Energy-Saving Mechanicals for Machine Automation

A New Analysis From Frost & Sullivan is a Reminder That There Are Lots of Other Ways to Affect Energy Consumption

By Joe Feeley

We frequently discuss issues around the theme of sustainability that confront the machine automation universe. How to build an energy-efficient machine clearly is part of it, and this month's cover story (p. 30) delves into exactly that.

We normally think of the energy-saving efforts being aimed exclusively at using super-premium motors; variable-frequency electronic drives, which might include regenerative brakes; and operating cycle programs that include sleep or hibernate states, among others.

You know, all the cool electronic stuff.

It took a new analysis from Frost & Sullivan to remind me that there are lots of other ways to affect energy consumption.

The company's Strategic Analysis of Global Belt Drives and Chain Drives Market reports that governments, especially in Europe and North America, have mandated that industrial equipment conform to regional regulations. This, say the analysts, "has sprung belt drives and chain drives to prominence, as they are highly cost-effective and energy efficient modes of power transmission."

The report says, "While replacement sales are keeping the mature market afloat on the one hand, the restricted scope for innovation hinders market growth on the other. This is a significant issue, as the rising energy cost is creating a demand for power-efficient solutions. While belt drives and chain drives are some of the most energy- efficient systems, they are in danger of being phased out by a number of alternate advanced power transmission systems such as variable-frequency drives (VFDs)."

Read more: Energy Efficiency Measures Manufacturers Should Consider With Respect to Drive Technology

Belt and chain drives are on the verge of reaching saturation "when it comes to technologies, and that restricts manufacturers' opportunities to develop new products," notes Frost analyst Guru Mahesh. "Additionally, alternate technologies such as VFDs and electric drives are highly efficient and offer higher energy savings, enabling them to eat into the market for belt drives and chain drives."

Belt drive and chain drive manufacturers are investing significantly in R&D.

But at present, the application scope for the advanced power transmission systems such as VFD is limited, the analyst says, though likely to broaden. "Recognizing this, belt drives and chain drives manufacturers are investing significantly in R&D to develop cost-effective solutions that are also energy-efficient."

He points to synchronous belts as an application example. "This solution is witnessing visible transformation in terms of technology, which is likely to boost its demand in the long term. Nevertheless, the simplicity, lower costs and easy availability of belt and chain drives are expected to give them a competitive edge over VFDs."

The report points to improvements in the design of belts and to the use of lubrication in chains that have extended the life of these products, but their improper use and lack of regular maintenance have necessitated replacements.

Good-old, dependable mechanicals. It's always a mistake to overlook them.