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Non linear trajectories in the air compressor industry are set emerge as the next technology trend 

Air compressors are one of the most ubiquitous industrial workhorses energising modern day factories, hospitals, workshops and residential complexes. Their applications are varied and can be categorised  in three broad dimensions of power (where compressed air is used to product motion or exert a force), process (in which compressed air enters the industrial process) and controls (where compressed air triggers, starts, stops or modulates an industry process).

Industrial air compressors have been present over close to two centuries and have gone through a number of technology growth cycles. As per a recent business report, air compressor industry is approximately USD 9 billion growing with a CAGR of approximately 6% and fairly consolidated with five major players owning close to 60% of the market.

Most of these industry players provide the entire gamut of solutions from start up equipment to complete system optimization on hardware as well as software dimensions. As a result, the technology is already at a very advanced stage and boasts of interesting features like permanent magnet type motor driven Air compressor installation at a plant. compressors, ultra high life coolants, specialty coatings on rotors, multi-stage compression, ultra-low pressure dew point dryers, remote monitoring etc. which have all emerged through consistent research efforts.

While such research projects continue, we take a look at some outlier ideas and nonlinear trends which are orienting this industry and its thought leaders.

Megawatts of energy harvesting A typically lesser known fact about compressed air is that almost 90% of the energy invested for compression is lost as heat. Majority of this traditionally lost energy can be harvested by coupling a heat recovery system to the air and coolant coolers of the compressor. The key is to match the demand of the cooling required with the process heating needs of the installation. By doing so, energy consumption for applications like heating building area, drying air for paint spraying, air curtains, water pre-heating for boilers, electroplating, laundry services etc. can be reduced substantially. This is one of the most exciting trends in this industry and we expect to see a lot of applications emerging in coming times.

Large scale instrumentation What you can’t measure, you can’t improve. Using transducers for system parameters like flow, temperature, pressure, dew point, leakage etc. can help develop system understanding as well as create control charts to monitor performance against original design parameters. This doesn’t necessarily need dedicated transducers or an over-expensive data logging system and can easily be achieved by portable instrumentation with regular sampling, in effect, running a continuous air audit. With this, multiple “small improvements” or Kaizens can be identified with which the employees stay engaged towards the overall goal of energy efficiency.

Intelligent adaptive control systems The next step of measurement is controls based system optimisation. All industry players are focusing their efforts on advanced control technologies to take into account ambient conditions, demand side variations, load-unloaded periods, cooling system cycles, and even remote control of utility equipment for better efficiency and safety. Further integrated multi-machine controls as well as complete air system control are the language of current plant controls designs.

The next emerging trend is adaptive control where the compressed air system can learn a system requirement based on measurement of key parameters of flow, pressure, temperature etc. over some time and modulates various actuators like control valves, variable speed motors, inlet air valves etc. to reach the optimum level of energy usage or performance. The beauty of adaptive technology is that it is able to “adapt” to ever-changing system requirements which are very frequent.

Investment on passive components Compressed air system components can be classified into active and passive depending on whether they need energy for their operation or not. Motor, air-end, fan, coolant pump, dryers etc. are all active components while receiver tanks, heat exchangers, filters and drain-valves are all passive. The industry experts are quickly realising that instead of spending a lot of dollars on one efficient motor, higher level of energy conservation can be achieved by series of smaller investments on low cost items like point-ofuse receiver tank, no loss drain valves and bigger heat exchangers that helps run the coolant and air systems at lower temperatures.

De-coupled plant design An industrial system may require both high pressure as well as standard pressure air for different applications. Similarly, one part of a plant may need a -40C pressure dew point for paint application whereas another would need only a 3C pressure dew point. In such situations, plant designers go for one consolidated compressor and dryer system. This can become highly inefficient in the long run and a better way is to decouple the two sets of applications and use lower rated components for the various demands. Considering the heavy life cycle cost of compressed air system, the initial cost of decoupling and buying multiple compressors and dryers can be easily recovered within a few years of operation.

Proactive transition to oil free Coolant cooled screw compressor is the highest volume selling compressed air technology due to its ease of installation and maintenance. However, recent regulations especially in power, pharmaceuticals and food & beverage industries require all compressed air to be class 0 oil-free. Customers are looking towards intensive plant air audits to understand possible need of oil free air and are moving towards it proactively. Advantages of oil-free air not only include prevention of coolant contamination and improved business sustainability from the environment standpoint but also higher energy efficiency due to removal of down-the-line filtration as well as steep reduction in maintenance as well as inventory requirement of consumables.

Customer connect With product hardware design reaching an asymptote and consumers drawing parallels with other service oriented industries, major players are focusing their efforts on ensuring a closer connect with their customers. By doing so, incremental product extension ideas become viable as well as manufacturers are able to focus on air compressors not only as a product but also as an overall value stream starting from concept design to equipment salvage. This is another key trend which if followed can help the industry players grow faster than their peers.

Although a few centuries old technology, compressed air keeps finding ever new applications. Especially in a developing country like India, tier B and C cities provide a huge potential of improving labour productivity through newer applications of compressed air in medium and small businesses. Such applications may not be too important for North America and Western Europe but could add a lot of economic value to the bottom of the pyramid in developing nations. In addition, cutting edge research like compressed air driven vehicles on which a lot of automotive industry players are working could be a significant innovation impacting the world.

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