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Applying Artificial Intelligence to Commercial Refrigeration

Charles Larkin | Director of Data and Analytics, Cold Chain

Emerson’s Commercial and Residential Solutions Business

Over the past decade, artificial intelligence (AI) has become an ever-present aspect of everyday life. From e-commerce and smartphone functions to social media to modern industry, AI and advanced machine learning (ML) algorithms analyze continuous streams of data to derive predictive insights and optimize performance. Although these data science techniques are not new to commercial refrigeration, food retail and foodservice operators have been relatively slow to embrace AI’s vast potential. I recently participated in an ACHR The News article where we discussed AI’s barriers to adoption and how Emerson is helping to prove the value of AI to its customers.

AI is not a new concept for the food retail and foodservice industries. Many prominent retailers are already using AI techniques in customer-focused areas of their businesses, such as personalizing their consumer rewards and loyalty programs. In fact, several leverage in-house data science teams to champion these initiatives. But when it comes to turning AI’s focus toward refrigeration, very few have the domain expertise or experience applying AI to other critical facility systems — which can be significantly more complex and require a completely different knowledge base.

Another barrier to implementing AI in commercial refrigeration is the challenge of aggregating different sources and types of operational data into a useable format. Many food retailers already have some type of control system in place. Since different control system vendors collect and process data differently, it can be difficult to ensure the accuracy and consistency of the data. In addition, many vendor systems have proprietary constraints that don’t allow data to be shared easily.

Although the industry recognizes the potential of AI to deliver value in commercial refrigeration, food retailers and their servicing teams still have questions about its role in their operations. Demonstrating the value of AI across a wide range of food retail applications will be necessary in order to remove these doubts.

Engaging in proof-of-concept trials

At Emerson, one of the most important jobs we have is to provide the expertise and data science programs to build the business case for AI’s potential value to our customers. As a refrigeration controls, components and equipment manufacturer, we are focused on developing AI-enabled controls and integrated equipment that can deliver numerous benefits for operators and contractors alike.

Currently, we are engaging some of our customers in short-term, proof-of-concept trial periods. This gives us opportunities to demonstrate how our AI and ML solutions can integrate with their operations and deliver the potential for long-term, continuous refrigeration performance improvements. Once they see how quickly we’re able to deliver value and offer a return on investment (ROI), they’re much more interested in exploring a longer-term engagement.

The core of AI and ML technologies resides within the system control devices, which are typically incorporated into the equipment itself. By capturing data from sensors, modern equipment controls can perform a variety of key system optimization functions — from system fault protection and diagnostics to performance management and event scheduling. And in many instances, we can enable these capabilities without having to perform a significant retrofit.

Many of our existing customers already have a data-rich infrastructure — including sensors, controls and modems — that we can tap into and begin delivering insights. We often recommend installing additional sensors, which is relatively inexpensive compared to a full retrofit.

Adding up the advantages

As for the advantages that AI offers, not only can it deliver significant reliability and longevity benefits to commercial refrigeration equipment, but it can also address an ever-expanding variety of store operator and contractor concerns. For operators, we’re building data models that help them to optimize food quality and safety and reduce waste — in applicable case types and perishable food categories.

For contractors, we’re developing ML algorithms that are designed to detect asset health or condition issues. Over time, this data will allow retailers and their contractors to:

  • Implement more predictive maintenance programs
  • Reduce energy costs
  • Keep assets running in optimum condition

Today, Emerson is leveraging AI and ML to optimize critical aspects of our customers’ operations. Our solutions utilize sensors that deliver data to powerful control devices — such as the new Lumity™ E3 supervisory control — and integrate with advanced, cloud-based software. By leveraging the deep domain expertise of our refrigeration engineers, we’re able to create data models that maximize refrigeration performance and help our customers to achieve a variety of key food retail and foodservice objectives.

Integrated R-290 Cases Expand Into U.S. Markets

AndrePatenaude_Blog_Image Andre Patenaude | Director, Food Retail Marketing & Growth Strategy, Cold Chain

Emerson Commercial & Residential Solutions

I was recently asked to contribute to an Accelerate America article about the increasing use of R-290 in the U.S. commercial refrigeration market. The article featured a variety of perspectives from supermarket operators and equipment manufacturers. Read the full article (pg. 38) and more on Emerson’s perspective below.

Integrated R-290 Cases Expand Into U.S. Markets

A growing number of American retailers — including Target, ALDI US and Whole Foods Market — have been deploying self-contained, R-290 cases as spot merchandisers in hundreds of stores, many of which are mainly served by centralized rack systems. Some retailers regard these units as partial or even full-store alternatives to using a centralized rack-based system.

Obviously, this comes as no surprise to Emerson. Not only have we been partnering with R-290 equipment manufacturers for many years, we also support operators and commercial refrigeration designers alike in their efforts to utilize R-290 — and a variety of other lower-GWP and natural refrigerants — in their systems. As others have stated in the article, this trend reflects a shift in the research and development processes for some manufacturers, in that fewer emerging architectures are being designed to utilize hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) gases.

It’s further evidence that, regardless of the unpredictable state of environmental regulations, R-290 use in commercial refrigeration continues to gain traction. We at Emerson are seeing the use of integrated case architectures — where one or more R-290 compressors is/are housed within a refrigerated case — and the continued use of completely self-contained units as the most likely paths to wider adoption of integrated R-290 in 2019 and beyond.

While R-290 systems may have originally been born out of necessity to address environmental concerns, today they’re perceived in the market as much more than just eco-friendly alternatives. With the expansion of smaller-format stores and increasing retail urbanization, many times there simply isn’t enough space to accommodate a machine room for a traditional central system. In these scenarios, plug-and-play, low-charge, R-290 systems are an ideal fit.

The safe use of R-290, which is classified as an A3, highly flammable refrigerant, is governed globally by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and nationally by the Underwriters Laboratory (UL). Historically, these standards mandated that R-290 charge limits should be limited to a maximum of 150g. However, the IEC recently updated their standard (IEC 60335-2-89) to allow the use of up to 500g of A3s like R-290. This charge limit increase will enable more application flexibility for European food retailers.

It’s important to note that in the U.S., the UL standard still mandates a maximum of 150g charge limit for A3s. Even with the low charge limit of 150g, R-290 cases have proven viable options for many leading retailers in the U.S. market and abroad.

While the industry adapts to the charge limit increase, there are real-world installations that are also indicative of the safety and reliability of these self-contained, R-290 cases. Since 2013, an HEB grocery store in San Antonio has utilized the R-290 cases installed throughout the entire store as its primary refrigeration source. The designer of that architecture, who was also interviewed in the same article, stated that these cases have proved to be both safe and reliable — and have had no leaks since they’ve been installed.

Today we’re achieving more flexibility using R-290 systems with micro-distributed architectures utilizing integrated cases. They are designed to remove compressor exhaust heat via a shared glycol water loop that’s directed to the roof of the facility for heat removal. These systems typically stay within the 150g limit and enable a greater degree of scalability.

It will be interesting to see how the possibility of increasing the R-290 charge limit, as has been discussed and studied within the industry for years, might impact system design in the future. For now, R-290 seems to have a place — albeit a relatively niche one — in U.S. markets.

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