Compressor Technique’s history

Compressors have been at the heart of the Atlas Copco Group’s success for over a century. The Group has succeeded in transforming compressor technology many times over by completely reimagining the way compressors are designed and how compressor R&D-teams work. This is now sparking yet another revolutionary shift with digital twin technology.

Text by the Centre for Business History in Stockholm

A control measurement of one the rotors of a screw compressor.

Compressors are part of almost all manufacturing processes, in one way or the other.

Atlas Copco first got into the compressor game in 1904 when it started making piston compressors in-house. Since then, it has played a major role in advancing compressor technology to meet new industry needs – a role that the Atlas Copco Group is intent on maintaining. Today, compressor technology at the company is being reimagined – once again – by the Antwerp-based team led by Guy Mareels, Vice President Engineering at the Oil-Free Air Division.

“Atlas Copco has repeatedly made breakthroughs in oil-free air ever since the first oil-free series in the 1960s,” says Guy, who joined the Atlas Copco Group 15 years ago, starting out as a calculation engineer running simulations. “We are now making another quantum leap in energy efficiency with a new generation of oil-free screw compressors. I spend much of my time in meeting rooms as I stimulate co-breeding across teams, but my favorite time of day is when I get out and see the machines. After all, I’m still an engineer at heart and enjoy helping the product teams stay on the right track.”

Opening up potential for new markets

Reinventing existing products is core to the Group’s operations. In the 1950s, Atlas Copco made two key moves that transformed its compressor business to meet new demands. The first was purchasing the rights to Swedish inventor Alf Lysholm’s screw compressor in 1954, a technology that greatly increased compressor capacity. The second was the acquisition of Arpic, a highly efficient Belgian compressor factory in 1956. 

After designing the company’s first air-cooled portable compressor in 1952 in collaboration with engineer Karl-Erik Hilfing, Iwan Åkerman relocated to Antwerp in 1956 to head up R&D at Atlas Copco’s new base for compressor operations.

A decade later, in the 1960s, Atlas Copco became the first company in the world to present a transportable piston compressor supplying oil-free compressed air. A parallel breakthrough was the launch of a stationary oil-free compressor, the Z series. It was named Z because it felt like a development “at the end of the alphabet” as far as you could imagine innovation. The Z series made compressed air viable for new markets, including the textile, food, and medicine industries.

“Today, we are proud to be a leading force in the global energy transition, supporting emerging market trends in the shift away from fossil fuels,” Guy explains. “For instance, the electric car and battery industries rely heavily on large amounts of compressed air. Another emerging market is the maritime industry, where our low-pressure turbo and screw blowers can be used for hull lubrication to increase ship fuel efficiency. We also have a new generation of compressors rolling out to empower low-carbon utilities and are working on higher-pressure solutions for compressing hydrogen and CO2, which are poised to be a big wave of the energy transition.” 

From VSD to VSD+ – a journey of energy-efficiency leadership

In the 1970s a company team set out to bring about the next phase in compressor technology. Their work initially led to making several compressor parts more energy efficient, especially motors. This laid the foundation for taking the promising variable speed drive (VSD) technology to new levels, making it even more efficient and also better adapted to customer needs.

Atlas Copco wasn’t the first company to introduce VSD technology. However, the Group played a major role in bringing it to market on a broad basis. The company’s VSD prototype was completed in the late 1980s and was launched on the market in 1994, rapidly becoming a bestseller and driving enormous energy savings. In 2000, the team working on VSD won the John Munck Award.

[Separate fact box or similar: The John Munck Award is an annual award given every year since 1988 for the most innovative technical development during the year. Apart from innovative thinking, the product should also have proven commercial success and the project should have been well-managed. The award is named after one of Atlas Copco’s most successful engineers, John Munck, who worked for the Group between 1930 and 1970 as technical director, among other positions.]

“VSD was a game changer,” says Guy, “and now we’ve recently leveled it up to VSD+ with two-stage compression. By powering each element with a separate motor, this further improves energy efficiency, performance, and uptime. Just as the original VSD was combined with motor efficiency improvements, we are now also introducing more efficient motor technology to go hand in hand with VSD+. The two types of new and improved VSD+ motors are the permanent magnet synchronous motor and the synchronous reluctance motor. At the Atlas Copco Group, energy efficiency has always been a strong focus and now we’re prioritizing it like never before to do our part to help our customers meet unprecedented sustainability and energy challenges.”  

Reimagining the way engineers work with digital twin technology

During its 150 years, the Atlas Copco Group has reinvented itself many times, at both the Group and product levels. It went from rail to compressed air and diesel motors at the turn of the 1900s, and then transformed again from Atlas Diesel to Atlas Copco in the 1950s. More recent examples are the creation of the Vacuum Technique business area in 2017 following strategic acquisitions and the spin-off of the Group’s long-time mining equipment operations into Epiroc in 2018.

Building on that legacy, the company is now completely reimagining the way engineers work with compressor technology. With connected, advanced telemetry from compressors, and digital twin technology, Compressor Technique engineers can now see exactly how machinery is being used by customers out in the real world.

“I’m excited about all the gains we’re seeing from our digital twin deployment,” says Guy. “For instance, we can leverage the data to discover issues before the customer even notices them – something that was unthinkable five years ago. The digital twin data is also a highly valuable tool for identifying sales and service needs. Young engineers joining us now will probably wonder how it was ever possible to design products without all this data. This is only the beginning, too. Imagine the possibilities in the future when customers can connect their ecosystems to our digital twin and open a whole new world of data-driven compressed utility room operations.”