Companies benefit from energy efficiency wizardry

More efficient use of energy can save companies money and make an important contribution to reducing global warming. To achieve these savings, the ITEA Cluster project SPEAR involving 22 international partners and led by southwest German software developer, Let’s Dev, has created and tested an algorithm to assess the sum of a company’s energy usage by looking at all individual devices. It can also suggest sustainable energy savings and ways to use more renewable sources like solar and wind energy.

Equipping companies for a green energy transition

Energy prices have soared recently, but the need for companies to improve their energy efficiency was already clear from the ambitious targets set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Described as "one of the world’s most powerful tools for combating climate change", energy efficiency may hold the key to a more sustainable future.

One international research team has been completely focused on this powerful tool and has developed software to help companies of all sizes make the kind of incremental savings in their energy bills that could help them boost productivity and become greener enterprises.

The developers realised that part of the problem with improving energy efficiency was the difficulty of assessing the precise energy consumption of individual appliances. “An electricity meter measures the energy used in a complete production system or whole building, but it doesn’t show you the detailed use of its individual components, like the different robots in a factory,” explains Anton Strahilov, head of research at German software developer Let’s Dev.

With a team, he set out to create software to offer a detailed assessment of individual components within a larger system to suggest improvements to energy use. The result was an energy optimisation platform, SPEAR, delivered by 22 partner organisations as part of an international R&D project.

Production simulations to find savings

The software’s algorithms simulate a production system in any kind of company and evaluate the components using energy. Then, it models efficiency improvements and ways to use more renewable energy. The developers opted for a freely available library of computer models of devices, called Functional Mockup Interface (FMI), rather than expensive real measurements collected by sensors.

“We wanted to promote standardisation so the software would be cheaper and suitable for all companies,” said Alejandro Cardenas, Expert Development Engineer at Germany technology firm TWT Science and Innovation.

The team was able to test and validate their computer models of energy systems thanks to the presence of differently sized companies and industries collaborating on their R&D project; partners were from Germany, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Türkiye. They ran case studies at the factories of German car manufacturer Daimler and the industrial giant FFT, as well as at a 40-square-metre bakery in Madrid.

Timing is everything… and it saves money

In the bakery, the developers modelled how to run the ovens early in the morning and at a high temperature, while reducing peak-time energy use. Meanwhile, in the car factories, they looked at individual robots, conveyor belts and other energy outputs, such as the lights. “Whether a large or small company, the question is still the same: can we turn anything on at a different time or slow anything down to reduce energy consumption?” explains Strahilov.

“Are there opportunities if we shift any processes to periods when we know there is more available wind or solar energy?” – Strahilov

At Volvo’s car plant just outside Gothenburg in Sweden, the researchers studied the movements of Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV): robots that work together to make car parts. Simulations on the SPEAR platform allowed the researchers to adjust the speed of some of the robots that had to wait for another robot to pick up the relay on a task. That change to the production process led to a 12 percent energy reduction.

And in a test at the German manufacturer FFT’s plant in Fulda, engineers minimised the acceleration and speed of robots (following the same robot pathways and maintaining the amount of time it takes to complete the whole process) saving 25 percent on the energy used by one robot.

From digital twins to twin transition

The secret to developing these energy-optimisation algorithms lay in creating “digital twins” for devices: a virtual data model of a component in a production system. A business can add an extra “twin” to the energy simulations (like new machines) regardless of the manufacturer.

“Our approach means companies won’t need to invest in numerous sensors to record the energy consumption of individual machines. It’s also scalable.” - Strahilov
The optimisation energy platform runs on inexpensive hardware and the product also offers an embedded hardware-in-the-loop simulation, a solution that can run in real time alongside the actual production system to further refine the algorithm’s calculations.

The developers also successfully tested prototypes for the web and a cloud-based application suitable for startups and SMEs. A dashboard displays the current and expected weather, a crucial factor affecting the availability of renewables, calculating the current energy price and making forecasts about energy prices. Companies can then optimise the calculations by adding specifics, like the duration of their production process.

A sustainable energy future for companies

The partners are optimistic that their software can be commercialised relatively soon and they are analysing whether to sell it through a software licence or a cloud-based subscription service. The time is right for this product to hit the market since energy efficiency is now a major priority.

In June, ministers and major industry players will meet in Paris at the International Energy Agency’s Annual Global Conference on energy efficiency to discuss, among other topics, how digitalisation can help tackle today’s energy challenges. Solutions like Let’s Dev’s digital twins and energy optimisation platform, SPEAR, are a prime example of software tackling energy efficiency in action.

Let's Dev and the SPEAR project won Eureka's Best Sustainability Innovation award in 2022.
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Posted 4 May 23