Many companies talk a good game when it comes to climate change but for most, it’s not a top priority. Pneumatics manufacturer SMC, in contrast, is incorporating sustainability across its entire business, from the products it makes and how they are manufactured to reorganizing production facilities to minimize waste and CO2 emissions. According to Global Manager Tony Hutchinson, speaking at the company’s National Pneumatics Day event, “We’ve taken the scientific evidence seriously, and we’re trying to reduce our company’s carbon footprint while helping our customers reduce theirs.”
The United Nations has established sustainable development goals to end extreme poverty, reduce inequality and protect the planet by 2030. According to Hutchinson, “The U.N. has said that the private sector is realizing that transitioning from a high carbon economy to one built on low carbon activities is not only essential to limit dangerous climate change, but also it’s good for business.”
With strong support from upper management, SMC is aligning with the U.N. goals, in particular by developing technologies to reduce carbon emissions in the pneumatic marketplace. One well-established undertaking they’re championing is the energy audit, where technicians assess a total system from compressor to actuator and recommend changes that improve performance and save money. Intelligent products and software can now pinpoint inefficiencies and calculate the effects on total cost of ownership. At one large multinational food processor, SMC found $2.5 million in savings just by changing processes, eliminating leaks, upgrading components and optimizing pressure levels.
Company engineers have identified numerous products that could be improved to promote energy efficiency, he continued. They’re embracing “topology optimized design,” an approach that permits downsizing via techniques that use less or alternative materials while generating the least amount of CO2 during production and use. It ultimately reduces product weight, important in, say, end-of-arm tooling, letting robots carry higher loads or move faster.
“We also use out-of-the-box thinking. We’ve been constrained for many years by established ISO, JIS or NFPA standards,” he said. For example, the norms may dictate a two-in. bore cylinder where the actual application doesn’t need those exact dimensions. SMC now offers products like non-standard 57 mm bore cylinders that match the force of a standard 63 mm cylinder in the space of a 50 mm unit. “We use less material with 50% more force. It’s a more ecological design that gives customers electrical and pneumatic energy saving.”
Some new-generation products use upwards of 90% less compressed air than in the past. They’ve revamped valve spools and physical specifications to permit the same flow in half the space, reducing footprint and weight by nearly 80%. Solenoid coils with energy-saving circuits keep wattage low. Air blow guns are often the worst consumers of energy in an entire plant, so new versions rely on short-duration impacts to slash air usage.
The list goes on. Suction-cup vacuum ejectors monitor pressure and switch off when unneeded. And better, they alert technicians if a dirty or worn cup needs cleaning or replacement. Finally, new pneumatic boosters are 40% more efficient, work faster, and run quieter than previous options. For many customers, it’s now practical and advantageous to lower total plant air pressure and use boosters in the few applications that truly need higher pressure. All told, such products can mean fewer or smaller compressors with less wear and tear.
Hutchinson recommends that users formulate a sustainability plan. Take advantage of software like SMC’s eTools to calculate baseline air consumption, then set goals like lowering plant pressure, eliminating leaks, or making equipment lighter or more efficient. And once implemented, verify the results and identify where additional improvements are feasible. This straightforward process will lower air consumption, save energy and cut carbon emissions — and result in substantial cost savings.
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