We live in a digital age, and our production processes need to evolve to reflect that fact. Converting traditional production environments into highly automated “smart” plants will entail fundamental changes in the way metals manufacturers interact with their suppliers and customers.
Harmonious production processes
When technology works in perfect harmony with the different aspects of metals production, the effect can be compared to that of a skilled orchestra’s performance.
Just as an orchestra consists of many individual musicians playing their instruments in unison, a smart steel plant contains numerous separate components that need to work together to perform at their full potential.
This metals “orchestra” benefits from having a high-tech conductor oversee its performance. A smart steel plant’s production management systems use sensor technology, digital production planning tools and sophisticated AI-driven diagnostics to collect data on how each smart component is performing. The systems then make changes to optimize the overall performance. As part of this process, each function within the plant is continually analyzed and refined.
These incremental improvements demonstrate some of the key benefits of turning traditional steelworks into smart plants.
The ultimate digital production goal is to create a “digital twin” of the steel plant’s physical assets, processes and automated controls, using sensors to analyze each aspect of the production process and replicate it electronically.
When future steel orders are processed, the system can collect data while continually learning and updating itself in real time. This process of constant fine-tuning will not only improve overall performance, but also ensure all the components work together in greater harmony. Over time, the system will begin to use machine learning to teach itself the optimal way to produce steel with minimum resources, creating higher efficiency across the whole production process. These improvements include using fewer raw materials, reducing energy requirements and lowering labor costs.
The digitalized “smart plant” of the future will operate with total transparency, so each function knows what is happening in other parts of the production process. For example, if an error or delay occurs during the casting stage, the metal rolling section of the plant can be alerted automatically and adjust its parameters to alter the workflow accordingly.
A more technically advanced and AI-enabled predictive maintenance system will allow the smart plant of tomorrow to perform health checks on plant equipment. As the system collects more production data, it will increase its capacity to automatically assess the condition of machinery and production processes, identifying likely problems before they become serious. The system can then automatically schedule servicing and maintenance work during off-peak times, thus minimizing disruption to the steel production process.
Looking to the future
While increased productivity and reduced costs represent good news for the future of steel makers, digitally-enabled metals production also holds many benefits for steel customers.
Smart plants will give producers the flexibility to offer tomorrow’s steel buyers a new level of service. Manufacturers can respond to changing client needs much more flexibly than before by offering customized orders and smaller lot sizes, with little loss to productivity.
In addition, each order can be accompanied with a full digital product history to boost customer confidence and satisfaction. Generating a step-by-step production record also increases producer transparency and accountability.
Alongside these new developments, technological advances are reducing steelmakers’ reliance on traditional business models. The emergence of online trading platforms – where metals are offered to the market through independent internet-based brokers – is also replacing the more traditional one-to-one relationships between manufacturers and their customers. Such changes open up a world of new possibilities for the industry as it moves into a smarter, increasingly customized future.
This article originally appeared on Forbes