“Why Can’t I Just Install a Dust Collection VFD?”

It’s a question we get fairly regularly.

All you need to slow down the the fan on your dust collection system is a VFD, right? So simply installing the VFD will slow down the fan and therefore save electricity, right?

Yup, that’s right – installing the VFD will slow down the fan, which will reduce its energy use. However, this will also reduce the air volume moving through the system, and thus decrease the amount of suction at all drops. Unless your existing system is dramatically oversized – more air volume than necessary, and higher air velocities than needed – this will create a health and safety hazard.

So what can you do to save money on dust collection without compromising health and safety?

High Level View of a Dust Collection System

Let’s take a quick step back to so that we can build up a more complete picture. Here’s an idealized version of a dust collection system:

Simple Dust Collection System Overview Diagram
Simple Dust Collection System Overview Diagram

Let’s assume that this system is designed well, and that if the fan is running at full speed all workstations have adequate suction. Of course, this is not always the case in practice – even in systems that are well-designed the day they are installed, machines are moved and additions over time will generally degrade performance. But for the rest of this article, let us assume that we are dealing with a well-designed, well-performing system.

The relationship between the fan power and air volume is governed by the Affinity Laws (also known as the “Fan Laws”):

The Fan Law describes the relationship between the fan power and the air volume moved by the fan.
The Fan Law describes the relationship between the fan power and the air volume moved by the fan.

When running the system at full speed, we are all the way in the top right corner of the graph: 100% fan power, and 100% air volume.

Slowing the fan down using a VFD will move our operating point down down and to the left along the curve. This is intuitive – there is no way to reduce the fan power without also reducing the air volume.

So Why Can’t I Just Add a VFD?

Now it’s obvious why just adding a VFD alone won’t be able to save any energy – it would reduce the system air volume, and thus decrease the air volume and suction at all drops. Unless your system is dramatically oversized for your machines’ requirements, this will compromise the function of the dust collection system.

OK, so in order to reduce electricity use we must also reduce the total air volume. Can we somehow reduce the total air volume without compromising system performance?

The good news is that in the vast majority of factories, not all machines actually need suction at the same time. Here’s a representative example (showing real data from a US-based furniture manufacturer) of how much different workstations are used:

Workstation utilization at a US furniture manufacturer.
Workstation utilization at a US furniture manufacturer.

This means that the vast majority of the time, the air volume that is actually required by the entire system is significantly less than the design air volume – the air volume needed when all workstations need suction at the same time.

So, to answer our previous question: YES, we can reduce the total system air volume without compromising system performance – if we can somehow direct air flow exactly to the machines that need it.

How could we do that?

Let’s Direct Air Flow

The obvious answer is to install blast gates in the ducting leading to each machine, and always open blast gates to machines that require suction while closing blast gates to machines that do not require suction.

Blast gates can be either manual or automated. Manual gates are much cheaper, but have a number of significant drawbacks that make them a bad option for most applications:

  • They require an operator to always open/close them. This takes away the operator’s time and focus from his job. Also, they are hardly ever opened and closed as intended; we have yet to see a factory equipped with manual gates that are consistently being used as designed.
  • Manual blast gates are not tied in with the rest of the system – the VFD has no idea which gates are open or closed, and therefore cannot adjust its operation accordingly. This could lead to ducting collapse or material settling in the ducting.

For these reasons, automatic blast gates lead to better results. These can be tied in with machine activity sensors that automatically detect when each machine needs suction. The end result is that blast gates to active machines are always open, while blast gates to inactive machines are closed – and the machine operators do not need to think about this at all.

Automatic dust collection blast gate
Automatic dust collection blast gate

OK, so now we have sensors and automatic blast gates that close to inactive machines. This generally reduces the system air volume on-demand, which finally lets us slow down the fan using a VFD in order to save electricity. Are we done?

Almost, but not quite. The above system doesn’t handle some situations adequately:

  • What if only one machine is on at a time? Opening only the gate to that one machine wouldn’t provide sufficient air volume and would lead to dust settling in the main duct and potentially in branch ducts as well. That’s a safety hazard.
  • What if no machines need dust collection? If all of the gates close and the fan runs, this will collapse the ducting!
  • What if a machine is being used frequently, but in short intervals? Surely we shouldn’t cycle the gate and change fan speed over and over again!

How can you make sure the system always does what it should – even when it’s nontrivial to figure that out?

You Need a Brain!

Ultimately, you need intelligence in the loop. In order to reduce electricity consumption without compromising health and safety, a control system that is aware of exactly what is going on in your dust collection system – and exactly how to respond to it in every scenario – is needed.

For the two tricky situations described above:

  • If only one workstations needs suction, the system should automatically open blast gates to additional machines so that the air volume is sufficient to maintain minimum transport velocities
  • If no machines need dust collection, the system should automatically stop then fan and dust collector. This is an additional source of electricity savings.
  • Your controller should know how machines are used. If a workstation is likely to be used within a minute of its last use, it probably makes sense to keep the gate to that workstation open during that minute.

You also need to automatically maintain minimum transport velocities through the ducting system to ensure no dust settles in the ducts.

In other words, you need a truly intelligent system – one that takes care of all of your dust collection needs automatically and that does not interfere with the machine operators’ work.

…and that’s what we’ve built!

That’s exactly what we’ve built – a completely automated control system that will make your dust collection system work better while reducing the electricity use by more than 50%.

Here’s what the complete picture looks like with Ecogate controls:

Ecogate Dust Collection System Overview
Ecogate Dust Collection System Overview

The system knows exactly what is going on in the dust collection system, and always responds appropriately. The fan starts, stops, speeds up, and slows down automatically. Gates open automatically to machines that are producing dust and close automatically to machines that do not need suction at that time. The controller directs everything such that minimum transport velocities are maintained in the system.

It’s easy to make changes through our intuitive graphical user interface – want to keep a specific gate open longer after its machine stops working? That’s a single number change. Want to know what the air velocity is at a particular machine? Just look on the screen!

These are the pieces that make it all work:

Components of an Ecogate system, including a dust collection variable frequency drive (VFD).
Components of an Ecogate system, including a dust collection variable frequency drive (VFD).

If you’re looking to make your dust collection system work better – whether it’s because you need to increase suction at certain machines or whether you’d just like to make the system more energy efficient – you can get in touch with us here.

We’d love to have one of our experts take a look at your situation and to see if and how we can help you meet your goals.

Contact us today and make your dust collection system work for you!

User Experience is Only Everything

In the summer of 2007 Drew, a recent MIT grad, started knocking on doors in Silicon Valley planning to raise money for his startup idea. The idea was for a backup and synchronization tool that would automatically store copies of your files in the cloud and let you access them from via a web browser.

One of the most common questions potential investors asked Drew was, “Why are you building another backup service?”

A number of other services providing basically the same features already existed at the time from well-established companies like Microsoft, Carbonite, Box… the list goes on. So, again, “Why are you building another backup service?”

He would respond with a question: “Well, do you use any of those services?”

Nine times out of ten, the answer was no.

“I intend to change that,” he would say.

Few people were using the other services because they were not easy to use. And, while they may have had the core features people wanted: they were not simple; they were not beautiful. Where everyone else saw a crowded market, Drew saw an opportunity.

And so Drew Houston went ahead and created anotherstorage service company, despite all of those incumbents. Today, that company – Dropbox – has over 500 million users.

Why? Because it’s easy, works automatically, and it looks good. In short, it delivers outstanding user experience – and user experience, on some level, is everything.

Checking Boxes

When envisioning new products, it’s easy to come up with a list of features that the new product needs to have. It’s critical that the developers use this feature list as a guide – but that the features themselves does not become the objective.

The objective must be focused on the user and the user’s experience – not the product. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry comes to mind:

“…perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away…”

Let’s take a look at two competing cell phones from 2008:

Device A Device B
Standard cell phone features
Instant messaging
Web browsing
Graphical User Interface
Runs applications
Music player

Based on the feature list, the two products seem equivalent – and indeed, they were seen as direct competitors by the analysts of that time.

Here is another, user-centric (and admittedly subjective) look at the two devices:

BlackBerry Curve 8310
BlackBerry Curve 8310. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BlackBerry_Curve_8310.JPG

First generation Apple iPhone. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:IPhone_1st_Gen.svg
Fun to use

The story of the market speaks clearly – Apple defined an industry while the BlackBerry faded into obsolescence:

Smartphone Market Share, 2008 - 2014. Source: http://www.businessinsider.com/chart-of-the-day-samsungs-mobile-market-share-is-tumbling-2014-11
Smartphone Market Share, 2008 – 2014. Source: http://www.businessinsider.com/chart-of-the-day-samsungs-mobile-market-share-is-tumbling-2014-11

Putting User-centered Design into practice in industrial products

This user-centered design is nothing new – but it is something often ignored, especially in the industrial space.

Somehow, companies often reach the conclusion that in the industrial space all of the human concerns – how we feel about using a product – don’t matter, and that end-users in the industrial space can somehow suspend their humanity while at work. That is, of course, naive and incorrect.

Let’s look at an example. In 2016, Ecogate introduced the greenBOX NXT, the world’s first dust collection controller with Wi-Fi built-in.

Ecogate greenBOX NXT: the world's first dust collection controller with wireless communication as standard.

“But wait,” I hear you asking, “who cares about wifi in a dust collection controller?”

Indeed, wifi seems like a gimmick.

It seems like gimmick until the first time you see someone walking around their factory and getting answers to their questions instantly. At that moment, wifi stops looking like a gimmick and starts looking like a killer benefit.

“What air velocity are we getting on Sander #3?” one might ask.

With a traditional dust collection system, the answer involves getting a drill, an air velocity meter, a manlift, navigating all of the above around the factory while everything is in production, drilling a hole into the duct, and carefully taking and averaging multiple readings. Phew!

With Ecogate, it takes about 20 seconds – pull out your phone, load the greenBOX web interface, click on the machine in question. That’s it!

Checking air velocities on the Ecogate greenBOX NXT web interface on an iPhone
Checking air velocities on the Ecogate greenBOX NXT web interface on an iPhone

Oftentimes, it’s hard to appreciate the impact that the difference between a mediocre user interface and a great interface will have on the user experience, especially if we have grown accustomed to the mediocre user experience over a period of many years.

It takes a hands-on touch – a WOW! moment – to truly drive the impact home.

Changing the dust collection experience

What would a user-centric dust collection control system mean to you?

  • What if you did not have to start and stop your dust collection system manually every day?
  • What if your dust collection system used 68% less electricity?
  • What if your factory was quieter?
  • What if you knew what air velocity you have at each machine at all times?
  • What if you could check the system status from anywhere?
  • What if you knew how much each machine on the factory floor was being used?
  • What if you had to change your filter bags half as often?
  • What if you could increase the capacity of your existing dust collection system – without changing the dust collector or the ducting?
  • What if your system automatically adjusted itself when you installed additional machines?
  • What if you received emails from your system with whatever needed your attention?

When you are ready to explore those questions, we will be ready to talk to you.

Here’s to a Happy and Successful 2018!

From all of us here at Ecogate, we’d like to thank all of you sincerely for your continued support in 2017. We wouldn’t be here because of you, and we look forward to continuing to solve your needs in 2018.

In 2018, we will continue to improve our state-of-the-art industrial ventilation products with one overarching purpose in mind: to make life better for you, our customers. The industrial ventilation space isn’t known for a user-centered approach – and we intend to change that.

To a happy and productive 2018!

Your friends at Ecogate