Industry 4.0, the cloud, data analytics, AI – the promise of digital technology is that it makes machines smarter, production leaner, and processes more transparent. So far, shot blast equipment is rarely the focus of attention of digitalization efforts, yet the potential is particularly great – because the blast process all too often is still a black box, as key machine parameters – and important cost drivers – are not routinely monitored. Digital tools can track these cost-effectively and easily, giving machine owners and operators new insights into their processes and, crucially, new room for improvement.
Here, we talk to Wheelabrator’s digital project team about how shot blast equipment can be digitally enabled and how digital tools can be deployed strategically to make quick wins. Daniel Häger is part of the Norican Digital Lab and has been working closely with Wheelabrator’s Reinhard Nadicksbernd to develop digital technology that makes a difference to blast machine users. (Wheelabrator is part of the Norican Group, alongside DISA, Italpresse Gauss and StrikoWestofen.)
(?) MFN: Reinhard, could you start by outlining the problems you set out to solve.
(!) R. N.: The main problem with shot blast equipment is that we have almost maxed out traditional means of iterative improvement and process control. There are automation features and other clever things we do to help keep process and machine on track, but ultimately, there’s very little actual data available on what goes on inside the machine: data that could tell us something is going wrong or running below optimum. Our customers may notice that they’ve spent more on abrasive one month, or that their quality has dipped, then they may try a few things to fix it, but by that point, they will already have lost time and money.
Digital technology opens up the possibility of getting real-time data out of the machine, turn it into meaningful insights, spot when something’s threatening to go off the rails, and take corrective action before it happens. The blast machine becomes transparent and our customers’ understanding of their process grows. This gives them greater control.
And that’s the goal – to use these new technologies to make a difference and achieve a step change in performance quickly, whether it’s cost savings, quality improvements or extra production capacity. It’s not about digital gimmicks or using technology for the sake of it.
(!) D. H.: This is exactly why we work the way we do in our digital project teams. There’s a lot of digital expertise in our Digital Lab, designed to pool resources across the group and develop the best platforms and technologies – but that’s nothing without the knowledge of the process and the problems that actually need solving. Working with Reinhard, who has incredible knowledge of the blast process, the machines and what customers really need, has been invaluable in coming up with digital solutions that make a difference.
(?) MFN: Is this something you are developing for the next generation of new equipment or can existing machines benefit?
(!) D. H.: The aim has always been to make this work for existing machines, so we’ve developed a core piece of hardware, NoriGate, a data gateway that can be retrofitted on almost any shot blast machine (and in fact many other types of machine – DISA are using it on moulding lines, and StrikoWestofen on melting furnaces). All our new machines can be equipped with it.
What NoriGate allows us to do is collect data from different parts of the machine – from sensors, PLC, auxiliary equipment – and get it out of the machine in a standardised way, to a central place, where it can be monitored, tracked and analysed.
(!) R. N.: This is a big deal. A lot of the data that can now be made visible simply hasn’t been accessible before. Machine operators haven’t exactly been flying blind until now, but the parameters they have had available to assess how the process is running are fairly limited – and often rely on hindsight.
Digital technology makes it much easier to collect data in real-time and process it in a cost-effective way. No more noting things down on clipboards, manually entering data and juggling spreadsheets. We’ve designed our digital products to make life easier. That also means customers don’t need a data or digital specialist on site to operate it all. Once they are up and running, digital applications should become just another tool in an operator’s (and manager’s) toolbox.
(?) MFN: You’ve talked about getting the data out of the machine. Where does it then go?
(!) D. H.: It’s time-stamped, standardised and stored centrally – usually in a secure cloud environment. Our platform for this is called Monitizer – it handles the data and displays it in customisable dashboards. It is accessed via a simple browser-based interface with clearly defined user profiles and permissions.
The platform is very powerful and future-proof, but we can also just use it to deliver a few tools and applications to achieve specific objectives. It’s very flexible. The colleagues at DISA are already running artificial intelligence applications on it, to eliminate scrap from the casting process. For Wheelabrator, we have focussed on a handful of tools that give our customers quick payback.
(?) MFN: Please tell us a bit more about those new tools.
(!) R. N.: They are three tools that tackle the main cost drivers of operating a blast machine: abrasive consumption, energy use and wear/maintenance. They were developed in close collaboration with pilot customers to ensure they make a difference in real-life operating environments.
Our tests showed that tackling abrasive consumption alone, using digital analysis and monitoring, could unlock €200-250 in annual savings per kilowatt blast power installed. For a typical hanger-type machine with four 11 kW blast wheels, this means up to €10,000 saved per year. Over the course of 20 years, savings generated by this one digital tool could pay for a new machine.
The tool gives blast machine users an accurate picture of abrasive use over time and relates it to other metrics, so root causes of high use can be identified quickly. Even complex or more subtle causes of increased abrasive throughput can be unpicked and resolved. The costs of monitoring and analysis are low compared to manual methods.
(!) D. H.: What I found really interesting when working on this tool, was to see the knock-on effects of optimising abrasive use. While the goal was to make the tool pay for itself quickly through savings on abrasive spend, it also stabilised the blast process, avoiding over- and under-blasting and improving cycle times, which in turn, reduced energy consumption and wear. It started out as quite a simple thing we wanted to achieve, but the result is quite powerful and sophisticated, without overly complicating anything.
(?) MFN: Tell us, briefly about the other two tools:, why were energy use and wear/maintenance chosen?
(!) R. N.: Due to the power needed to accelerate abrasive inside the machine, shot blast equipment uses a lot of energy. That’s a cost factor, but for many of our customers it’s also of concern from a sustainability perspective. Equally, excessive or unmonitored wear causes unplanned maintenance, increases use of wear parts, or in extreme cases, internal damage to the machine that requires costly repairs – but it’s also unnecessarily wasteful. Our tools get a handle on both, resulting in significant cost savings as well as a more effective, less wasteful use of resources.
(!) D. H.: With the energy saving tool, we track energy use in real time, alongside other meaningful parameters. Operators and managers can see instantly if the machine is using unusually high amounts of energy, find the cause and optimise the process. Over time, machine parameters can be adapted for ever-better energy efficiency. A quick win when running the tool in real-life settings is to minimise idle time. For example, reducing idle time on a roller-conveyor machine with eight 45kW blast wheels by 1 hour per day could unlock €14,000 annually in energy cost savings, as well as optimising machine use per shift.
Our third tool gives operators and maintenance teams a real-time picture of the machine condition and offers an early warning system for wear and any drops in performance. It means they can carry out preventive maintenance at the optimum point - not too soon, not too late. This prevents unscheduled downtime without overspending on parts.
(!) R. N.: The cumulative impact of the three tools, or even just one of them, is a much more transparent blast process. As Daniel said earlier – the effects go way beyond improving the individual cost drivers we wanted to tackle. Ultimately, it shows the power of using digital technology: it enables us to do things we’ve not been able to do before and really improve the process for our customers.
(?) MFN: You talked about the platform as future-proof and expandable. Can you elaborate?
(!) R. N.: We recognise that our customers’ primary concern is to improve their operations and cut costs. Nobody digitises a shot blast machines just for the sake of it, so our first suite of tools is very specific and geared toward quick payback and quick savings.
But the way we are deploying these tools – using the Monitizer platform – means that our customers are ready for more advanced digital applications and more connected production. Our tools are not isolated solutions, they can be built upon and expanded on.
The data our customers will be gathering is collected and stored in a way that means it can be analysed as historical data later on in new ways. We think this is a compelling approach: save money and improve your process now, but at the same time, get ready for the digital future.
(!) MFN: Daniel, Reinhard – thank you for your time!
Wheelabrator Group GmbH
48629 Metelen, Germany
Tel. +49.2556.880, Fax +49.2556.88 150