Industrial energy

Sustainable factories still needed despite energy bill relief

Image credit: BiancoBlue/Dreamstime

Digital transformation remains UK manufacturing’s best long-term strategy for dealing with soaring energy costs.

For UK businesses, the government’s announcement of the Energy Bill Relief Scheme provides a glimmer of hope that the coming winter may not be as bleak as many expected. Wholesale energy prices for all businesses will be cut by more than 50 per cent, in a bid by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to prevent insolvencies and protect jobs.

The news comes not a moment too soon for UK manufacturing. Faced with soaring energy bills, almost one in six manufacturers described these costs as “business-threatening” in a survey released earlier in the month by industry body Make UK.

Many were already taking action, with some 13 per cent of respondents saying that their business had reduced production for short periods, or was avoiding producing altogether during periods of peak energy prices, and a further 7 per cent saying they were reducing production for even longer periods in the day.

That’s a drastic step to take and it is to be fervently hoped that fewer will now be forced to take it. Those who do will want to do it smartly; those who don’t take that step will still need to keep a close eye on energy usage in their factories.

Either way, those manufacturers who have already placed energy management front and centre in their smart factory and digital transformation initiatives find themselves far better equipped to do so than those that have not.

Energy efficiency, after all, has been a big driver of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) deployments. In factory settings, certain assets consume a disproportionate amount of energy compared to other pieces of equipment. The consumption of certain machines, such as air compressors, boilers or back-up generators, can be modified depending on operational needs or environmental factors such as outside temperature. And machines that need servicing may consume more energy than they should.

By connecting factory-floor machinery with smart sensors that communicate with an IIoT platform like PTC’s ThingWorx, we’ve seen manufacturers make great strides in tracking energy consumption patterns at the device level and achieve greater visibility into overall energy usage.

From there, they are in a much better position to gain actionable insights into energy waste and take corrective measures. By using advanced analytics to combine and analyse energy consumption data with information from manufacturing execution systems (MESs) and other key applications, they can optimise production schedules by matching them effectively with periods of lower energy costs or greater availability.

Over time, smart manufacturers can also use these analytic capabilities to develop more advanced autonomous operating profiles, where sensor-equipped machines are able to detect when they need to power on and operate, and when they can conserve energy by powering down.

Similar approaches can be applied by manufacturers that choose to develop their own on-site sources of renewable energy, such as solar panels or wind turbines. According to the MakeUK survey, more than one in four (27 per cent) of the UK manufacturing firms surveyed say that they have already moved to on-site generation in a bid to secure their own energy supply. Advances in battery technology, meanwhile, are helping manufacturers to get even more use from on-site generation, by storing renewable energy for later use.

Again, this relies on IIoT technology. Solar panels, wind turbines and battery storage can be treated like any other smart factory asset, and the data they transmit on their activities, status and condition can be collected, managed and analysed. An IIoT platform brings all that data out of individual silos and into a single, consolidated location where it can be combined with other information and presented to users through dashboards and alerts. In this way, manufacturers can not only optimise their use of the equipment they use to generate energy on-site, but also make smarter decisions around when, where and how to use that energy.

The Energy Bill Relief Scheme gives UK manufacturing a little breathing space - that much is clear - but it is a short-term measure, being initially set to run from 1 October to 31 March 2023. Energy costs, meanwhile, look set to remain high for much longer.

In the meantime, the sector still faces intense pressure to deliver against the Net Zero 2050 target and should be preparing for a raft of policies and initiatives designed to encourage, assist or oblige them to play their part in delivering a decarbonised future. Better energy management is a big part of that picture, too - and digital transformation remains the best strategy for achieving it.

Paul Haimes is VP EMEAI solutions consulting at PTC.

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