Why switching to AC drives for plastic extrusion makes sense

Over 20 years ago DC motors and drives dominated many markets, in particular the plastics and rubber industry. The reason was simple. DC motors were the only electrical machine capable of achieving the high starting torque followed by constant torque at low speeds that typify the requirements of single and twin extruders. In fact, DC motors and drives exceed the rated torque by up to 400 percent for startup with viscous polymers. 

Early-generation AC drives, by contrast, did not provide the high starting torque necessary for an extruder. They did not provide the stable speed control required at low speed for some extrusion applications. AC drives were inefficient in the low speed ranges due to the high initiation current needed at these speeds.  Quite simply, DC motors and drives offered a degree of accuracy and reliability at an affordable price. Production lines around the world boomed with this technology.

Changing world

Such is the incredible pace of progress over the past two decades, AC motors and drives are now becoming the defacto replacement standard as old DC machines come to the end of their useful life.
The reason for replacing DC with AC is plain to see. The main costs in any plastics extrusion business are raw materials, labor and energy. At least two of these – labor and energy - are impacted by the DC motor and drive.

High maintenance

Labor manifests itself by way of maintenance costs. DC motors, especially ageing machines, require heavy maintenance. Significantly they operate using carbon brushes, which ride on a rotating commutator to form a rotary switch. This results in arcing, wear and graphite dust from the brushes, requiring annual to semi-annual maintenance. In fact, it can cost typically £35 to replace one brush and every DC motor can have 12 carbon brushes. This is needed at least twice a year. That’s £840 just on brush replacements for one motor alone.
One UK plastic pipe manufacturer, Radius Systems, located in Derbyshire, estimates that the annual static and dynamic checks, brush changes and outsourced labor, costs it about £2,000 per motor each year.
An AC motor, however, uses a very different technique which avoids brushes altogether and is generally less expensive, smaller, lighter, more rugged and, other than occasional bearing greasing, virtually maintenance-free. Maintenance alone, though, is not enough to justify changing to an AC drive.

Controlling operating cost

The biggest reason for replacing a DC drive with an AC drive is reducing the operating cost. The kilovolt-ampere (kVA) is always larger in a DC system than the equivalent AC system. For a DC drive to control motor speed, the semiconductor-controlled rectifier (SCR) has to be phased back which creates a poorer power factor at all speeds. A load with a low power factor draws more current than a load with a high power factor for the same amount of useful power transferred. The higher currents increase the energy lost in the distribution system, and require larger cables and other distribution equipment.
Because of the larger currents flowing, energy costs will be higher overall. Additionally, electrical utilities will usually add a further charge for increased kVA where there is a low power factor. In many cases the power factor charge can approach 30-40 percent of the cost for the basic kWh in plants with a very low power factor.
AC drives have an excellent fundamental power factor at all speeds, thus making them an excellent alternative to a DC controller; savings are made in the lower overall current and the kVA charges.

Energy saving potential of the actual application

But what about the potential energy savings of using AC drives in extruder applications? The extrusion process is a constant-torque application. This means that once the initial high starting torque has kick started the process by overcoming the initial forces needed to squeeze the plastics through the die head, then the actual extrusion is a slow, constant process. 

Unlike quadratic torque applications, such as pump, fans and compressors, extruders do not follow the cube-law but follow a linear relationship between speed and power, so the savings are not as dramatic but are still there to be gained.

According to Phil Nightingale, Sales Engineer with ABB’s authorized value provider, IDS: “Even half-a-percent saving on a 350 kW application, over the course of a year, accounts for a significant cost in kWh. So there is most definitely energy savings to be made.”

In fact, IDS recently fitted AC motor and drive technology to one of the extrusion lines at Radius Systems in Derbyshire. The company makes polyethylene pipes from 16 mm to 1000 mm and associated fittings used by utilities for gas and water transfer.

IDS replaced a DC system with a new AC drive and IE4 SynRM motor. The system now operates with much improved power factor and the “package” efficiency is also increased.  Significant savings are made across the whole system and are estimated to be up to 15 percent.

Rob Betts, Engineering Manager for Radius Systems explains: “To pick an exact production run that can give an accurate energy measurement is very difficult to quantify. The actual energy saving is dependent upon several process variables such as raw material type, different product ranges and profiles, the temperature at the die and the barrel and the general ambient environmental conditions. For instance, energy consumption is higher on a cold day as more energy is needed to warm up the process.”

Despite all of these variables, it is estimated that potential energy savings from the AC motor and drive will be in the range from 8 to 15 percent, with a return on investment within two years.

Environmental standards

The importance of energy saving to the plastics industry is critical. Most manufacturers have signed up to the European-wide Climate Change Agreement (CCA), and are incentivised to achieve energy targets and earn credits. For the likes of Radius Systems, a key performance indicator is the measure of kWh per kg of product produced, with a 10 percent reduction target each year. Previous projects include energy efficient lighting, new compressed air and chilled water systems. However, the extrusion process is the company’s biggest energy consumer and the company recognises the benefits offered by AC drive technology.

The next generation

Such is the rapid pace of technology that even AC motor and drive technology is now being eclipsed by the next generation, most notably the synchronous reluctance motor and drive (SynRM) package.
SynRM offers up to 40 percent more power density than conventional induction motors and can be up to two frame sizes smaller than a conventional induction motor, an important benefit for machine builders who often work with stringent space restrictions or for refurbishing existing machines.

SynRM offers the high power density of an equivalent permanent magnet motor with the robustness and significantly easier maintenance of an asynchronous squirrel-cage motor. Because the rotor runs cooler than other technologies, the bearings also run much cooler, making the motor much more reliable with much longer re-greasing intervals, making further maintenance savings.

It is also a far quieter solution, as Radius Systems found out:  “The SynRM package has given us a reduction in noise in the production hall which is a benefit we had not expected,” says Betts. “While we have not measured the noise levels, everyone has noticed a definite reduction across the plant, which in itself is a motivational measure.”

Tight fit

DC motors are internally cooled, requiring supplemental fans that need filtered air to prevent the inside of the motor from becoming fouled with particulates. AC motors are typically externally cooled, making them more suitable for the dusty environment likely in a plastics processing operation.

Furthermore, DC motors tend to be long and thin whereas AC motors tend to be shorter but bigger in diameter. The SynRM motor can be up to two frame sizes smaller than a conventional induction motor which could be a true benefit in the direct replacements of DC motors, as Radius Systems discovered: “The smaller overall size opens up significant number of applications where we can use the SynRM package,” says Betts.

Try before you buy

When considering a conversion from a DC to an AC drive the age, condition, operating speed and utility charges all should be considered. The best way to determine if AC technology is right for your applications is to carry out system monitoring beforehand. According to IDS’ Phil Nightingale: “Before and after monitoring determines the potential energy savings and confirms if the investment in an AC motor and drive will give a decent payback. Monitoring of the application is critical to the success of the installation. It allows us to accurately determine the real energy saving potential which means we can size the AC motor and drive correctly. We are often able to reduce the size of the motor and drive package required to meet the production needs.

“However, it is not as easy as simply swapping a DC motor for an AC motor. It is also important to understand the electrical interface with the existing control system. We need to remove a DC motor controller and interface with the supervisory system. We need to look at existing panel and control system drawings and make sure that the drive we install can interface seamlessly with the existing supervisory systems. This is important so that factory operatives who control the throughput to the machine see no change when production is resumed after we install an AC motor.” This is where an experienced ABB drives partner is invaluable.

Control accuracy

In a relatively short time, AC motors and drives have progressed to become the dominant force in many applications traditionally the stronghold of DC drives and have replaced them in all applications. With progress in electronics and the introduction of DTC using complex control algorithms, AC drives are now equal to or better than DC drives.
AC motors can also be controlled open loop, with accuracy and torque control never before imagined. With direct torque control (DTC), for instance, open loop control means that there is no need for a feedback device such as a tachometer or encoder, thereby saving cost on additional hardware. With an AC motor, the drives can measure the open loop speed, so the constant speed and torque control accuracy needed to extrude plastic is easily achievable.
AC drives are now so mature that all measurement and feedback variables are easily generated within the drive software.  So variables required for operator feedback of trouble shooting are available as “actual signals” displayed with full text instructions on the drive keypad.

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Rob Betts, Engineering Manager at Radius Systems

At Radius Systems, traditional DC motors powering extrusion lines are gradually being replaced with AC motors in an effort to improve energy use, lower maintenance and reduce noise.

Radius Systems, part of the Polyplastic Group of companies, designs, develops and manufactures plastic piping systems for the utilities, telecoms and construction industries.

Established in 1969, Radius Systems is the only provider to offer solutions spanning the entire pipe life cycle.

Replacing a DC system with an AC motor and a drive provides reduced operational cost by more efficient energy use with lower currents and the kVA charges.

Radius produces polyethylene pipes ranging from 16 mm to 1200 mm and fittings for use by utility companies for gas and water transfer.

Radius’ products are lightweight and simple to install, optimized for new and replacement infrastructure. The products make optimal use of materials and offer features including barrier properties, specialist application coatings and simplified jointing practices.

The SynRM motor and drive package proved as effective on the constant torque in extrusion line at Radius Systems as it is on quadratic torque in pump and fan applications.

The 200 kW IE4 SynRM motor fits neatly into the space vacated by the DC motor in the extruder.

Often the size of the motor and drive package can be reduced to meet the required production needs, according to Phil Nightingale, Sales Engineer with ABB’s authorized value provider, Inverter Drive Systems (IDS).

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