The following article, based on the author’s views of the industry and emerging technology trends, outlines recommendations related to combustion controls and process heating for the next decade.
Where will technology take consumers in the next 10 years? More importantly, how will technology advances shape industrial manufacturing and, more specifically, combustion controls and process heating? The following list serves as the basis for my predictions about how digital trends and extended reality will impact process heating. Here are 25 technology trends that will shape the next 10 years:
- Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Expect to see the increasing ability of machines to learn and act intelligently.
- The Internet of Things (IoT): Connected smart devices.
- Wearables and augmented humans.
- Big Data and augmented analytics.
- Intelligent spaces and smart places.
- Block chains and distributed ledgers.
- Cloud and edge computing.
- Digitally extended realities such as encompassing virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR). This trend highlights the move toward creating more immersive digital experiences.
- Digital twins: A digital copy of an actual physical object.
- Natural language processing: This allows machines to understand human language, giving rise to the following trend.
- Voice interfaces and chatbots: More businesses will choose to interact with their customers via voice interfaces and chatbots (computer programs designed to simulate conversation with human users).
- Computer vision and facial recognition.
- Robots and cobots (collaborative robots, or robots intended for direct human/robot interaction in a shared space).
- Autonomous vehicles: Cars, taxis and even ships could become truly autonomous and commercially viable in this next decade.
- Genomics and gene editing.
- Machine co-creativity and augmented design.
- Digital platforms: Networks that facilitate connections and exchanges between people.
- Drones and unmanned aerial vehicles.
- Cybersecurity and resilience.
- Quantum computing.
- Robotic process automation: This technology is used to automate structured and repetitive business processes, freeing up human workers to concentrate on more complex, value-added work.
- Mass personalization and micro-moments.
- 3D and 4D printing and additive manufacturing.
- Nanotechnology and materials science.
With regard to industrial combustion control, let’s back up a minute to take a 10,000-foot view of why technology development is a necessity in process heating applications today — and for the next decade. Our society is arguably in one of its most critical stages of digital transformation. No longer is digitalization optional. It is now a question of how far, and how quickly, companies react and change the way they are utilizing digital technology.
With regard to combustion control, technology development is a necessity in the application of process heating equipment such as this tip-up furnace combustion system.
As a prime example of how the digital transformation and related trends impact industry, one can look at the significant structural changes in the automotive and aerospace industries. (Did you notice how many of the trends mention relate to autonomous vehicles?)
The business model of a typical process heating service supplier, as well as its supply chain, is impacted. There will be a significant pullback of China’s supply chains into European and North American regions over the next few years. Cost control is necessary to avoid the impact of inflation due to moving goods and services to higher cost regions. This means the process heating industry needs to get lean, efficient and fast.
The survival of a few will push the industry into niche manufacturing, which will not meet demand requirements. The solution is a broad-based initiative across the entire industry. The quality of your people and how you maximize the potential of digital solutions will impact this industry’s future viability.
Waste of Energy
For many years, users and manufacturers of process heating equipment have been aware of standard measures to run more efficiently. A report by the U.S. Department of Energy released more than 10 years ago illustrated the significant savings (5 to 30 percent) that can be made by improving three key areas:
- Heat generation.
- Heat transfer.
- Enabling technology.
Heat Generation. As it relates to heat generation, significant energy savings can be achieved by focusing on aspects such as:
- Control of air-to-fuel ratios.
- Preheating combustion air.
- Use of oxygen-enriched combustion air.
- Use of fuel conditioning.
Heat Transfer. As it relates to heat transfer, significant energy savings can be achieved by focusing on aspects such as:
- Improving heat transfer with advanced burners and controls.
- Improving heat transfer within a furnace.
Enabling Technology. As it relates to enabling technology, significant energy savings can be achieved by focusing on aspects such as:
- Installing high turndown combustion systems.
- Using a programmed heating temperature setting for part-load operation.
- Monitoring and controlling exhaust gas oxygen, unburned hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions.
- Maintaining furnace pressure control.
- Ensuring correct sensor locations.
Standards such as IATF16949 and CQI9 for Automotive and AS9100 and Nadcap/AMS2750 have required best practices in pyrometry control and brought about both quality and cost benefits.
Energy-management practices and adoption of standards like ISO50001 have not been widespread across the industry, however. Roland Risser, chair of ISO technical committee that developed ISO50001, said, “Living in a world of uncertainty, companies cannot control prices, government policies or the global economy, but they can improve the way they manage energy. The benefits are obvious: better use of resources and assets and less costs and consumption.”
Many of the above measures require ongoing maintenance to keep the burner systems tuned to optimum efficiency. Many ovens and furnaces, however, are run to destruction with minimal maintenance. Others follow a prescribed maintenance regime regardless of its usage.
Both strategies are costly. It is well overdue that modern technology — and associated condition monitoring — informs maintenance requirements to reduce running costs and reduce harmful emissions significantly.
Extended reality is the umbrella term that captures all the various forms of computer-altered reality, including augmented reality, mixed reality and virtual reality.
Historically, a furnace or oven has been a capital expense: A hefty deposit, large payment at receipt of the equipment and a final payment after commissioning. The equipment owner must maximize the use of this asset by optimum loading and utilization over time. (Remember that it is still possible to overload even when keeping within the design restrictions of the equipment, which impacts quality levels.)
But, what if your demand levels fluctuate? The furnace might have been an investment with an initial five-year payback. Suppose fluctuating demand means reduced oven use, and payback begins to approach 10 years — a significant change. Do you continue a best practice, interval-led maintenance strategy regardless of frequency of use? The intent is to reduce running costs, but could you be adding unnecessary maintenance costs? Run-to-fail strategies certainly cost more. There must be a better way, but for this to happen, there needs to be a flexible supply chain.
New Financial Models. Several suppliers and OEMs in the industry are looking at options to provide their equipment based on actual usage rather than a single upfront cost. There are some similarities to a leasing solution, but leasing focuses on the amount of time you have the asset rather than the use. Outcome-based financial models charge for the actual use of the asset. These strategies are employed by aero-engine manufacturers (they have a contract for the number of hours/miles flown). These financial models require much closer collaboration between the supplier and customer, and technology helps avoid unnecessary administration costs and enables remote service options.
The latest solutions also include analytics (driven by machine learning) to assess component health, aiding maintenance activities.
Digital Transformation Potential
According to McKinsey (2016), up to 50 percent of efficiency could be gained by leveraging the potential of flexible machines, connectivity, the convergence of operational and IT technology, and data analytics. This could result in:
- A 20 to 50 percent reduction in time to market (OEMs).
- A 45 to 55 percent optimized use of expertise and know-how.
- A three to five percent increase in productivity.
- A 30 to 50 percent reduction of machine downtime.
Earlier in this article, I mentioned that the quality of a company’s employees, and how (or if) a company chooses to maximize the potential of digital solutions, would impact future viability. With an ever-changing workforce and newer styles of learning for the millennial generation, digital tools now are a must.
Also, companies must view the supply chain — furnace/oven OEMs, burner manufacturers, instrument suppliers, calibration companies, etc. — as an extension of their organization, and as part of their ecosystem of talent. To achieve digital transformation, the above requires close collaboration and connection.
Among the technologies available today, here are some available to help connect the dots.
Extended Reality Solutions. Extended reality (XR) is an umbrella term that captures all of the various forms of computer-altered reality.
Virtual reality (VR) is for complete virtual immersion. It has been used for several years within the process industries for training simulations. Typically, large oil and gas installations use virtual reality for training operators in the safe operation of process heating equipment.
Time-critical service activities required to meet regulatory requirements can be scheduled, actioned and recorded in a common platform.
Augmented reality (AR) is an overlay of computer-generated content on the real world. This technology has only recently become available in the industrial space and can be seen in several manufacturing plants worldwide. There are now some furnace and oven OEMs testing, developing and offering this type of technology.
Mixed reality (MR) is a newer term. This technology allows synthetic content to be anchored to and interacted with objects in the real world. You can think of MR as being an interactive version of AR. Applications include complex situations like medical surgery training. This type of solution is not yet available in the process heating realm.
The AR solutions that are available today for the process heating industry can digitally transform oven and furnace combustion solutions. For instance, the old user manual turns into digital real-time help. Information and training are presented immediately where needed, and any operator gaps in knowledge can be filled quickly via virtual links to experts in the wider organization and with trusted partners and suppliers.
A quick scan of the combustion system with the tablet or phone camera overlays real-time data on a view of the actual furnace system. Current status can be compared to the desired state as well as viewing any possible maintenance alerts. Videos are readily accessible and step-by-step procedures used to ensure correct maintenance activities.
Also, AR solutions can link to other digital solutions such as maintenance and support seamlessly.
Maintenance and Service Support. Edge devices are now used to easily collect data from various instruments, PLCs and smart sensors. These devices then can securely publish this information to status dashboards (via cloud protocols; HTTPS, MQTT, etc.). The information can be accessed by authorized individuals within an organization as well as by approved suppliers and service agents. The latest solutions also include analytics (driven by machine learning) to assess component health, aiding maintenance activities.
Online exhaust gas analysis can be monitored and trended so alerts can be made about the health status of the overall combustion system. Maintenance activity is performed at the lowest cost and optimum time, not too early or too late — both the latter situations causing excessive costs.
Other time-critical service activities required to meet regulatory requirements (controller calibration, etc.) can be scheduled, actioned and recorded in a common platform. Every company can optimize its use of both internal and external talent without the administration of managing multiple data islands.
In conclusion, digital solutions have recently matured to the point where they can provide significant value to process heating and combustion control solutions. The ability to use these tools to seamlessly network together internal and external talent (trusted partners) and to fast track training and understanding for the younger generations enables the organization to deliver the savings required to position this industry for future ongoing success.
Opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of Eurotherm by Schneider Electric.
1 Marr, B., (2020). Tech Trends in Practice: The 25 Technologies that are driving the 4th Industrial Revolution. Wiley.
2 U.S. Department of Energy (2007), 2nd edition. Improving Process Heating System Performance: A Sourcebook for Industry. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden, Colo.