You know what lean manufacturing principles are, but have you turned over every rock to find sources of waste? If you haven’t taken a hard look at your compressed air system yet, it’s probably time to do so. The most expensive part of owning and operating a compressor system isn’t the equipment itself — it’s the energy required to run it.
Here’s a rundown of things you should look for to shore up this all-important corner of your operation. Taking these suggestions in mind isn’t just a way to cut down on waste and save money on daily expenses — it can also help your machines perform better and longer than they would have otherwise.
Turn Off the Air Supply Whenever Production Is Idle
We might as well begin with the basics.
Before we get to any maintenance items, your first order of business should be to make sure your equipment isn’t in operation when it doesn’t need to be. That means when production is idle, during the evenings and over the weekends. Compressors can sometimes cycle on their own to fill any leaks in the system, meaning you’re spending money on energy that’s going totally to waste.
Unless you’re eyeing a full system upgrade, making strategic retrofits to your existing compressor(s) — like adding solenoid valves or even automated control systems for individual equipment applications — can help ensure your machines aren’t expending effort when they don’t need to be.
Find and Plug the Leaks
According to the Compressed Air & Gas Institute, inadequately maintained or carelessly designed compressed air equipment is responsible for $3.2 billion in wasted expenses every year in the United States. You have your work cut out for you if you don’t want to be part of this statistic. You probably have several other ideas for how to put the money to work that you’re wasting on inefficient compressor systems.
To combat waste, make your first step a thorough hunt for leaks across all the machines you rely on. It’s hard to pin down an average on how much money this simple fix might save you, but estimates say even a quarter-inch leak could cause you to hemorrhage up to $10,000 per year in lost horsepower, productivity, and unnecessary energy expenses.
Here are some of the likeliest problem areas when it comes to leakage:
- Manifolds and flanges
- Hose couplings
- Condensate drain valves
For most purposes, a simple walking of the line should do wonders in helping you uncover these troublesome leaks and get them patched. This is one of the reasons why the U.S. Department of Energy estimates 50 percent of all businesses that rely on compressed energy have untapped cost and energy-saving opportunities they might not even know about.
Turn Down the Pressure in Your System
Another common source of wasted effort and expense among compressed air systems is unnecessarily high-pressure settings. It’s common for workers to take pressure settings into their own hands during productive hours, the belief being that maximum pressure results in maximum productivity.
Unfortunately, precisely the opposite may be true. Using higher pressures than your equipment is rated for, or higher than the work requires is wasteful. It might even impair the operation of the equipment or shorten its lifespan.
For this step, consider undergoing an energy audit for all the equipment your compressed air system powers. You should also look into connected equipment and data monitoring platforms. They will help you keep an eye on operations in real-time to see if settings are being changed when they shouldn’t be or putting undue strain on the system.
Check the Age of Your Piping
In many cases, if your piping systems are already of a certain age, making intermittent repairs to plug leaks might not be the wisest choice any longer. It might be time to replace your piping to reap savings and achieve more efficient performance again.
According to authorities, piping that runs in compressed air systems that are five years old or older might be leaking a shocking 25 percent of their potential output. If you haven’t upgraded for a while, you’re behind the times in materials sciences. Older piping systems were generally fashioned out of galvanized iron, which is a challenge to install and tends to rust quickly.
However, newer and more advanced piping materials, like aluminum alloys, are making life easier for installation and maintenance personnel and prolonging the life of air systems across multiple industries.
Energy Rebates: Lean Manufacturing Requires Lean Machines
By now, the monetary savings you’re leaving on the table should be enough to convince you to take a closer look at your compressed air equipment and whether it’s serving your needs efficiently. Beyond more confident financial footing, there are abstract benefits as well, including improving your ability to compete and ensuring employee morale remains high thanks to functional equipment that works as expected.
As a final note, if any of your findings reveal a positive cost-benefit of replacing your compressed air system outright, your regional energy supplier might offer per-kilowatt-hour rebates for new construction, efficiency upgrades for compressed air systems and other equipment, and even fine-tuning of your industrial processes.
Megan Ray Nichols is a science and manufacturing writer. She regularly contributes to Thomas Insights, Manufacturing.net, and Industry Today. Megan also publishes twice weekly on her blog, Schooled By Science discussing the latest industry news.