Akin to power generators, air compressors are the silent, unappreciated supporters of the industry. Compressors’ breadth spans rudimentary mechanic shops powered by decade’s old reciprocating compressors to large-scale vertically integrated textile units powered by high volume centrifugal compressors. The basic technology is simple. Powered pistons, screws, or impellers compress a volume of atmospheric air to a required pressure for an application. As industries have evolved, so to have the design and use of compressed air systems. Specifically, manufacturers have worked to overcome the fundamental inefficiencies of delivering compressed air and to simplify the application experience.
Compressed air is inefficient. Fossil fuels, for instance, are more efficient in getting work done for the same unit of energy. However, compressed air is amongst the best sources to safely store and use energy. Thus, compressed air has remained a prevalent energy source for industry. Manufacturers have innovated to reduce lifecycle cost, improve reliability, and improve the quality of the air delivered.
Lifecycle cost comprises the initial compressor cost, energy consumption, and maintenance cost incurred typically over a ten-year period. Customers often ignore energy and maintenance, as they are not overt costs. Consider rotary screw compressors, to address energy consumption, manufacturers have sought to improve efficiency across the compressors’ components. The leading manufacturers have proprietary designs for the “Airend” or heart of the screw compressor where compression occurs. As an example, ELGi’s Axis Airends in its Global Series screw compressors utilize larger diameter rotors running at lower speeds to improve volumetric efficiency and thus energy consumption. Manufacturers also offer multiple motor standards from IE1 to IE4 for lower energy consumption. Innovations also extend to other energy drawing components such as the gears connecting the compressor to the motor. To minimize transmission losses, Kaeser does not employ gears from the Airend to the motor and their product configuration dictates a specific Airend size for each kilowatt, which allows for high efficiency between the motor and the Airend.
Regarding maintenance, the migration from mineral oil to synthetic oil for lubrication, sealing, and cooling have dramatically increased maintenance intervals. However, the bigger shift is to oil-free compressors. Oil-free compressors provide oil-free air, reducing the time, cost of maintenance, and being lighter on the environment. However, oil-free machines are more expensive and less efficient than oil-lubricated machines, which limits their use to oil-free air critical industries such as food and pharmaceuticals. Manufacturers are working to close the cost and efficiency gap.
The biggest changes will accrue to how customers purchase and use compressors. Western markets such as Europe, Australia, and the USA are more mature consumer markets than India. Customers in these markets have evolved to value lifecycle cost as opposed to just upfront prices. Distributors in western markets have the technical expertise and skill to propose compressed air solutions as opposed to merely selling machines. Manufacturers in India will need to lead the initiative in changing the conversations with customers. Today, customers purchase compressors by comparing specific models on air delivered, power consumed, cost of spares, and warranty. Customers may soon migrate to requesting solutions for a volume of air delivered at a certain pressure along with a monthly budget. Rather than buying a machine, customers will pay for compressed air akin to a monthly electricity bill. The manufacturer will determine the right model to fit the requirements and be profitable within the customers’ budget. Data will play a big role in this transition. Customers no longer need to worry about buying the right compressor for their requirement or about the need to have an in-house maintenance team to troubleshoot their equipment. Buying air also addresses the often-ignored downtime cost, which is the cost accrued from lost production owing to a downed compressor. Under the operational model, the onus will be on the manufacturers to ensure a steady supply of air. As with all industries, changing customer needs will drive the biggest changes. Manufacturers that invest in recognizing these transitions will be better placed to serve customers.
Anvar Jay Varadaraj is the head of Marketing and Corporate Communication at ELGi Equipments.