Encoding the manufacturing of the metal industry. By Azeez Mohammed

Omnipresent in every aspect of our lives, from cooking pans to skyscrapers, metal is the world’s major material for engineering and construction.

In 2016, China – the world’s largest producer and consumer of steel and aluminum – announced over half a million redundancies as part of a program to manage overcapacity within the steelmaking industry. However, the ubiquity of metal has not stopped it from suffering from the worst downturn in 50 years, driven by unbalanced supply and demand. As two of the main pillars, steel and aluminum production raised to 1.6 billion tons worldwide1, and more than 60 million metric tons respectively worldwide in 20172.

The metal manufacturing process is heavily dependent on power electronics such as electric drives and motors. Rotating machinery’s performance is therefore crucial to the plant’s overall productivity, directly affecting metal manufacturers’ profits and quality of the end products. For example, a single hot strip in the steelmaking process can lose up to $30 million in annual revenue to unplanned downtime, and added to the whole industry scale, this represents billions.

The emergence of big data and the Internet of Things (IOT) is bringing a bright future for manufacturing these key industrial materials. Today, the use of digital technology is a much-needed company strategy to further boost productivity of the metal industry.

The deployment of digital tools, such as asset performance management (APM), powered by GE’s Predix platform, can monitor and determine equipment health. Instead of expensive and often fragile vibration monitors and other monitoring techniques, for the first time, it is possible to control and fine-tune the assets in the process as they operate. The application of this digital approach will have a profound impact on downtime, product quality and energy consumption, with spin-off benefits for maintenance costs, manning levels and spare parts inventories.

Digital capability
Through enhanced connectivity, APM can monitor rotating machinery performance at the downstream of the steelmaking process as well as in the aluminum smelting process. All data, and therefore real-time plant performance, can be reported via one central screen, allowing operators to have a holistic view of the entire plant. This holistic view enhances situation awareness, and more importantly, it helps operators smooth out and improve processes to boost productivity and ensure on-time delivery.

The software can recognize, thanks to sensors installed on the machine, data patterns derived from equipment’s real-time performance and compare against its health index, indicating future potential electrical and mechanical failures and allowing operators to mitigate a problem on equipment in advance, reducing downtime.

Current plant maintenance is outsourced to third-party services companies. While they routinely perform the maintenance tasks during planned plant downtime based on the calendar, the approach simply cannot guarantee to prevent the plant from future unplanned outages or can, in turn, potentially result in unnecessary maintenance and its associated costs. Digital solutions could shift the calendar-based repairs to a predictive-maintenance model, saving opex costs associated with parts and services.

Product quality is of paramount significance, directly affecting a company’s reputation and its revenues. If the machinery is not running the way it should be, it affects productivity as well as the quality, leading to material waste and lower margin as finishing products that fail to meet the required quality standard will have to be sold at a discounted price. Enabled by digital capability, operators have access to real-time data about the equipment performance and can adjust the process while machines are in motion. It optimizes machinery settings to deliver precise action and quality product.

Huge opportunity
With the industry being highly energy intensive, when equipment is not performing as it should, it consumes more energy. In the aluminum manufacturing process, 30 to 40 per cent of the production cost is taken by electric power3. Energy consumption and raw materials are two of the primary cost drivers in the aluminum industry, especially due to the high consuming smelting process required to create aluminum.

Using digital technology, it could provide key data such as temperature and chemical reactions with the smelting equipment to get a holistic view of the gear health state. A data-driven energy management approach can ensure each rotating machine is running perfectly at its peak efficiency, allowing optimized use of energy. Reduced energy consumption enabled by the new digital technologies consequently cuts steelmakers’ energy bills (cost reduction) as well as minimizes environmental impact (greenhouse gas emissions).

Looking further, the digitalization could represent a huge opportunity for the manufacturers at an industry level. Once these new technologies are fully incorporated in the industry, it will break down plant silos and enable operators to access real-time performance of any plant anywhere for global benchmarking and smarter decision-making. Furthermore, it will help systemize process methods across global plants for consistent operational excellence. A certain data pattern could be identified and therefore, help operators to build up a process model that leads to the best outcome. This model can be scaled across owners’ plants to drive for consistent performance and boost efficiency across the globe.

The fourth industrial revolution has just started. The world’s metal manufacturing market can future-proof operations and enable manufacturers to stay competitive in this pivotal time.

1 World Steel Organization
2 World Aluminum Organization
3 American Aluminum Association

Azeez Mohammed is the president & CEO of Power Conversion, a business unit of GE Power. Headquartered in Paris, France, Power Conversion drives the electric transformation of the world’s energy infrastructure across multiple industries. Previously, Azeez held multiple high-profile roles across GE, including the president & CEO, Middle East and Africa for Power Services.