What is the product that made you stop and ask, “Where have you been all my life?” For me, it’s a tight race between my smartphone and heated car seats. For many companies engaged in operations involving thermal processing, I suspect it will be the advent of cloud-based predictive maintenance and remote process management platforms.

At AHR Expo in early February, two companies introduced systems that can shift responsibility for your plant’s industrial heating systems from “Bob the Burner Guy,” the old-timer with years of institutional knowledge, to a team of industrial heating data scientists.

The impetus for such heat processing equipment management platforms is, at least in part, the brain-drain occurring in manufacturing, where Baby Boomers retire and take decades of institutional knowledge with them. According to Investopedia, Baby Boomers are retiring at a rate of 10,000 a day, and often, there is no clear knowledge transfer plan in place. If a company’s complete succession plan involves assigning responsibility for the thermal processing equipment to an employee already working in the plant, it risks failing.

“There is a gap in domain knowledge that is only going to increase as we go forward — and our customers were coming to us and saying, ‘I need help in managing my combustion systems. Not in buying a new one, but how do I manage the asset after it is installed?’” said Tim Lee, vice president and general manager of Honeywell Thermal Solutions, during our conversation at AHR Expo.

Fortunately, already in many plants engaged in operations involving thermal processing, robust control systems gather copious data. Yet data is only useful if you use its insights to improve. As Lee noted, “The more data customers have, the more data they want. But, they don’t really know what to do with all of that data. Instead of data, what they really want is answers to questions like:

  • Is my burner running as efficiently as it could?
  • What are my emissions? Am I running the cleanest emissions I could?
  • How do I optimize my entire combustion system to make sure that the quality of the product that I am putting through my oven, dryer, furnace, kiln, etc., is optimal for things that matter to me, like product quality, energy efficiency or emissions?

During our conversation, Lee spent some time explaining Honeywell Thermal Solutions’ Thermal IQ platform, which provides real-time analytics and fault modeling. And, in a separate conversation with Rakesh Zala, the vice president of product engineered systems for packaged boiler systems at Cleaver-Brooks, I learned about Prometha, a remote IoT monitoring system that collects boiler and burner information, interprets it, and provides in-depth trend reports for optimum boiler system performance. (Look for more on both in an upcoming issue and on www.process-heating.com.)

The premise of both of these systems and others like them is that using the data your system provides, remotely located technicians can (assuming you allow it) manage your thermal processing equipment to optimize its operation for the goals you set. Imagine having your oven automatically tuned to optimize emissions so your company can meet “green” initiatives. Or, imagine your combustion controls automatically recognizing when an inadvertently left open door has created a draft through the oven that is affecting product quality, and adjusting the burner output to compensate? Using data analytics for your plant as well as the knowledge gleaned from a database of plant readings from multiple plants would allow the data scientist technicians to offer new insights. For instance, based on the operating data at your plant compared to others like yours (using similar equipment), they might suggest when a component should be expected to fail or how to lower operating costs.

Do such developments have you asking, “Where have you been all my life?”