July 14, 2021
Industrial compressors and vacuum pumps consume a lot of power. But what if there was a way to make them use much less energy by adapting their speed to the current production need? This innovative idea has put Atlas Copco at the forefront of energy efficiency.
Most industrial manufacturing processes rely on a steady supply of compressed air to power the tools or robots, or to separate gases and fluids, and more. The compressors producing this air are often hidden at the back of the factory but carry the entire production flow. They are powerful workhorses that keep on going, day in and day out. Consequently, they consume a lot of power, and power use translates into emissions and costs. Industrial companies are therefore constantly looking to maximize their energy efficiency, or put more simply, ways to use less energy to perform the same tasks. Machines that are constantly running will also sooner or later wear out.
Thanks to continuous innovation, Atlas Copco is an industry leader in both performance and energy efficiency. The key enabler of the high energy efficiency is the variable speed drive (VSD) technology. Instead of running at the same speed all the time, this technology enables the motor to adjust and adapt to the current demand.
In 1994, Atlas Copco was the first supplier to integrate this technology into compressors, a game-changing idea that revolutionized the market. About 20 years later, a new industry standard was set with the in-house innovation of VSD+ , bringing energy consumption to a record low.
Main feature: Delivers clean, oil-free air using flexible speed and minimal energy.
Super powers: Amazingly CO2 smart, saving 11% compared to compressors with more traditional VSD technology. As much as 90% of the energy can be recovered and used for heating or as steam needed in other industrial processes.
Used at: Food and beverage production, in pharmaceutical industries or at electronics and automotive manufacturers.
The ZR VSD+ oil-free rotary screw air compressor is one recent example of Atlas Copco’s efforts to excel in energy efficiency and performance. This machine provides oil-free air in environments where even the slightest contamination would ruin the product, such as pharmaceutical or electronic component manufacturing. This level of cleanness is also vital in food and beverage production, the textile industry and in car painting processes.
“Reliability and energy efficiency are very important factors for a customer since electric costs represent 75 to 80% of the total cost of ownership over a 10-year period,” says Jeroen Hoen, Global Product Manager for oil-free screw compressors, and a 25-year veteran of the company. However, the road to the product’s launch was a long one.
“The idea behind it had been with us for quite a long time. It actually goes back to 2006. My first job at Atlas Copco was to test the motors that were meant for this product, but there were technical challenges and it was hard to make it cost-effective, so it was put on hold,” says Thomas De Bontridder, previously R&D program leader for the ZR VSD+, and now Team Leader Engineering for oil-free screw compressors.
It wasn’t until 2014 that the innovation process started up again. “By that time there’d been new technical developments, so we sat together with people from engineering and brainstormed ideas saying, 'Now we have everything available to make a product that will bring a real benefit to the market,' "says Thomas.
Later, colleagues from various customer centers joined service technicians, production, engineers and marketing as the product was developed. The first units were tested at 10 pilot customer sites, including producers of beer, baby food and medical equipment. The feedback from these initial customers was vital to the refinement of the final product.
“We took a quantum leap with this product,” says Jeroen, who remembers the launch as if it was yesterday. “When I was standing there on the stage in front of all the people, that was an enormous thrill. We managed to bring customers a 10% saving on our previous compressor, which for example means savings of almost 10 000 euros a year on a 160 kW compressor.”
Money talks all right, but so does sustainability. “Since the launch, we have installed more than 300 units, and every unit saves 40 to 60 tons of CO2 a year depending on the air demand profile,” says Jeroen.
The customer reactions have surpassed expectations, and Jeroen Hoen’s and Thomas De Bontridder’s work was recognized in 2020 with the prestigious John Munck Award for technical innovation. Their Compressor Technique colleague Dieter Bertels also shares the prize for his vital contribution.
“It is great to receive this award. I’m really proud because we worked so hard to bring it to market,” says Thomas. And for Jeroen, the development of the ZR VSD+ still ranks high in his long career. “It makes you proud to work for a company that has the best product in the world. Even now, I still feel very enthusiastic about the product. It’s my baby.”