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  • Wet soils, sunny skies and Schneider Electric solutions make for a top product at Auscott’s cotton gin facility

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Favourable weather conditions in northern New South Wales and the south of Queensland produce cotton that has long fibres and is considered to be amongst the world’s best.

Auscott Limited is one of the big names in the business, with over 50 years experience in Australian agriculture. Looking to expand their operations into the Hay region of New South Wales, Auscott Limited approached Schneider Electric at the end of 2013 to discuss their energy distribution and automation requirements for a new cotton gin processing facility, to be built in the area.

With just 12 months to design and build the processing facility, Auscott was seeking one supplier that could provide a complete suite of energy management and automation products, to create a solution that met their specific requirements.

Long-term, energy-efficient solution

Cotton is a seasonal crop, which is generally harvested around autumn. Once the buds are picked, growers want their crop processed as quickly as possible to ensure the quality is maintained and costs can be recouped.

To meet this peak demand, the cotton gins generally run for 24 hours, seven days a week, for around 4-5 months of the year. With this in mind, the processing equipment at the new Auscott cotton gin had to be robust to withstand this period of heavy workload.

Looking for advice and expertise to help them implement and manage the project, Auscott Limited engaged Schneider Electric to work with them on the new build. A key requirement was longevity of the solution, with consideration for energy efficiencies.

“We wanted to invest in platforms and technologies which would remain effective and relevant into the long term,” Jamie Condon, Corporate Electrical Manager, Engineering Services, Auscott Limited said. “It was important to us that the technology, and the company behind it, would be around for many years to come.”

 Auscott Limited and Schneider Electric worked together on the design phase of the project, developing the unique specifications for the facility. During this design phase, Schneider Electric Representatives from across the business worked with Auscott Limited to come up with the solution. Communication was centralised and there was a focus on solving engineering issues unique to Auscott’s requirements. Estimates and technologies were brought together into a seamless program.

“Certainly, we had a few ideas from our side about what would be ideal for the new set-up, but we were looking to Schneider Electric to provide us with expert advice on the technology,” Jamie said. “Bringing everyone together meant we had a combined experience and knowledge that was very strong. I think this is what gave us such excellent results.”

Although energy efficiency wasn’t the number one priority for the solution, Jamie says it was still a major factor when considering the proposal. “Energy usage is by far our biggest cost, and with electricity prices increasing every year, we needed to have a system in place which would ensure we were not spending more on energy than we absolutely had to,” Jamie said.

Another consideration of the project was the restricted energy available at the site. Only 6MW was available to the cotton gin facility, with a 7km power line installed to connect the plant back to the power grid. Schneider Electric experts played a pivotal role in calculating the power load of the cotton gin, ensuring it would not require more power than was available. The result is a solution that uses a load of around 5.5MW.

Measure, monitor and control is key

Working with the information produced during the design process, Schneider Electric put forward a solution that incorporated power distribution equipment, automation, CCTV and lighting. Schneider Electric energy monitoring equipment and Weather Sentry were also required, which allowed Auscott to alter their manufacturing process when adverse weather conditions were detected.

The nature of the project meant that there were a large number of ongoing design changes along the way. If more than one supplier had been involved in the build, there would have been many challenges in terms of coordination, management and implementation of changes. Working solely with Schneider Electric on the project overcame these challenges. 

With power restrictions at the site, one of the most important parts of the project was ensuring the available electricity was being used as effectively as possible. Schneider Electric Power Factor Correction equipment was also installed, to correct supply inefficiencies while also reducing peak demand on the electricity network.

“As we are limited in the amount of power that is available to us at this remote site, the PFC equipment ensures we are making the best use of every available amp. It also means that if we need to expand the plant for any reason, we know we have a little extra power available to us as a result of running the equipment. The system has reduced our power usage by at least a quarter, saving us around 1200 amp, or roughly $10,000 per month,” Jamie said.

There are 50 variable speed drives at the site, which are used to regulate and control the feed of cotton around the plant. Drives are also installed on the cotton gin stands that are used to process the cotton. The drives are monitored using Invensys Historian and Citect SCADA software. The data is then used by Jamie to make small adjustments to the equipment, so the cotton gin can operate as efficiently as possible. 

“The system provides us with a lot of information, which we can use for ongoing monitoring and measurement,” Jamie said. “It also captures data that gives us additional safety features to ensure that our workers are kept protected along with our machinery.”

“Information is key to improving any process, and I have found it very valuable to know what energy we are using with each machine. This level of data means that we can see what events are trending and how we can alter our behaviour to find efficiencies.” 

The new system also includes a remote overload reset, so that energy is properly managed and the risk of employees being exposed to electrical hazards is reduced.

“When we are operating at peak times, we are often running close to the red line in terms of running at full capacity and full load. The remote reset means that any tripping caused by the overworking of the machines can be reset from a safe distance.”

Monitoring at the site is used for two main purposes. One is the ongoing shift reports, which are used by staff see if they are keeping up with production rates. The other use is for central office employees who benchmark the data against other cotton gins. This information is also fed back to stakeholders, including cotton growers who use the facility.

Weather Sentry reduces hazardous weather risks

Schneider Electric Weather Sentry is installed at the site to alert workers of very high winds and possible lightning activity in the area. Strong winds can be particularly hazardous to cotton gins if a fire was to break out, so control measures needed to be put in place. Lightning can also create issues if direct strikes are encountered.

“It is not uncommon to have a fire within the processing plant,” Jamie said. “We have ways to minimise the risk of this, and if there is a fire, we are able to extinguish it very quickly. In the holding yard however, a strong wind of 50-60km/ hour can ignite a fire from a single ember, which could result in millions of dollars in damage.”

“Using Weather Sentry, we are able to monitor and understand what weather is coming. If there are high winds on the horizon from threatening directions, the cotton gin can be shut down, so that the risk is mitigated. Weather Sentry has been invaluable in providing a reliable and accurate weather forecasting for our target area.”

Lightning is another big concern for the growers, as again, the risk of fire increases as a result.

“Previously, we were very reactionary in our approach to weather conditions. Now we use Weather Sentry to give us an early warning of what is to come. It is a very powerful, very accurate tool. The sentry sends an alert to us in the form of an email, or via the actual software, so we can prepare accordingly.”

Expertise and coordination leads to success

Building the gin from the ground up in 12 months was largely possible because of the fact that Schneider Electric was able to supply the entire solution.

“There was no need for us to manage the coordination of different suppliers, or to ensure that product was arriving on site at the correct time – all this work was coordinated by Schneider Electric,” Jamie said. 

“The team that we worked with from Schneider Electric was absolutely excellent,” Jamie said. “From our first meeting together I knew we were going to be able to successfully execute this project. I was blown away by the efficiency of the process – which is not something that would have happened had we engaged several companies to provide us with different parts for the project. Each individual I worked with from Schneider Electric was able to bring their expertise to the project, and communication between all the team members was fantastic.”

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