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Digital tools unlock new optimization potential in shot-blasting processes, and smarter operation of processes by fewer people.

Transforming Shot-Blast Efficiency, Digitally

Feb. 2, 2024
Real-time data monitoring can cut abrasive consumption, optimize energy use, manage maintenance effectively, and enhance overall equipment effectiveness.

Foundries’ shot-blast machines are hungry, and keeping a check on their appetites for abrasives, energy, wear parts and operator attention is a critical part of making operations leaner and more efficient. It’s also where real cost savings can be made. Running a precision blasting process that consumes less of those resources is the holy grail for foundry optimization. And it instantly hits the bottom line.

Wheelabrator’s suite of digital tools on the Monitizer | DISCOVER platform allow viewing and analysis of live data from anywhere in the world, offering real-time insights into shot-blast operations and facilitating proactive issue resolution. A digital bird’s-eye view of blast processes means operators no longer have to visit the line to check on operations, supervisors can easily view real-time KPIs, and customized dashboards show problems early in their development. Operators can react quickly, fix them immediately and avoid downtime.

The system delivers savings on any type of shot-blast machine, but it is particularly attractive to foundries with its integrated production flows and high-powered blast processes. The more a machine consumes, the greater the potential savings.

Monitizer | DISCOVER operates on the premise of easy digital enablement, requiring only a network gateway to bring even vintage shot-blast machines into the digital age. These edge devices, called NoriGate, collect data from PLCs, sensors, and other sources, and send that information to a central platform. What sets Monitizer apart is adaptability: it can be integrated seamlessly into many types of equipment from almost any vendor – from shot-blast equipment to molding machines. It’s also easy to use, with simple widgets so operators create custom tools without specialized programming knowledge, fostering data-driven continuous improvement.

Wheelabrator developed four digital tools that focus on the main cost-drivers of shot-blast equipment. In doing so, the tools deliver a fast payback on the digital deployment. The cost drivers are abrasive consumption, energy optimization, maintenance, and overall equipment effectiveness. In addition to bringing down energy, abrasive and parts cost, the tools also free up capacity and maximize productivity – through clever management and minimization of idle time and by minimizing unplanned maintenance.

1.Reducing abrasive consumption. Abrasive costs are a significant portion of  blast machines’ overall operating expenses. The volume of abrasive used relative to the achieved blast result directly influences machine wear. When using Monitizer | DISCOVER, the digital tool for controlling abrasive consumption provides a detailed analysis of abrasive use over time, correlating it with other metrics. This allows for swift identification of root causes of high consumption rates, even for complex or subtle issues. Not only are abrasive costs reduced, but there are associated benefits such as reduced energy usage and machine wear.

For example, on a hanger-type machine with four 11-kW blast wheels, the tool could help cut abrasive consumption by up to 17%. This has positive knock-on effects, including shorter cycle times, lower energy consumption and decreased wear, yielding an estimated annual cost saving of over $10,000.

2. Optimizing energy use. Energy consumption is a major factor for shot blasting, primarily due to the power required to accelerate blast media. The digital tool monitors key parameters to optimize standby and idle times, blast wheel RPMs, and more. This helps operators to quickly identify abnormal energy usage, pinpoint the cause, and fine-tune the process. Optimizing for improved energy efficiency can be achieved without compromising quality or throughput.

Using the digital tool on a typical roller-conveyor machine with eight 45-kW blast wheels operating in three shifts, 240 days a year, to reduce idle time by one hour per day would result in annual energy cost savings of over $15,000.

3. Making maintenance manageable. The harsh conditions within shot-blast machines inevitably cause wear. Wheelabrator’s preventive maintenance tool assesses the machine condition in real time, serving as an early-warning system for wear and performance drops. By tracking parameters like blast wheel vibration and pressure differentials in filters, the tool supports just-in-time maintenance, preventing unscheduled downtime and unnecessary spending on parts.

Pre-empting blade breakage through early detection and planned exchange costs around $1,600, compared to at least triple that cost if the blade were to break unexpectedly. One foundry’s blocked filters cost over $8,000 in cleanup and increased wear.

4. Improving OEE. Currently, most blast machine operators cannot track or view the machine's operating mode, downtime, and idle periods. Wheelabrator’s fourth digital tool addresses this by monitoring and displaying the effectiveness of a shot-blast machine within the overall production process. The user-friendly dashboard allows operators to identify issues and bottlenecks causing suboptimal throughput. For example, a single digital view shows whether the machine is idling due to delays in loading, suggesting a bottleneck further up the line. This promotes efficient production and saves both time and resources.

Future developments and digital advances

Digital tools unlock new optimization potential in shot blasting and a smarter running of processes, by fewer people. Tools available today offer rapid returns on investment. Their adoption not only brings real cost savings but opens the door to long-term improvements in performance and efficiency, making shot-blast operations more reliable, cost-effective, and efficient.

Ongoing developments, such as digital image analysis to monitor abrasive condition in real-time, showcase the industry’s trajectory toward automatic, digital process control. This places operators in the driver’s seat, offering greater control, a modern and safer working environment, and increased collaboration and learning opportunities. In the face of scarce skilled labor, digital systems support experienced operators, enabling them to do more while facilitating the training of less experienced staff.

Joe Everett is vice president of Product Development, North American Market with Wheelabrator, a Norican Group technology company.