Motor Controls & Drives: Powerhouses of the Material Handling Industry

Debra Schug, Contributing Writer

As the Amazon effect takes over the distribution business, speed and innovation are truly the tenets of success in the material handling industry. Advanced automation is increasingly being tapped to keep up with consumers’ expectations of almost instant delivery. Without power transmitted, however, the modern facility is almost useless. Whether the operations employ a crane, conveyor belt or another motor-driven application, drives and controls are enabling their function. This article will take a look at these workhorses of the industrial facility.

What Drives and Controls Do

Electric motors can be considered the true heart of any operation, as numerous motors are operating at any given time to allow various pieces of equipment to perform essential duties. Motors are the largest consumers of energy in the industry and, if one fails, it can cost an operation thousands of dollars in lost productivity.

Electric motors that power industrial machines need a way to control the motor speed, and a motor drive is what controls the speed of the motor as well as the torque. There are two typical types of drives: DC and AC.

Additionally, every motor requires some type of electrical control, which can vary from a simple on/off device to more complex variable speed applications. Motor control devices include manual controllers, motor contactors and starters, drives and soft starters.

Efficient Operations and Sustainability

Consumers are changing not only their e-commerce shopping behaviors and delivery expectations, but also how they view companies from whom they purchase items. According to a recent study done by Cone Communications, 87% of respondents said they have a more positive image of a company that supports social or environmental issues. So, today having corporate social responsibility initiatives is important.

However, even if a company is not directly consumer-facing, keeping energy costs down can be attractive for the bottom line. As IHS Markit found, industrial suppliers during the economic slowdown started to pay less attention on growing market share and more attention on profitability through leaner operations, which includes investing in energy-efficient solutions.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, almost 50% of the industrial energy consumed in the U.S. is by electric motors, which translates to a lot of motors running at high speeds in industrial facilities. By controlling the speed of these motors, a significant amount of energy can be saved.

One popular method to achieving more efficient energy consumption is installing variable frequency drives (VFD), which provide speed control for AC motors that are found in equipment such as conveyors, fans, pumps and shop tools. In applications that require accurate speed control, VFDs are extremely useful, because these devices can change the motor speed to meet the exact process demand.

For instance, if a motor is running a pump at the same speed for something that is 20% full as well as 100% full, the same amount of energy is consumed. However, a VFD can slow the motor to 20% speed to match the proper amount of energy needed to be used to complete a process, which is less. Thus, VFDs stop the excessive use of energy when a motor is constantly operated at a fixed speed.

In industrial operations, more than 75% of motor-driven systems are used to run pumps, fans and compressors. When VFDs are used in these applications, the greatest return on investment can be had, according to IHS Markit, which explains the increasing adoption of VFDs for powering these three specific types of equipment.

Training on Troubleshooting

Because keeping motors running is so vital to operations, having staff that can quickly and efficiently detect a problem and then solve the issue is crucial. The maintenance department is tasked with fixing broken equipment, but often times, the personnel that make up these crews have a mechanical background and not necessarily an electrical one.

While knowing how to fix both a mechanical and electrical issue is important, mechanical problems can be a bit easier to solve, because the problem is usually visible. However, troubleshooting electrical faults tend to be more difficult, because the culprit is hidden, according to Samer Forzley, CEO of Simutech Multimedia. The company provides simulation training software for industrial maintenance and electrical professionals, so that staff can first practice in a realistic, digital environment on how to solve problems involving industrial controls and circuits, without risking injury or damage practicing on real equipment.

The company currently has seven training modules designed for electrical and maintenance staff responsible for maintaining equipment. For example, the Troubleshooting Motor Circuits module teaches how to spot and solve problems involving three-phase motor circuits. The newest module, released in 3D, provides training on industrial sensors, programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and associated devices. Another new innovation will be the new training module for VFDs, which have been requested by numerous customers, Forzley said. This is one more indicator that VFDs are increasingly being used in manufacturing plants for greater energy efficiency gains.

Smart Devices and IIOT

Because motors and drives have been around for so long, they tend to not be considered smart devices. But, with the advent of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), where all processes and equipment will be connected, drives can now be controlled remotely with the ability to capture real-time data that can be delivered instantly. This new capability can call attention to potential problems before they shut down a line. IHS Markit found that the percentage of VFDs sold with network capabilities is steadily rising in the last few years and predicts that, by 2021, 76% of all VFDs will be network-enabled.

With solutions such as Rockwell Automation’s Smart Motor Control, facility managers can now monitor the health and performance of each motor to help identify, in advance, any potential issues that could lead to motor failure. Condition monitoring solutions using IIoT devices, such as sensors, portable instruments and surveillance software, can help detect any potential equipment failures. For example, sensors can detect increased vibrations or overheating and can send an alarm to the maintenance department.

This way the maintenance on motors can be predictive rather than reactive and minimizes unplanned downtime. When unplanned downtime costs industrial businesses over $50 billion annually, according to automation solutions provider Emerson, avoiding that lost productivity is why predictive maintenance through IIoT solutions is becoming increasingly attractive. WMHS