Where is the steel industry going? How will digitisation develop? And above all, what are the long-term benefits to be expected from the latest advances in automation technology? The London-based company Primetals Technologies builds factories for the metal industry and knows how steel producers can best prepare their production for the coming years.
Naturally, technology has made great progress in a very short time. Computers and smartphones have changed everyday life significantly. This is, of course, also noticeable in professional environments. One of the most important innovations is the ubiquitous so-called Cloud.
Industry in the clouds: The Cloud above all
Huge server farms are not only capable of storing vast amounts of data, but they can also perform intelligent tasks. Solutions in steel production have also become correspondingly more intelligent. Keywords here are, for example, "Industry 4.0", "digitisation" and "Internet of Things" (IoT).
The first step along this path - as in other industries - is the accumulation of the production data of a plant by using intelligent sensors. In this way, a "digital twin" can be created to bring the plant to the next level. According to Primetals, process automation in the steel industry has been far ahead of other industries for decades.
Most steel producers would currently be at "Level 1" and "Level 2" and would continue to develop these levels further. However, in the case of one-off production, it would appear to be different. According to the in-house Metal magazine of the factory builder, there is a lot of catching up to do here.
One of the differences is that it is not only based on process models. Instead, it relies on abstractions of what happens inside the liquid steel in the phase of the solidification. The models are very complex - thus three different models are used at the same time. One in which the steel is transformed; from the whole process of steelmaking to iron production and final treatment; and one of the whole plant as it is built. This also includes "invisible aspects", i.e. devices that are not part of the production chain.
This is the basis for a smart factory. Thanks to condition monitoring, it is supposed to know what condition it is in. Thanks to its findings, it can even make adjustments on its own. A large market for artificial intelligence is emerging here. In the opinion of Primetals, however, it is still in its infancy. The keyword "Smart Work" also belongs to the plant of the future. All employees receive exactly on time the information that they need for their next task. This avoids loss of production and enables planning to be carried out well in advance.
Three dimensions - transparency, time, integration
In addition to the three models, there are also three dimensions. The first is based on horizontal networking. The rolling section of a steel production plant should know what was done in the early casting phase and can then react accordingly. How this works is particularly dependent on the raw materials used. The intelligent system masters a large range and provides producers with greater "input flexibility".
The second dimension is time. The history of a steel mill begins with the planning phase, followed by construction and modernisation or expansion. The smart factory ensures that all equipment lasts as long as possible. Even maintenance can be integrated in such a way that it has the least impact on productivity.
Primetals has teamed up with the German PSI for the final dimension. The modern production management system (PMS) dynamically plans and monitors all plant activities at all stages of the production chain. Customer orders are converted into command sets, which are then executed in a highly optimised manner.
PMS also includes Through-Process Optimization (TPO). It examines the entire production process for errors and identifies potential for improvement. Primetals promises its customers a drastic shortening of the lead time. The last link is Maintenance and Asset Technology (MAT).
This system has comprehensive, integrated application knowledge. It generates usable elements that maintenance personnel can execute. All proposals are developed according to a customised maintenance strategy for optimum efficiency. Extended analyses provide further insights into the inner workings of the plant and in particular into the maintenance activities.
Primetals Technologies Limited is a machine and plant engineering company serving customers in the metals industry in both the ferrous and non-ferrous metal sectors. Based in London (UK), the company is a joint venture formed in 2015 by the merger of Siemens VAI Metals Technologies and Mitsubishi Hitachi Metals Machinery (MHMM) of Japan.
Mitsubishi Hitachi Metals Machinery (MHMM), a consolidated subsidiary of MHI with equity interests held by Hitachi, Ltd. and IHI Corporation, holds 51 percent and Siemens 49 percent of the shares in the joint venture. The combined company employs approximately 7,000 people worldwide. CEO is Satoru Ijima.