Smart control systems and automation have transformed modern fabrication methods. Today’s CNC laser cutting machines are exponentially faster and more precise than their predecessors. Now, as advanced analytics and cloud-based technologies make their way onto the factory floor, production lines are becoming even more automated and efficient.
However, for many manufacturers, dust collection and air quality control remain firmly in the 20th century. While recognition of the importance of clean air has grown over the last two decades, most fabrication shops still rely on relatively simple dust collection technologies.
But the same technologies that are driving the latest revolution in production can also be applied to air quality and other environmental controls. Smart, automated dust collector control systems that can talk to each other and to production equipment can help manufacturers cut energy and operating costs for air quality control – and reduce the amount of time they need to spend thinking about it.
Air quality control for laser and plasma cutting is getting smarter and more efficient – thanks to machine learning and the Internet of Things.
Laser and plasma cutting are some of the most dust-intensive operations in manufacturing. While many CNC lasers are housed inside enclosures that keep the worst of the dust out of the ambient environment, uncontrolled dust within the enclosure can cause significant damage to equipment.
Particulates that accumulate on delicate sensors and components wear down moving parts and increase the risk of crashing the laser. They can also foul the optical lens, resulting in reduced cutting quality.
Dust and fumes from laser cutting that escape into the ambient environment create serious health and safety concerns. Breathing in the fine particulates produced by high-speed cutting operations exposes workers to a toxic mix of metal dust and lubricants that can find its way deep into the lungs.
While specific risks vary depending on the type of metal being cut, all metals – including steel, aluminum and their alloys – have a significant impact on health when inhaled. These may include chronic respiratory disease, certain types of cancer and damage to the kidneys or nervous system.
These risks make controlling dust and fumes from laser cutting a critical issue for fabricating shops. But with today’s technologies, companies can now look for dust collectors that work smarter, not harder. A properly sized dust collector equipped with smart sensors and controls can vastly improve collector efficiency, life and operating costs. A smart control system can even learn from its environment to optimize dust collector operation and make independent decisions that extend filter and dust collector life and reduce the burden on operators.
These smart control systems are part of a wider trend in manufacturing: the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), or Industry 4.0.
Sensors like this air quality monitor feed data into smart air quality control systems.
IIoT, Industry 4.0
Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, manufacturers have sought ways to make production faster, cheaper and more efficient. This drive has led the industry through several stages of development, from the introduction of steam power in the 18th century, to the invention of mass production methods in Henry Ford’s time, to the computer revolution of the 20th century.
The era we are entering now has been dubbed by many as Industry 4.0, the fourth Industrial Revolution. Industry 4.0 brings together two trends that are also transforming the consumer market.
• The “Internet of Things” (IoT), epitomized by consumer products such as the Nest suite of home electronics and home control systems like Amazon Alexa or Google Home, connects devices such as lighting systems, thermostats, televisions and sound systems directly to the internet. This enables cloud-based communication and control through a mobile app or a computer dashboard. IIoT extends this technology into the manufacturing environment.
• Machine learning and predictive analytics are forms of artificial intelligence (AI) that allow software programs to learn from user or sensor inputs and respond to changing needs or environmental conditions. Nest’s intelligent thermostat, for example, learns from user behavior over time so that it is able to anticipate user preferences and make independent decisions to save energy or increase user comfort.
Smarter dust collectors
Traditionally, dust collectors for laser cutting, welding and other fabricating processes have been big, dumb machines: turn them on, and they suck dirty air in through the filters. Turn them off, and they stop. Operators were in control of whether they were on or off, and the machines themselves did not need to know anything about their environment or their internal operations.
Smart control systems for dust collectors bring together IIoT and AI technologies to create systems that can detect, and respond to, their environments. A smart control system has three main elements:
• A sensor system that enables the machine to detect aspects of its environment. A dust collector, however, may have sensors that tell it when the laser is on or off, air quality monitors that detect particulate levels in the laser enclosure or in the ambient air, and internal sensors that monitor internal pressure drop, temperature, internal particulate levels, energy use or other factors.
• A way for the dust collector to connect and communicate with other devices and with human users. These communication technologies can be hard wired or based on WiFi or Bluetooth technologies. Dust collectors may be connected to an internal network or through a secure cloud application that enables anywhere/anytime visibility and control for users.
• An analytical system that acts as the “brains” of the dust collector, allowing it to make decisions based on user inputs or sensor data. These actions may include turning the dust collector on or off, sounding an alarm or adjusting blower speed in response to real-time conditions.
Simple forms of dust collector automation have been around for some time now. These include:
• Systems that turn the dust collector on and off in conjunction with the laser cutting machine, so they only run when the laser is on.
• Safety systems that automatically stop the machine if smoke or excess heat is detected inside the filter cabinet.
• Filter pulsing systems that pulse dust off the surface of the filters at set intervals during operation or at the end of a shift when the machine is powered down.
With a smart control system like RoboVent eTell, the possibilities are much more interesting. These systems actively monitor system performance and environmental conditions to optimize energy use and system performance. These systems may:
• cycle on and off in response to real-time airborne particulate monitoring sensors,
• dynamically adapt blower speeds to compensate for filter loading (as measured by internal pressure drop), and
• adapt dynamic filter pulsing systems to particulate levels to optimize system performance.
Using predictive analytics and machine learning, systems like eTell can also make predictions about future conditions and adjust system performance based on those predictions. For example, the dust collector will be able to calculate energy use and adjust system settings to maximize energy efficiency based on actual use behaviors.
Maintenance is another area that will be transformed by machine learning. Smart dust collector control systems can predict maintenance needs based on actual use patterns, allowing companies to move from standardized preventative maintenance schedules to predictive maintenance schedules optimized for maximum filter and equipment life and minimum downtime. Smart dust collectors can even diagnose performance problems and notify maintenance technicians if attention is needed.
These innovations save money by reducing energy consumption, maximizing filter life and reducing the risk of system downtime for emergency maintenance. They also shift the decision making burden from humans to the machines themselves, saving time for human operators while maximizing system performance.
Dust collection solutions come in various shapes and sizes, including this large ducted 55-gallon drum long-leg installation.
Future of the smart factory
As both production and environmental control systems become smarter and more automated, the next stage of smart factory evolution will likely involve further integration between systems so they can work together to improve productivity, comfort and operating costs. Imagine these possibilities:
• Your dust collector and HVAC system work together to optimize air movement patterns in the facility to increase air quality system performance, reduce overall energy use and maximize comfort levels.
• Your HVAC system notices that the post-lunch productivity slump can be combatted with a brief blast of cooler air and programs itself accordingly.
• Your lighting system automatically adjusts itself to optimize light levels for certain tasks in response to patterns of employee activity or equipment use.
These scenarios will be real possibilities in the future as sensor data, analytics and control systems continue to advance. While important challenges remain to be solved for system interoperability and security, the core technologies needed to make these possibilities a reality already exist.
As more IIoT devices and systems make their way into the factory environment, system designers will need to put more focus on the needs of the humans involved in operating them. Right now, we are seeing a proliferation of complicated software systems that do not communicate with each other and put a significant mental load on workers who have to interact with them.
Many of these systems merely augment human decision making, providing operators with information that must be acted upon. As systems become more integrated and sophisticated, we will see a shift from augmenting technologies to true automation that will reduce the cognitive load for workers and free them up to worry about higher level decisions.
In the meantime, Industry 4.0 technologies are already delivering big benefits for the companies that take advantage of them. Manufacturers investing in new air quality equipment should look for smart technologies that will move their facilities into the future of environmental controls.