Reinvention and recalibration through energy efficiency

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It’s easy to see why energy efficiency hasn’t been a top-line priority for many of Australia’s manufacturers.

When energy accounts for just a small proportion of a manufacturer’s costs, energy savings aren’t always a compelling reason for investment in efficiency.

But as global megatrends – from digital transformation to climate change – reshape the way business operates, a smart approach to energy management can help Australian manufacturers reposition themselves for success.

“These megatrends are aligning with technology development in Australia to provide new opportunities for business growth,” says Jennifer Conley, executive director of the Australian Advanced Manufacturing Council.

“While the resource boom is retreating and the automotive industry is in decline, advanced manufacturing is expanding in Australia – and this high-value manufacturing aligns neatly with energy efficiency goals,” Conley adds.

The global market for smart energy products and services is currently worth more than $290 billion annually – and it’s growing rapidly. Just one per cent of this market would inject billions of dollars into Australia’s economy and create thousands of jobs.

Advanced manufacturing is not a sector but “a series of characteristics”, Conley says, that include global orientation and high-value differentiated products or processes.

“It’s high R&D and knowledge-rich, and tends to have highly-paid, well-educated employees, particularly scientists and engineers,” she explains.

And the intersection of high-technology and energy efficiency is an emerging sweet spot, Conley says, and she has plenty of examples to illustrate the point.

Carbon Revolution in Geelong is manufacturing one-piece carbon fibre wheels – the most technically-advanced wheels on the planet. Because carbon fibre weighs 40 per cent less than the aluminium equivalent, it reduces fuel consumption and cuts the carbon emissions generated by cars such as the latest Ford GT.

Adelaide-based Seeley, an air-conditioning manufacturer, has developed an energy-saving evaporative cooling product that is 80 per cent more efficient than its competitors, Conley explains.

And from its Ballarat headquarters, Gekko Systems has developed a low-emissions gold processing solution that is being sold throughout the world.

“These companies have recognised that energy efficiency can present both business and environmental benefits,” Conley explains.

While Conley looks at energy efficiency as an opportunity for Australian companies to break into new markets, manufacturers can also embrace energy efficiency to become ‘match fit’ for the competitive 21st century economy. Energy efficiency opportunities don’t require business reinvention. In many cases, small adjustments to existing systems can deliver big benefits.

As engineering manager at energy consultancy Genesis Now, Geoff Andrews has analysed and implemented thousands of energy efficiency projects over 25 years.

He says manufacturers tend to see energy efficiency measures “as important but not urgent”, while “unacceptable noise levels, safety concerns or equipment that is running out of capacity or can’t be maintained can make energy efficiency an urgent issue”.

Andrews says his team looks at projects that can tackle the urgent concerns, while also delivering the co-benefits of energy efficiency. Andrews says his work at a tomato sauce factory is a good example.

“We were called in because the factory was running out of steam,” he says. The factory team and head office had agreed that an additional boiler was needed, but they couldn’t agree on the capacity required.

“Either way, it was going to be more than a $1 million dollar spend. We found the capacity problem arose from cooking the tomatoes in seven minutes when they could be cooked in 15 minutes – the cycle time for the remaining processes. By adjusting the controls, we were able to reduce average steam demand to well below the capacity of the existing boilers, so they didn’t need an extra one.” Boiler efficiency also improved.

Impressed, the company asked Andrews to sniff around for other energy efficiency improvements, and by introducing further efficiency improvement, such as replacing a steam jet vacuum with an electric vacuum pump, the factory “went from needing an extra boiler to having one spare. That’s what energy efficiency can deliver,” he says.

Andrews advises companies to start looking for opportunities by examining the data they already have at their fingertips, rather than start by generating more data.

“Review your production data and look for correlations. Are you using electricity in the middle of the night when the factory is closed? Does your energy consumption go up in line with the production of more widgets? Look for patterns,” he advises.

The multiple benefits that a manufacturer can get from an energy efficiency process are immense, Andrews says, which is why a good consultant will look for ‘multi-factorial productivity’ opportunities. When resource, process and energy efficiency can all be enhanced they often provide a more compelling reason for a manufacturer to act than reducing energy use would on its own.

“It may be an improvement to product yield, the image that they are presenting to their own staff, the quality of the working environment, the continuity of supply, or their ability to reduce safety or noise risks.”

Conley says the world’s transition to a low-carbon economy presents many opportunities for Australia and she’s optimistic about the future.

“As a high-cost, advanced economy, we can’t compete with the old smoke stack, rust bucket industries. But as our companies progressively move into advanced manufacturing, we’re building industries that can compete globally, create high-value returns and do their bit to reduce global carbon emissions.”

Sydney will host the National Energy Efficiency Conference from 15-16 November.
Tickets are available at: http://www.eec.org.au/NEEC16

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