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Tangible progress

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While admitting that they are still in early stages, some steel mills – both new and long-established companies – have started to incorporate Industry 4.0 concepts into their operations.

One example is Big River Steel LLC in Osceola, Arkansas, Andrew Zoryk, managing director in Accenture’s metals practice, points out. BRS installed the very latest technology in a green-field situation, but Zoryk notes that it is rather more challenging to integrate these principles into existing steel plants that have decades-old manufacturing execution systems that were not designed with Industry 4.0 in mind. But while it might be a bit more challenging, at least from a technology point of view, it is still quite achievable, Franck Adjogble, chief engineer for process control and production planning systems at SMS group Inc, asserts. “The challenge is to be sure that it is done in a way that it doesn’t breakdown the systems that are already in place.”

Right from the period when it was first being designed, BRS had the goal of becoming the world’s first learning steel mill, says David Stickler, the steelmaker’s chief executive officer. The company is not quite there yet, but Stickler says that he believes that it is just a matter of time, especially with certain tools that are just being opened up to it through its artificial intelligence and machine learning partners, Noodle.ai and EFT Analytics, to crunch in real time the close to 850 million data points that it has already collected, using what they call “The Beast” – an extremely high-power computing facility – in order to know as much as it can moment-by-moment about the mill’s operations. EFT Analytics is a unit of Koch Industries, a 40% owner of Big River.

Ultimately, possibly within the next two to three years, Stickler is hopeful that as the steelmaker continues to mine and analyze data for any indications of an adverse event and/or to improve its production process, BRS equipment might be able to self-correct even without operator intervention.

“The most challenging part of this is knowing how to analyze and utilize the large volumes of data that we collect, which is something that we are still learning to do,” says Stickler. He says that he knew from the start that this would be a gradual process, marked, at least first, by a very steep learning curve. He notes that when the mill first started up in January 2017 it had yet to become very smart. But by December 2017 it was a lot smarter and by the end of this year, and beyond, it will be smarter still. “We knew that first we had to crawl and then walk and then run before we could sprint.”

Even though BRS is not all the way “dialed in” yet, Stickler says that early results have given him full confidence that it is on the right track to eventually achieve an all-out sprint. For example, the plant’s thin slab caster recently went 141 days without a breakout.
Stickler says that he hopes that other steelmakers take actions to move in a similar direction. He believes that “a smarter, more data analytics-driven industry will be good for all participants and will lift the entire domestic steel industry.”

Since BRS was commissioned, there have been some other real-life examples of how a new digital steel factory might look like from a green-field standpoint, notes Carlo Travaglini, director of technology for Gerdau Long Steel North America. He says that strategy is not one that his company or other steelmakers with existing plants could take. Instead, Gerdau is engaging in several smaller, more targeted Industry 4.0 related projects. “We aren’t just carpet bombing the whole thing. We are selectively identifying opportunities in areas that we could expect to see actual, tangible improvements that we could measure.”

For example, starting in 2016, Gerdau started working with GE Digital on the use of advanced data analytics and remote monitoring technologies at several of its operations in Brazil to predict and proactively prevent equipment failures at those plants.

Travaglini says that, in addition, over the past year Gerdau has also implemented about seven robotic/smart-robot applications – robots with artificial features that allow each to position itself without additional instruction – just in its North American operations. He says the steelmaker is also in the midst of an initiative to develop a hybrid robotic and machine-learning application that will not only be able to take continuous measurements of hot metal, but will take advantage of analytic models to learn what parameters are necessary to achieve the best-quality product and will be able to interact with the mill’s production process to suggest how the required quality levels could be sustained. Travaglini says this R&D project has already gone through the proof-of-concept state and is now in the early implementation phase.

Another steelmaker making some headway into Industry 4.0 technologies is Russia’s NLMK Group, which, says Stefan Koch, Global Lead for Metals, Industry Business Unit Mill Products, SAP, is developing a connected worker safety program that involves real-time tracking of workers to ensure that they do not go into dangerous areas of the plant, by setting off alarms regarding such potential dangers as hot machines, a gaseous environment or crane movements.

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