Why SKF believes in maintanance and digitization as key enablers for sustainability

Climate change and environmental issues are no longer a far-off issue. The unprecedented weather conditions with dramatic consequences that we have seen in Europe this summer, have forced us to face reality and have accelerated the trend towards a more environmentally conscious entrepreneurship. An increasing number of companies started focussing on or are intensifying their approach to sustainability and a more conscious use of energy and materials. Suppliers also play an important role in this process of reaching a more circular economy. SKF, material and service supplier for rotating equipment, is striving more than ever to offer its products and services while reducing its carbon footprint. Oskar Diergaarde, Business Manager Rotating Equipment Performance and Sustainability, elaborates SKF’s vision on sustainability.

Clear strategy towards a circular economy

“The floods that we have suffered recently in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany have made people feel the urge to intervene and change old ways of working. Climate change has been on the table in boardrooms for a longer time. At SKF, we have been working on it for almost two decades. But now, it’s also seeping through to the levels of maintenance engineers and reliability engineers. Laws are changing, and the European Union’s Green Deal is turning into legislation that companies have to live up to. So whether you believe in climate change or not, the changes are coming and everybody has to deal with it.”, Oskar explains.

As a Business Manager, Oskar is of course involved in the development of the product and service portfolio of SKF. “Looking into the future needs in the bigger picture, service has been playing an increasingly important role. In the traditional linear economy model, products are produced, sold and thrown away. Now we are shifting towards a model where products are used, but when replacing it, we try to reuse the material instead of throwing it away.”

Urge to change our way of consuming

“First of all, there’s the manufacturing of the bearing. If you connect condition monitoring with a solid maintenance plan, you can get real lifetime out of the bearing and replace it in time before it actually breaks. This way, it can be used to remanufacture it. We reuse old bearings to produce new ones. To produce a bearing, you need double the amount of carbon in weight. By giving it a second life, we save up to 80 or 90 % of carbon. This is of course the most direct form of contributing to a circular economy by saving resources.”, Oskar explains.

Rotating equipment needs lubrication to function properly. Unfortunately, today’s use of industrial oil is very linear, where degraded and discarded oil gets simply replaced with new oil. The environmental impact and CO² emissions resulting from this practice – shipping, refining and modifying it – is incalculable. “Last year we launched a new service called RecondOil.” Oskar continues. “We can actually recondition used oil and get it back in its original state with its original specifications. Oil can be endlessly reused without having to dispose of it. It’s a great way for a company to reduce the carbon footprint.”

Oskar continues: “Another way to minimize energy losses is of course maintaining and lubricating your bearings optimally, which guarantees reduced friction. A good maintenance plan, perfect alignment and balancing to optimize machinery, are the SKF application engineers’ main focus points.”

Digitization as key enabler for rotation as a service

Optimal maintenance and lubrication of rotating equipment nowadays can only be reached if you make use of all the modern techniques – a complete service. “Instead of just buying a bearing, companies can choose to buy the service of rotation, where the complete life cycle of bearings is taken care of and their performance is being optimized. Digitization has a key role in enabling such a service. Traditional condition monitoring with vibration sensors needs to be combined with process parameters, using artificial intelligence and machine learning.” Oskar says. “A few years ago, SKF even purchased an Israeli company specialised in AI and ML. Currently, the programmers are working very hard to integrate their knowledge and their systems into our traditional condition monitoring software so we can actually combine the power of those algorithms.”

Coping with the shortage in technical personnel

There’s a lot of changes going on in today’s world. Not only the obvious urge to change our way of living and of consuming material resources. “Over the last few years, we clearly noticed a significant challenge in finding qualified technical personnel. Motivating the next generation to work in the industry, will be a second big important driver for the future. The traditional image of the technician walking around with a microlog, collecting data and going back to the office to analyze it, is becoming more and more rare. Therefore,” he explains, “We need to look at how we can automate data collection and how to use simplified equipment, so an operator can collect data easily. Or we use wireless sensors and use combined information from CMS systems to collect a big amount of information, without putting too much strain on the few qualified professionals that are in the field.

Another way is to use artificial intelligence and machine learning and let the computers do the analysis for you; especially if it’s focused on issues and failures that need special attention.”

Value chain towards increased sustainability

The technical department is indispensable, that much is certain. The decisions they make can also contribute to a circular economy. According to Oskar, sustainability in the world is actually a value chain: “You’re not just responsible for the little bit that you do, but you’re also responsible for the company that supplies your materials. That’s where SKF takes its responsibility towards its customers saying ‘we tried to provide you with a carbon-neutral bearing, and we will help you run this bearing in a way it reduces your carbon footprint.’. Closing the loop of material use by enhancing the lifetime of bearings, reuse lubricants and remanufacture used bearings, is our contribution in the chain towards more sustainability.”

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