Monday 10th May, 2021

Schaeffler’s automated future in the new normal

The COVID-19 lockdown has forced many companies to change how they do business, leading to a rise in automated technology and Industry 4.0 practices. ABHR speaks to Schaeffler Australia to learn how bearings are involved in this digital transformation.

The COVID-19 lockdown has forced many companies to change how they do business, leading to a rise in automated technology and Industry 4.0 practices. ABHR speaks to Schaeffler Australia to learn how bearings are involved in this digital transformation.

The basics of bearing design have changed gradually over the past hundred years, but recent advances in material technology have allowed for increasingly durable and reliable designs.

Chris Lane, Global Mining Solutions Manager at Schaeffler, says the next step forward in the field of bearing design is embracing the Internet of Things and Industry 4.0.

“Automation isn’t new, what’s new is how accessible it has become. The price of automating a site has dropped considerably and the technology is easy to use, often simply an app on someone’s phone,” he says.

“Digitalisation is the next stage of bearing design. We’re now able to integrate sensors that measure the speed, torque, wear and more into the bearing itself, along with other features such as smart lubrication.”

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These smart bearings collect and transfer data using the internet to cloud-based computers. When the data is uploaded to the cloud, a machine-learning algorithm uses the sensor data and combines it with Schaeffler’s expansive amount of historical data that has been built up over years. The algorithm then analyses the information to make predictions about potential problems and can alert staff weeks before the issue would have been noticed by a human.

Lane says some of the most common causes of bearing failure come from impact damage and lubrication failure. With smart bearings, these problems can be detected through vibration data and fixed as early as possible.

With more information on hand, unscheduled downtime can be avoided and reduced significantly. If a fault is detected before it becomes a critical issue, there is more time to procure replacement parts, schedule a time for the repair to take place, generate permits and arrange for training if necessary. The old parts can be collected and sent back to the manufacturer for repair, refurbishment, recycling or a refund.

According to Tony Dintino, Schaeffler’s Regional Manager – East, this agility has a major effect on an operation’s profitability.

“The cost of downtime is expensive. If a machine fails, it can cost operations up to $30,000 an hour. If that site is down for eight hours, that adds up to a lot of money,” he says. “The cost of downtime and servicing high outweighs that of high quality and reliable equipment.”

“Schaeffler has built up a reputation based on the reliable nature of its products, acting as a premium brand and using high-end materials and engineering.”

There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to finding the right bearing for the job. For this reason, Schaeffler works closely with its customers to understand the asset.

As with any relationship, trust and communication are vital. This is why Schaeffler’s engineering specialists work alongside clients to build a long-term partnership.

Lane says the biggest limitations now are no longer technical, they’re human.

“There is always a resistance when it comes to new ways of doing things. Humans don’t tend to like change – they like to have something constant. But acceptance of automation and new technology has accelerated significantly, especially as a result of COVID-19,” he says.

“We’ve been working with many partners during this period to help modernise their facilities and have proven we can detect faults with rotating machinery through our experience with bearings. Things are being done now that were once not economically possible.”

Lane compares the change to prospecting, “while it’s possible to go out into the bush with a couple of hand drawn maps instead of a satellite phone and a GPS, you’re less likely to find the gold.”

“Companies are realising if they don’t modernise, they’ll be left behind by the competition who are becoming more competitive, using less energy and reducing their risks,” he says.

The benefits or predictive maintenance can be considerable, with many sites that partner with Schaeffler for automation seeing a 50 per cent reduction in operating costs and a 40 per cent improvement in product quality.

In addition, because the cloud-based technology is not limited to hardware, modernising a plant is highly scalable – it doesn’t matter if there are 100 sensors or 10,000, the system can handle it all. If a mine site doesn’t have good access to the internet, it is also possible to process the data locally to send less data off site.

Dintino says that this Industry 4.0 approach has made it easier for Schaeffler to stay in contact with its customers during the COVID-19 lockdown, communicating remotely with Skype and Microsoft Teams to assist with online and offline monitoring.

“We do a lot of offline monitoring
in Tasmania, but the person who usually handles that is in Victoria. By offering them remote monitoring, they’ve been able to keep themselves informed about their site while visits aren’t an option,” he says.

Schaeffler has also increased its market share and improved engagement with customers through a series of webinars.

“The bulk handling sector is embracing Industry 4.0, and we’ll continue to work closely with them to have the technology and the products to support this,” Dintino says.