Business built on innovation

June 5, 2015

Lowering energy needs: From oil-free piston compressors to highspeed drive turbo compressors, advances in technology over the years have helped reduce compressor energy use while increasing effectiveness.

ZH350 Oil-free screw compressor

“We are continuously developing and improving our products, but every now and then we come to a point at which we can take the technology a big step forward,” says Conrad Latham, Vice President Marketing in Atlas Copco’s oil-free air division. He points to the example of oil-free air compressors as representative of how Atlas Copco has prioritized innovation, improving efficiency for its customers. Oil-free air compressors are crucial for industries whose products must not be contaminated from oil in the compressed air in any way, such as pharmaceutical and food production. Since Atlas Copco introduced its first oil-free piston compressor in 1904, the major development steps include oil-free screw compressors, heat of compression air dryers, variable speed drive and high-speed turbo compressors. The latter were presented in 2011 together with an energy recovery system that can recuperate a substantial amount of the input electrical energy as hot water. “It’s a continuous drive for efficiency,” Latham says. “We’re always looking for new ways to get more air out of the same amount of energy that you put into a compressor.” Compressed air typically represents around 10% of the total energy cost in the manufacturing industry. This means that increased energy efficiency is an important driver for new compressor technology. The amount of energy you need to compress a certain amount of air today is just 11% of what it took in 1904. And the development continues. “Customers don’t use air from just one machine, so what we’re looking at now is to offer the most efficient compressor room,” says Latham. “It’s very much about understanding the customers’ processes and being able to suggest the best combination of compression technologies and control system.”

Atlas Copco Compressor Technique uses a special “innovation process” for the development of new products and services. It begins with an Idea-to-Concept process that includes an analysis of the economic and technical implications. Ideas that are deemed to be within reach are then handed over to the respective divisions. “The trick is to find a balance between the evolution in the market and the evolution of new technology,” says Luc De Beul, head of development in the Oil-free Air division. De Beul is responsible for the Concept-to-Product process that brings new products and services to the market. This stage-gate process includes several stages: feasibility study, functional prototype phase, production prototype phase, pilot batch and field follow-up. Each of them ends with a “gate” where the projects are reviewed with regard to the business plan and a decision to stop or go ahead is taken. “The goal is to ensure that we always end up with a serial product of high quality and the best value for the customers that it is intended for,” says De Beul, noting that routines are not enough to achieve this. “Innovation is not just a process, it’s something that needs to live within every person in the organization and in everything we do.” Written by Ake R. Malm

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