Big Changes for Small Motors
Today’s new developments can offer big benefits for progressive appliance manufacturers.
Change in the electric motor industry is accelerating thanks to new performance-related demands from customers in the appliance and related industries. Efficiency, endurance and “ear-friendly” are quickly becoming the new trinity of electric motor criteria.
It has been said that the motor industry is slow to change. That’s true, given that many motors today are still based on technology developed a century ago. But the motor industry’s historic defense was that its customers themselves were resistant to change. There’s truth to that, too. From the appliance manufacturer standpoint, as long as the price was right, the shaft turned and the product showed up on time everything was copacetic.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” was embraced not only by product management and purchasing, but by design engineering as well. This was further reinforced by a tendency in the appliance industry to cling to Henry Ford’s Model T-era mandate to maintain utilization of the same components over as many model years as possible.
Sure, change in the motor industry has evolved slowly. It took 50 years to go from water wheels and steam providing 85% of mechanical drive power in manufacturing plants in the late 19th century to electric motors replacing that percentage by 1940.
But the rate of change in the world is accelerating. As Walmart Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon said in a recent memo to employees, “Our customers are changing … and we must change. We need to become a more agile company that can easily adapt to shifting customer demand.” That same shifting customer demand is driving change in the use of electric motors in appliances.
Energy Efficient Electric Motors
The foodservice industry has a heightened interest in more efficient kitchen appliances. There have been a variety of factors behind skyrocketing prices for food, including climactic conditions and tighter regulations. As a result, businesses are feeling the pinch, from McDonald’s to Outback Steakhouse. While they may not be able to control rising costs of ingredients they can control their energy costs.
Restaurants use about five to seven times more energy per square foot than other commercial buildings, such as office buildings and retail stores. High-volume quick-service restaurants (QSRs) may even use up to 10 times more energy per square foot than other commercial buildings. Food preparation consumes over a fourth of the electrical use in fast-food restaurants.
Of course, the low hanging fruit has been with larger electric motors. An integral horsepower (>1 hp) electric motor in continuous operation will, over a 20 year period, consume more than 400 times its purchase price in energy costs alone. So manufacturers of kitchen appliances that operate from 3-phase current and utilize these larger motors have shifted to motors meeting NEMA Premium® efficiency motor standards. On just a 5 hp motor the increased efficiency with an EPAct premium efficiency motor will result in annual energy savings of $100 or more. Even greater energy savings can be had with “Super Premium” efficiency motors.
But the hundreds of millions of small fractional horsepower (<1 hp) motors have been largely overlooked because by themselves they don’t consume much energy. However, most consume that energy very inefficiently.
For example, it’s been estimated that an average supermarket has over 200 evaporative fan motors in operation. Most of those motors use simple technology invented by Tesla (Nikola, not the car company) simply because they’re inexpensive and last a long time. But the money saved using those cheap motors is quickly eaten up by the extra operating costs over time due to their inefficiency.
Thanks to the phenomenon of electronics continually becoming more powerful and less costly it now makes economic sense to replace those old fractional horsepower fan motors with newly developed smart AC synchronous motors that consume half the energy of the legacy motors and even as much as 30% less than electronically commutated motors (ECM) developed in the 1960s, which broke into the market in the ‘80s and have only caught on in the past decade.
Net Zero Energy Driving Motor Innovation
A recent study by the Rocky Mountain Institute revealed the technical and financial feasibility of building stand-alone restaurants that produce as much energy annually as they use. And with 36,000 outlets in over 100 nations, McDonald’s aspires to lead the way toward reducing energy use in the fast-food industry.
“Our Global Energy Leadership Board sees net zero energy as an opportunity for McDonald’s as we work to advance the energy performance of the restaurants and proactively pursue opportunities for integrating emerging technologies,” said Roy Buchert, global energy director at McDonald’s. “We are working with the study team and our suppliers to improve the efficiency of the restaurants. This net zero energy concept could change our approach from incremental improvements to substantial advances in energy efficiency and renewable energy integration where it makes sense.”
As a result, appliance OEMs are now looking at what they can do to increase the efficiency of those previously overlooked fractional horsepower motors. This focus on energy savings for small motors is also being dictated by equipment manufacturers who want to be able to plug their equipment into a single existing outlet and who may not have much headroom left if their designs utilize various types of refrigeration compressors.
Endurance Wins the Race
It’s no secret that the aftermarket replacement parts business is the cash cow for many appliance manufacturers, especially in the foodservice equipment sector. In fact, for years it was like pushing rope to elicit interest from those OEMs in new motor developments that offered lifetimes much beyond their standard warranty periods.
Ready access to life cycle cost calculators has heightened appliance users’ interest in getting the longest run time possible in the equipment they purchase. The appliance user today is more likely to pay $25 more upfront for equipment designed with longer life electric motors compared to over $200 for a service call and lost revenue from equipment downtime.
Fortunately, even the tried and proven brush DC motors can now be had based on new design and manufacturing technology that can triple their life expectancy. More progressive appliance manufacturers are utilizing longer life components to comfortably extend their warranty periods, thereby increasing customer satisfaction and also gaining a strong marketing advantage.
What Did You Say?
With more and more appliances using more and more motors to provide increased versatility and productivity, the heretofore ignored “noise” of these appliances is now having a cumulative effect in raising the workplace ambient noise to levels that are not conducive to maximum productivity. In the case of “front of store” it can contribute to a less than inviting atmosphere.
Fortunately, electric motor designs such as brushless DC motors exist that are inherently silent. But the advantages of brushless DC motors come at an additional cost. However, thanks to demands in the medical industry for quieter drive motors even the audibly noisier brush DC motors are now available at a level of only 35 dBA, the equivalent of a whisper.
Rapid change surrounds us today. While it can be both challenging and confusing it inevitably brings about innovation and progress. In the case of small electric motors, new innovation is being driven by the demands of the manufacturers’ customers and their customers. Today’s new developments can offer big benefits for progressive appliance manufacturers.