in a small packet, which really saves a lot of bandwidth by going this way. And by all accounts, it's as secure or more secure than a lot of other ways to send and receive data, so when you look at MQTT, and if that's a resource that you want to utilize, some SCADA packages are more ready to accept MQTT than others. So, how you want to send and receive that information is important. That's one aspect of which SCADA package you'd want to look at.

Other things include, what type of control units do you already have? If you have one brand of control unit (PLC), frankly speaking, you may want to look at any SCADA resource that brand offers, as it will likely communicate more easily. There'll be less handshaking that'll have to be done, and a more kind of true connection, if you will.

PS: Let me ask one more question, then, about these systems in general, not just MQTT. A lot of our maintenance listeners are being tasked especially to be aware of cybersecurity issues. So, for those who may not have researched cyber and SCADA and control systems, is cyber sort of baked into these systems right now, or is cyber something which the IT systems, and like you said, a control system partner might be able to support people when it comes to addressing these issues?

LW: You cannot put enough emphasis, or too much emphasis, on security. That is just a plain fact today. If you have holes in your system, there are people out there looking to exploit them. Security is one of those big roadblocks in implementing a good SCADA system, because the IT team at any facility is very worried about having yet another process or another tool, another component, into their network, and rightfully so.

You must do your research on that security, make sure that the companies you're working with take security seriously. Make sure they're following the protocols, and make sure that your IT team has had a chance to vet those companies. With that said, I would say most companies have done a really good job of keeping up their packages, and making sure that the encryption on those packages are well-suited.

Where it falls down is how those things are implemented. All those packages have degrees of security to be used, so you can turn on or off the certificates. You can do a lot of things that make it less secure. It makes it easier to operate the process, navigate the system, but it makes it easier for the people that you don't want to do that to be able to do that as well. Everything that you do to make it easier for yourself is making it easier for somebody else. My recommendation is to make sure that you take your security seriously, and if you do, a SCADA package is a very safe tool to implement.

If after that you're still concerned, there are other ways to manage data and SCADA that is outside of your network. An IT team can create a guest or a separate network that the data is collected and managed. To take it even a step further, there are many devices and tools out there that allow you to utilize cellular services to be able to push signals from one device to another, that completely removes any signals from any one of your networks.

PS: Interesting. And that's where IT can come in and explain the options, or a good integrator partner.

LW: Yeah, a good integrator partner should know all of these services, what they have in their arsenal to be able to deploy them, and be able to meet the needs of the IT team. As a business leader, the first thing you need to do is listen to your IT team, what their concerns are with mitigating any risk in their system, and then after that, get with somebody like an integrator, and help you to put those tools in place.

PS: And remember, at all times, I guess, remember that we're doing this in the name of sustainability, so to speak. That that's, all, this whole effort, it will be funneled up through that expected return, when it comes to reducing energy use.

LW: I'll beat the drum again. If you're not doing it, I guarantee your competitors are, and they're gaining competitive advantage while doing it. As much as you may not want to do it, as much as it may concern you with security, there are ways to make this very secure, and you're going to need to do it to be competitive as business grows, as business moves forward.

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