"Steel mills and foundries need to be aware of one thing: Everything that can be digitalized will eventually be digitalized. They have to ask themselves whether they want to stand by and watch this change or whether they would rather take action themselves before a digital player attacks their core business."
Digital transformation and Industry 4.0 are among the major topics of the future in the metallurgy industries. Increasingly sophisticated sensor technology is providing more and more data from the production process in foundries and steel mills. Every cast slab and every rolled steel strip requires thousands of items of data. Even a comparatively smaller steel mill produces more than 100 terabytes of process data a year with around two and a half million tons of steel products -- a data volume corresponding to the contents of around 30 million telephone directories.
It is no longer simply the accuracy of the data that is the basis for information but the sheer volume as well. Evaluating data, recognizing patterns and obtaining information is no longer possible with conventional IT methods. As big data analysis, artificial intelligence and networked cloud systems are replacing the data centers and relational databases of the past, the digital monitoring of machines and systems reduces maintenance costs, increases efficiency and has the potential to optimize products. Cloud technologies, with their storage volumes that are subject to hardly any limits, can serve to make it possible to generate more revenue from operational product and machine data with new services.
Metallurgical plant manufacturers such as the SMS group hope that digital services will compensate them for the weakening of their core business due to worldwide overcapacities in steel. Steel manufacturers and foundries link purchasing, sales, production and logistics in a cost-saving manner with hardware-based IT application of Industry 4.0. The development of digital channels puts the customer at the heart of the business.
For steel and industrial group ThyssenKrupp, the interlinked steel factory with a digital channel to the customer has already been achieved. From mill to supplier to sheet metal processor, customers can use a PC, smartphone or tablet PC to determine when his steel strip goes into production and make changes to material properties such as sheet thickness and width at short notice.
Casters in the Data Stream
Generating process knowledge from data with the support of Big Data and implementing solutions in Industry 4.0 is also on the agenda of aluminum and iron casters. Solutions such as process optimization through coupling of the casting process simulation with data-driven process models are in demand -- a research approach that Magma of Aachen, a company specializing in simulation software, is pursuing in the IProguss research project.
Intelligent energy and resource efficiency is always an issue, especially for a process-related energy-intensive company such as an iron foundry. New process parameters can be added to the production areas and the production process can be tracked. The aim is to improve energy and resource efficiency by reducing overproduction of liquid metal.
How Industry 4.0 can look in practice can be seen at Karl Casper Guss in Germany. The foundry produces a wide range of hand-molded parts. To be able to react quickly to changing customer requirements while guaranteeing high production reliability and quality at the same time, Casper Guss relies on an integrated Industry 4.0 solution with three pillars:
Linking of all systems from end to end makes it possible to plan individual orders directly. The ERP system automatically checks feasibility upon receipt of the order, thus ensuring a high level of adherence to delivery dates. Feedback from all production steps improves throughput and increases quality. Using the web portal, customers can call up production information on their orders from the extranet and directly enter additions as well as changes to dates or quantities.
FeroLabs: Industry 4.0 for Steel Production
Agile companies from the start-up scene also have their eye on tapping new business areas with digitalization. Digital technology opens the door to potential disruptors in the metal industry as well.
Voice control via mobile phones along with face recognition in social media such as Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple is finding its way into the steel industry, thanks to clever company founders: machine learning is one of the most successful sub-areas of artificial intelligence. While self-learning algorithms were mainly a topic of academic research until a few years ago, today they are increasingly making their way into our everyday lives as well as industry.
"With Fero Software, our customers are able to better understand their production process and thus increase their profitability," says Tim Eschert, an application engineer. FeroLabs uses what are known as statistical machine learning (ML) methods. Eschert sees them as a bridge between conventional analysis methods and the modern technology of machine learning.
In the area of steel, the start-up has applied and researched the use of its software in various applications. These include, for example, reduction of surface oxidation (cinder) and the prediction of material properties in a hot wide strip mill, quality improvement in a tube mill, detection of inclusion defects in a wire mill and optimization of alloy usage in a rod mill. "At present, the application of alloy optimization is the area in which we are most advanced in terms of implementation and scaling, but the other areas are already fully operational," reports Eschert.
Mecorad: Industry 4.0 in the Rolling Mill
Mecorad, a spin-off company of the Technical University of Cologne, supports operators of hot rolling mills with a high-precision measuring system and applications based around it. In addition to higher product quality, the goal is the lowest possible loss of production value as well as a production that is interlinked down to the end user.
During production, the Mecorad measuring system measures flat steel with micrometer accuracy, which is a truly demanding task.
Building on these measurements, the company offers further services along the production chain. These include software for specialized measurements, process analyses and control algorithms, such as control of the roll gap or roll caliber. Coordination with external players such as scrap processors can also be managed using Mecorad applications.
The goal is to support the entire production system with digitalization. "Using our technology, we are tackling two fundamental problems in steel production: excessively high production value losses due to inaccurate measurements and a lack of control processes, as well as a great deal of catching up to do in terms of digitalization," says Dr. Marc Banaszak, Mecorad Managing Director.
SMS Digital: Catching Up in the Digital Field
The dynamic nature of young start-ups is also spurring on established players. Plant builder SMS, for example, uses what is known as the design-thinking approach to implement new digital services as they are typically pursued by digital start-ups. That's no accident. Two years ago, the leading plant builder set up its own subsidiary to act as a "creative forge," SMS Digital. Their mission: to develop software for Industry 4.0 and digital services for steel companies all over the world.
SMS Digital has already developed the first applications and software solutions to the point of readiness for the market, such as the intelligent alarm management "Smart Alarm." To achieve maximum plant availability, it is important for plant operators to monitor the status of the plant. However, conventional visualization systems with human-machine interfaces (HMIs) do not always meet this requirement, as SMS found.
With the new alarm management, all plants of a steel company can be integrated into one system. The plant status is evaluated by trend analyses, with time-consuming training not being necessary thanks to simple and intuitive operation. In the event of an alarm, a text message and e-mail are sent automatically. The digital forge is currently working on predicting alarms and identifying the triggering alarm in the event of many alarms occurring at once.
Opportunity of Digitalization -- Danger of Disruption
The digitalization of production creates a dynamic ecosystem. The potential opens up opportunities for new competitors from the start-up scene to offer new services in order to make established companies vulnerable -- even to the point of disrupting existing customer-supplier relationships.
"Digitalization and disruption are affecting every company and every industry," says Philipp Depiereux, founder and CEO of Etventure. The only difference is the speed of change. "What the publishing and music industries have already painfully experienced may also affect steel mills and foundries in the future."
Depiereux is certain of the following: "Steel mills and foundries need to be aware of one thing: Everything that can be digitalized will eventually be digitalized. They have to ask themselves whether they want to stand by and watch this change or whether they would rather take action themselves before a digital player attacks their core business.". The digital expert also has good advice for established companies: "Above all, they need to understand what these large digital players and start-ups do differently and make these success factors their own."
It is not convincing to Depiereux that steel manufacturers and foundries, forges and rolling mills, as classic representatives of the old economy with their heavy and bulky products, appear at first glance to be less willing to embrace the new business models of digital transformation. "Selling a steel slab digitally is of course more complex than doing the same with a book. But that doesn't mean that it can't succeed and that someone will inevitably do it at some point."
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