Edible oils are an essential source of nutrition for people around the world. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, vegetable oil accounts for approximately 10% of the global average caloric food supply. This means that it is second only to cereals in importance.
Unfortunately, like other manufacturing sectors, the edible oil sector faces several challenges. Rising energy prices and increasing raw material costs, combined with changes in seasonal demand, regulation, and geopolitical events, have placed producers’ margins at risk. At the same time, the demand for edible oils is increasing, partly due to interest in using them as a biofuel.
To ensure that edible oil manufacturers can continue operating in this challenging and cost-sensitive environment, they must identify opportunities to improve the productivity and reliability of production processes.
Specifically, they must focus on bolstering efficiency, control and automation. By applying the right technology to the production process, manufacturers can reduce energy use, minimize downtime, and ensure that facilities are safe and compliant with regulation.
Greater energy efficiency, higher savings
Producing edible oils is a complex, multistage process. It requires precise equipment to ensure that the product meets high standards and is safe for human consumption. Many types of equipment that the sector depends on – such as sterilizers, presses, centrifuges, and boilers – are also very energy intensive.
Electricity is typically the top operating expense for edible oil manufacturers. As energy prices rise, maintaining profitability depends on choosing energy-efficient equipment. Electric motors present a significant opportunity to increase energy efficiency, since many facilities still use old low-efficiency motors.
The European International Efficiency (IE) class is used in Europe, China, and several other countries to describe motor efficiency. A higher IE rating means that a motor is more efficient. Each IE number represents a 20% decrease in losses over the previous number. For example, IE4 motors have 20% lower losses than IE3 motors. Many edible oil facilities still use IE2 or IE3 motors, while the most efficient class available today is IE5.
Switching from an existing IE3 motor to a new model, such as an IE5 synchronous reluctance (SynRM) motor-drive package, can cut a piece of equipment’s energy consumption by 40% in some cases. Due to high electricity prices, an investment in a more efficient motor can effectively pay for itself in months. In most applications, efficient modern motors are drop-in replacements for older models.
Even when not using SynRM technology, very significant energy savings are possible by pairing existing motors with a variable speed drive (VSD). Without a drive, motors run at full speed all the time, and operators control the output by throttling them. This wastes energy – it’s like controlling a car’s speed using the brakes while keeping your foot on the accelerator pedal.
A VSD actively regulates a motor’s speed and torque. Any time the motor is not running at maximum speed, it uses less energy. This is particularly significant as the power consumed by a motor is proportional to the cube of its speed – slowing a motor by just 20% can reduce its energy use by around half. Historically, investment in a VSD has typically paid for itself in one to two years, but – as with more efficient motors – high energy prices have significantly reduced the payback period.
VSDs also offer operators the ability to control motors precisely. For example, in pumping operations, VSDs can be adjusted to ensure that they match the pump’s best efficiency point (BEP). Modern drives also provide real-time data on energy use and motor speed, enabling operators to maintain product quality.
Another energy efficiency consideration for edible oil manufacturers is harmonic distortion – sometimes referred to as “electrical pollution.” Non-linear loads from electrical equipment on the network can cause significant deviations from the expected current and voltage. This means energy is lost on the network rather than being put toward useful work. An unstable power network can also result in premature equipment failure.
While drives significantly improve energy efficiency, they can introduce harmonics. Facilities often try to overcome harmonics by over-specifying electrical equipment, such as cables and transformers, but this is expensive and unnecessary. A better solution is to address the problems associated with harmonics at the source by selecting ultra-low harmonic (ULH) drives.
Smarter control and maintenance
In addition to using less energy to perform the same work, modern motors and drives also offer advantages in terms of connectivity. Many motors and drives include built-in sensors that can be connected to a facility’s network for ease of control and monitoring. When combined with programmable logic controllers (PLCs), equipment can be set to adjust itself automatically to ensure that it runs at peak performance.
Operators can use data from edible oil machinery for a range of purposes, such as reviewing energy usage data to identify which systems consume the most power. They can then take action to determine the root cause – such as oversized or low-efficiency components – and address them, saving the facility money in the long term. Meanwhile, cloud connectivity enables operators to securely maintain real-time visibility and control from any location. This proved particularly important during the Covid-19 pandemic, as lockdowns made it difficult for staff to work on site.
Rich data also enables a smarter approach to maintenance. When condition monitoring detects that a parameter – such as bearing operating temperature – has exceeded the limits set by the operator, it can send an alert through the cloud platform. This enables the operator to make a fully informed decision on whether an immediate intervention is required or if the equipment can be run at a lower load until the next scheduled maintenance interval. Rather than experiencing unexpected downtime due to a sudden machine failure, operators can identify and address potential issues during scheduled downtime. Predictive maintenance is cheaper in terms of downtime, labor, and potential waste from product contamination.
Ensuring safety and compliance
Edible oil is a consumer product, so it is subject to strict safety standards. It can be challenging for facilities to balance the need for hygiene with the rapid pace of production. However, this is possible by selecting the right drives (such as ABBs industrial, general purpose and machinery drives), motors (such as ABB SynRM motors), PLCs (such as ABBs AC500) , and services and adhering to best practices.
Facilities must specify appropriate equipment for the operating environment. In high-pressure and heated environments, for example, standard components may pose a safety hazard. Fortunately, manufacturers offer equipment designed specifically for these challenging operating environments.
A facility can also be made safer by ensuring equipment runs as precisely and efficiently as possible. The high reliability of modern solutions, such as SynRM motors, and greater automation reduce the amount of unnecessary manual intervention, reducing the risk of accidents.
Technology in action
Refining is a key step in producing edible oil, as it removes impurities. A typical cooling tower – which is used to separate out oil for different applications – uses a large amount of electricity. While it does depend on the nature of each individual operation, anywhere from 20 to 40% of a plant’s total electricity consumption could go towards the cooling tower alone.
At most plants, the motors that provide power to the cooling tower fans are not paired with a drive. This means that they operate constantly at top speed and do not adjust their performance to suit the process or based on the ambient temperature or humidity. As a result, they consume electricity unnecessarily and provide limited control over the process.
By switching from IE3 motors to IE5 SynRM motor-drive packages to power the fans and pumps in the cooling tower, it is possible to cut electricity consumption by approximately 40%. In turn, this reduces the plant’s total consumption by 16%, resulting in significant savings.
Adopting modern motor technology also improves the quality of the output. The fans can be controlled through a closed loop based on the sump or return header to ensure that they are always running at the optimal speed.
Another key piece of equipment in edible oil processing is the horizontal decanter, which uses centrifugal force to separate solids from liquids. It consists of a rotating cylindrical “bowl” and a screw conveyor.
It takes a long time to spin the horizontal decanter up and it is rarely shut down when in operation. Many facilities use motors without drives and control their speed using throttling. This does not provide a high degree of precision and introduces potential safety issues.
A better solution is to pair the motors with a drive. In addition to electricity savings, drives provide precise motor control and continuous operation over a short power loss, which contributes to a higher-quality product and longer mechanical lifetime for the motors.
A VSD also offers a better approach to the machine’s high-torque startup, as it provides smooth acceleration. In terms of safety, drives also offer significant benefits. Drives monitor the speed of the motor continuously and add features like overspeed protection, safe torque off, and options for braking.
The edible oil industry currently faces several challenges. Some issues are new, some have been around for years; some are temporary, and some are part of a larger trend. Addressing all these issues and ensuring that the sector can remain in business requires a focus on the big picture.
Operators must consider the total cost of ownership (TCO) and operating expenses, not just up-front costs, and make decisions that make sense in the long term. Those which do will be able to weather today’s challenges and thrive tomorrow.
For more information, visit: https://new.abb.com/food-beverage
Brith Isaksson, Global Food and Beverage Segment Manager, ABB
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