A turn of speed

The global application of drives is spreading as they come down in price, become easier to integrate and, more importantly, save money. Colin Carter reports.


The surge in the use of drives is now a worldwide phenomenon — in the consumer world as well as in industry. One example is the ability to adjust the position of car seats at the touch of a button.

Last year IMS Research reported consecutive years of strong growth, although the latest figures are awaited with interest. Production is on the move and drives companies are responding. For example, Finland’s Vacon Drives has announced strategic initiatives to enter the south-east Asian, Russian and Indian markets in recognition of these areas’ manufacturing growth.

This is reflected in the associated growth of many drives manufacturers. For example, a Siemens report at the tail end of last year noted that the Automation and Drives division continued to be one of the most profitable across the company, and reported a 24 per cent increase in sales over the previous year.

So what is driving this growth? in a nutshell, cost savings on the bottom line. And these savings can be vast. by applying variable speed drives to pumps, fans and compressors so they don’t run ‘flat out’ when not required to, enormous amounts of energy can potentially be saved.

It’s so obvious even the decision-makers at the EU have picked up on it with the European Motor Challenge Programme.

As an example of the scale of the possible savings, Bo Andersson of Sweden’s drives manufacturer Emotron estimates that motor-driven systems today account for two thirds of Swedish industry’s energy consumption. So the potential is huge.

The emphasis on the bottom line is also a theme in pushing forward greater automation to reduce costs to allow manufacturers in the UK and Europe to compete with the developing regions of the world.

Brian Holliday, general manager for industrial automation at Siemens Automation and Drives, said: ‘the emergence of the ISA S95 standard-based manufacturing execution systems (MES) has advanced the benefits of positively linking the advantages of engineering technology to the bottom line.’

It will be interesting to see how this manifests itself in the uptake of the use of components such as drives when the standard becomes widely adopted (as the re-named ISA-95).

Cost reduction is also a key selling point for manufacturers. For example, Schneider Electric’s Telemecanique brand has recently launched the Altivar 21 range of variable speed drives where the emphasis is firmly on the energy cost savings possible when employing them in heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) applications.

Another reason for the surge in the market is increased interoperability. It seems a long time ago that components such as drives were offered with connectivity to only one type of bus — especially in the early days of fieldbus, when manufacturers seemed to only offer versions compatible either with Profibus or Foundation Fieldbus.

Fortunately, with fieldbus sitting on top of ethernet and the advent of wireless as an industry solution over the last few years, specifiers now can choose equipment from all comers.

To highlight this, recent product launches have included a Profibus option available for the 650V drive series from Parker SSD — formed when Parker-Hannifin took over SSD Drives, formerly Eurotherm.

Baldor has launched a three-phase AC motor drive with ethernet Powerlink and TCP/IP connectivity, and ABB Automation has announced it is to develop the most adaptable drive available suitable for a multitude of motors. The company claims it will be compatible with all the major fieldbuses.

The application of drives is spreading as they become cheaper, easier to integrate and, more importantly, save money.

For example the installation of Lenze servo motor drive (SMD) inverters to pumps returning heated water to the swimming pool at the Coventry Sports Centre is claimed to have saved over 50 per cent of the considerable cost of running the pumps.

The inverters replaced a simple on/off system for the three pumps used and they now operate at something like 100 per cent loading for maximum efficiency.

Another sports-related use is in the ball-retrieving mechanisms and target controls that are used at Kevin Keegan’s Soccer Circus attraction at the Xscape centre in Braehead, near Glasgow.

Here, a total of 28 Control Techniques’ Unidrive SP drives are employed to load footballs on to conveyors for delivery to the players during the games. One of these consists of targets in the shape of full-size models of footballers that can be ‘removed’ by kicking the ball at the appropriate part of the target, the control system of which uses a number of the drives.

In a completely different field, ABB drives and controllers are being employed at mining company Imerys’ Karslake Superpit in St Austell, Cornwall. The kaolin clay mineral mine has been updated so there is a high degree of automation.

This includes seven variable speed drives controlling primary gravel pumps and five UMC22 motor controllers to control winches that adjust height pipe according to the slurry level. One of the features of these controllers is that they can integrate both with the mine’s DeviceNet and Profibus networks.

Meanwhile huge energy savings have been claimed for the installation of Danfoss variable speed drives to control air handling units at Belfast International Airport. Twenty-eight of the company’s VLT6000 HVAC drives are now installed on the airport’s air handling fans as part of the air conditioning system.

It is expected that the annual energy savings will exceed one million kWh, with an estimated cost saving of over £60,000. At this rate the upgrade is expected to pay for itself within a year.

With the above examples showing some of the breadth of areas where drives are saving money, energy and bringing bottom-line benefits, it’s not hard to see why sales are on the up all over the world.