By Simon Liddiard, Product Manager
Once it was nearly always industrial or military applications that led the way in technology and innovation.
When an exciting and remarkably slippy new material called PTFE (later branded Teflon) was discovered by a chemical scientist as he worked on ideas for a new choroflurocarbon refrigerant, the early applications were actually in the nuclear power industry – the clever frying pans only followed more than 15 years later.
When the first printed circuit boards became available in the late 1930s, it was the US military which was first to use this new technology on a large scale to make proximity fuses – with consumer applications again only emerging a couple of decades later. The same customer, the US military, was also first in line when the integrated circuit or microchip became available around 1959.
Times have changed of course, and one of the most striking changes has been the remarkable turnaround in this relationship between industrial and consumer markets.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that military and industrial environments have lost the power to innovate of course, because both of these, and the military in particular, remain powerful drivers of change. But the rise and rise of global consumer power means that just as often it is consumer applications that drive new technology forwards, and in consumer applications that new technology first sees the light of day. Innovation is every bit as likely to arise from the ‘laboratories’ of Apple and Samsung as it is from industrial or military research facilities.
This has certainly proven to be the case with refrigeration, notably through the increasing application of computing power to basic refrigeration technology (the principles of which have remained unchanged for well over a century) to create a new generation of “smart” appliances.
Manufacturers are already building “smart” home refrigerators that can interact with their owners and with each other, connect to smartphones, call a repairman when something is wrong, and even negotiate rates with the power company.
If something goes wrong, owners can find out what’s wrong by calling customer service and holding the phone up to a tiny speaker that plays an audible diagnostic code. If the problem is minor, like a clogged vent or water filter, owners will get instructions on how to fix it on their own. If something has really gone wrong, the repair team will already know what needs to be fixed when they arrive.
Other refrigerators have built-in touch-screens that can keep track of the food in your fridge, and find recipes to match that inventory. And like tablets or smartphones, these fridges can also run apps and hook up to social-media networks.
The future for commercial refrigeration
This marriage of computing and refrigeration is a path which commercial refrigeration is already treading of course; today’s sophisticated refrigeration control technologies are unrecognisable from those of just a few years ago.
RCS’ own latest generation Eden Compact and Avanta controllers, for example, feature integrated on-board IP / wireless or 485 communication and sophisticated algorithms to ensure efficient and appropriate use of energy-intensive items of refrigeration plant; while new system managers like the Oracle SM1020 GP gateway make a reality the remote management of control and monitoring functions and real-time controller status.
But the fact remains that we still have a way to go before commercial refrigeration, and particularly the controllers which lie at the heart of these systems, can truly be called “smart”.
The good news is that there are already plenty of developments in the pipeline. We are not so far away from controllers being able to diagnose not only controller faults, but also faults in the cabinet to which they are attached. This would allow the controller to alert monitoring personnel when a fan has failed – or even more usefully, to predictively inform the userbefore the fan motor fails.
By coupling this feature to an accurate and dependable defrost on demand system (defrosting only when the cabinet actually requires it, rather than scheduling 4 or 6 defrosts over a 24 hour period regardless), such controllers would save considerable amounts of energy, not with just the defrosts themselves but also with the energy required to bring a case back down to temperature once the defrost has finished.
The wi-fi challenge
So the technology is on the way. But there may yet be one final hurdle to overcome – the relatively slow transition being made by the industry towards Wi-Fi communications.
Wi-Fi certainly isn’t new technology any more – it is something which the industry has been talking about for nearly a decade. The benefits of adoption are clear – when retailers take steps towards wireless rather than wired systems they reduce material costs in terms of the cables, installation costs in terms of the number of electrician-hours, and commissioning costs in the amount of work required by fridge or control engineers. The potential for errors is reduced, and the flexibility for future layout change enhanced.
Above all, however, it is hard to imagine truly ‘smart’ commercial refrigeration control, with all the benefits that this will bring, being achieved until Wi-Fi becomes not the exception but the norm.
To achieve the hi-tech, low cost, environmentally sustainable buildings that the industry demands, wireless and ‘smart’ will undoubtedly have to go hand in hand.
A version of this article first appeared in RAC Magazine, November 2014