Practical steps for creating a sustainable automation business

Steve Sands of Festo looks at how the experiences the company has gained internally toward its environmental and sustainability goals are translated into practical help and support for their customers.

Reducing energy consumption, whether for cost savings or sustainability/climate impact is at the very top of most companies’ agendas. Listed companies must disclose their energy use, carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions in their financial reporting and the Government recently created a new Department for Energy Security and Net-Zero which has to ensure that UK homes and businesses improve their energy efficiency, reducing energy demand by at least 15% to support our legally binding Net Zero commitments.

As a family-owned company, the owners of Festo and members of the Board have clearly identified the purpose of our business, how it sits with the big challenges facing us all and how they want the company to operate. It means understanding and planning the balance between economics and environmental aspects, to secure a long-term future for everyone.

One of the first steps was to ensure that our own house is in order, quantifying existing energy usage, and putting in place prioritised measures to reduce, change and off-set. This isn’t new for Festo and has been a consideration for decades, but the goals are now more immediate and concrete. This means that by the end of 2023, all of our sites and buildings in Germany, as well as our production and logistics sites around the world, will be CO2 neutral according to Scope 1 and 2, and our remaining locations around the world will follow by 2026 at the latest.

Reducing energy usage is doubly challenging in a period of rapid growth in production output. We want more from our production lines for less. To do this we have to take measures at all levels, from production plant planning where we build in the latest sustainable energy sources and ensure we have very efficient, joint heat and power plants recovering heat energy from processes like compressed air generation and recycling this energy to cut usage in other areas. This includes selling recovered energy to other consumers in the local area.

The focus can then drill down to line and machine levels, ensuring new equipment is specified with energy consumption high on the priorities, monitoring, mapping, and optimising the distribution of continuous and peak requirements. The design of these elements is the work of experts to ensure the foundations are in place for continuous improvement. We also collaborate closely with our suppliers, helping them to optimise our new machinery and production lines by incorporating the latest energy saving products and techniques.

However, the work is nowhere near complete at this level. Throughout our production sites there is legacy machinery that can be improved through small practical actions supported by a motivated and knowledgeable operations team of plant, maintenance, and skilled machine operators. We have trained our staff in the practical measures and the essential part they play in affecting our energy consumption and therefore our carbon usage and environmental impact.

We want to help our customers select the best technologies, components and use best practice in design, build and operations to reduce their energy consumption and carbon usage. This is particularly important with compressed air systems which are notorious for over-sizing and poor maintenance – both of which can be solved.

The ‘Top Tips’ in the side panel gives examples of the types of simple measures that can be taken. However, this is a generalist approach, and the biggest gains will be made either at the design stage by conducting a critical design analysis considering energy as well as performance and CAPEX cost.

For existing installations, specialist analysis, support and advice can be obtained through ISO/DIS 11011 accredited audits. Low cost or free audible leak detection audits can initially look an attractive alternative, but it isn’t uncommon to see the same faults identified with consecutive highly coloured labels but nothing being done about them. This shows that the audit in isolation is not enough but needs to be integrated with training and top-down commitment and support. However, the returns on time invested are impressive both on new machine builds and existing plant audits. For new pneumatic installations, typically 80% of the lifetime costs are in the energy consumed (the rest is split between the purchase cost and maintenance). Therefore, optimisation whether it be at zero or even a small added cost can have a massive effect on the TCO.

A recent existing customer plant audit found tens of thousands of pounds of savings with an initial investment only a fraction of the cost yet providing a 100% payback in a few months. Further, even larger savings were identified that could be incorporated through a review of the compressor and distribution network, installation, and controls.

A webinar recording is available with more information on how designers at original machinery manufacturers can optimise their machines to consume less compressed air and therefore improve the total cost of ownership. The presenters show the latest techniques and tools to make informed decisions on optimising designs for energy consumption, cost, and performance.