By Eamonn Ryan
Over the last 10-15 years, electronics have played a large and growing role in the R&D of the tooling industry, aimed at driving efficiency improvements.
HVAC and refrigeration systems consume a significant amount of energy. As a result, there is a growing need for tools and tooling that can improve the energy efficiency of these systems. Some examples include variable frequency drives, smart controls, and high-efficiency compressors.
Many of the refrigerants used are harmful to the environment, emphasising the need for tools and tooling that can safely recover and recycle these refrigerants. Some examples include refrigerant recovery machines, refrigerant leak detectors and refrigerant analysers.
Systems also require regular maintenance and repairs to operate effectively. Fortunately, R&D is producing a wealth of devices that can diagnose problems quickly and accurately, as well as tools that can make repairs more efficient. To get the best out of such systems requires training, without which systems can also pose health and safety risks to workers and building occupants.
Tooling technology advances
Over the last 10-15 years, electronics have played a large and growing role in the R&D of the tooling industry, aimed at driving efficiency improvements. Much of it revolves around the evolution of electronics in the control systems of plant, says Eurocool managing director Rodney Taylor.
“A key driver of efficiency is the development and evolution of variable speed motor technology and DC-type induction motors, which were unheard of 15 years ago,” he adds. “There has been a momentous step forward in the technology of the electronic expansion valve and the driver, compared to the old standard thermostatic expansion valve. That’s the device that controls the flow of refrigerant through the circuit. The old thermostatic valve relied on sensing the temperature of the gases coming out of an evaporator and it would use the changing of the temperature to regulate the opening of an orifice on the inlet side of the evaporator to regulate the flow. Electronic expansion valves sense both the pressure and the temperature on the discharge sight and use the pressure temperature relationship of the refrigerant to modulate the valve opening and closing so it can track a given superheat far more accurately.
Taylor explains that built into that is a growing amount of predictive AI, which is the next logical step in this technological evolution. “The newer, more sophisticated electronic controllers connect and reside in the refrigeration cabinets in supermarkets, or on the rack of a plant room, connected to a single management system. This functions by the management system over time getting to know the idiosyncrasies of a particular plant to the point where it can predict and eventually anticipate whether something will go wrong. We’re seeing this across most of the electronic controls that producers are offering these days.”
He lists the advantages of technology from a service and diagnostic point of view: “The bulk of these devices record the ongoing performance of the plant. If there’s a failure, there’s a record of what led to it. You can then diagnose and prevent it from happening again. From a contractor point of view, by interrogating the information remotely they can interpret what’s wrong and where, before sending a technician to site. This saves considerable time and effort, as the technician can arrive with the correct tools and spares, and knows exactly where to go.”
Because these devices are smart and complex, involving internet connections and protocols, technicians are required to be trained on their use to get the best out of them. Taylor says he believes that inadequate training means many such systems are underutilised with a lot more benefit available to be exploited if there were better training.
A less dramatic but arguably more practical benefit of advances in tool technology, he says, is the improvement in the quality of simple hand tools commonly used when working on a plant. “We’ve seen some highly advanced digital manifold sets come to market in recent years. The old sets were seldom calibrated and used to get rough treatment, becoming less and less accurate. The new digital tooling – such as vacuum gauges – have made work more accurate. That’s become a necessity with advances in blended refrigerants which are more difficult to work with than pure refrigerants. For instance, they have a glide built in which needs to be taken into account.”
Much of this R&D applies equally to HVAC and refrigeration. “For instance, monitoring systems are now starting to incorporate air conditioning and refrigeration together, working in tandem, whereas they were regarded as separate entities previously.
“The drive to natural refrigerants is ongoing and is already here in South Africa with some of the larger supermarkets already having multiple CO2 store installations, and even some independent supermarket chains. We also have a number of transcritical CO2 systems in the country, which is at the leading edge of CO2 technology with parallel compression and other technologies. South Africa is quite advanced in that respect. It is the advances in tooling electronics that is enabling this natural refrigerant technology to progress,” explains Taylor.
South Africa’s possibilities
South Africa and the rest of the African continent have a lot to offer the world as a supplier of Tooling Systems,” says Bob Williamson, president of ISTMA World.
While there is some considerable development needed in the tooling industry in Africa, South Africa boasts advanced capacity to design and manufacture world-class assembly systems, which it supplies to the international automotive industries. When it comes to dies and moulds, the South African industry provides in the region of 10% of the local needs of the manufacturing sector.
South Africa also has by far the most developed tooling sector for tools, dies and moulds (TDM), while small pockets of excellence exist which are focused on supporting the packaging industry in countries like Zimbabwe, Ghana, Kenya and Angola.
“It must be noted that all manufacturing requires tooling and without a strong and vibrant tooling sector, South Africa would be at the risk of de-industrialising,” says Williamson.
South Africa has developed an acknowledged world-class and accredited programme for the training of toolmakers, which has the potential to become the world standard in toolmaker training.
This uniquely South African solution is a product of the government and industry partnership INTSIMBI FPTI, which is led by the Production Technologies Association of South Africa (PtSA) and developed in collaboration with international partners to address the needs of the TDM sector in providing a competency-based toolmaker apprenticeship programme to support manufacturing.
“The modern-day manufacturing industry is characterised by technological advancements. The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) represents a giant leap towards digitalisation and concepts like artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things (IoT), genetic engineering and quantum computing are fast becoming the building blocks of the manufacturing industry of the future. The PtSA TDM Powered toolmaker apprenticeship training programme was designed to future-proof the careers of those individuals in the industry,” says Tapiwa Samanga, chief executive officer at PtSA.
Williamson notes that for Africa to become a serious contender in the global tooling industry, government and industry partners need to scale up the INTSIMBI programme significantly and train more toolmakers and facilitate more enterprise development in the tooling sector.
“In terms of policies and regulations, there needs to be increased support for the TDM sector. Relevant bodies and government need to acknowledge the role and achievements of this critical industry sector in the development of the economy as well as increased investment allowances. Import duties on critical commodities such as tools steels and accessories need to be reduced or removed altogether,” says Williamson.
The 16th International Special Tooling and Machining Association World Conference (ISTMA 2023) which will coincide with the All Africa Expo, will facilitate the necessary dialogue to find solutions to these and other issues in the industry.