Smart manufacturing

Baotou modern operation room

High-tech mechanical testing process (© Nucor Corporation)

Smart manufacturing does not just mean having a smart factory. It is a significant transformation in the way we source raw materials, manufacture, and market our products through horizontal and vertical supply chain integration - it is profoundly customer-focused.

This change is not a one-step process as there are obvious challenges of trust and data security to overcome between diverse parties in the supply chain. There are a number of examples of early adopters within the steel industry; especially in vertical integration within business segments where building blocks of smart factories are being put together. Below are a few examples:

Logistics:

  • Real-time tracking of supplies and orders assisted through GPS, RFID, LiFi (indoor & outdoor accurate positioning);
  • Dynamic management of in-process inventory, consumables and spares.

Product quality systems:

  • Modelling of material and surface characteristics for local process control resulting in optimum quality;
  • Computer Aided Quality Control (CAQC) with 100% testing, inspection and storage of data related to hot-rolled coils minimising claims and cost of potential quality issues;
  • Intelligent grading of coils and rerouting of coils within production lines to find best match with customer orders reducing rejects and optimising yield;
  • Operational research (Big Data analytics) of process data related to coil segments for fault tracking and process efficiency;
  • Real-time dynamic line scheduling and adjustment of process parameters with Artificial Intelligence (BIOMIMIC + Parallel Computing) in rolling and finishing.

Predictive maintenance:

  • Predictive Asset Maintenance increasing up-time assisted by advance warnings of failures.
  • Remote assistance of maintenance teams with smart glasses.

Process control and safety:

  • Dynamic real-time analysis and control of blast furnace process parameters using sonic, laser and radar visualisation;
  • Sensors detect harmful stray gases, noises and temperatures, and notify operators of threats;
  • Advanced fully-automated BOF from charging to tapping;
  • Networked platforms of assets such as blast furnaces where process experts can see every operation in real-time and collaborate with each other;
  • Use of drone technology for inspection of areas that are difficult to reach in the plant and surveying and planning of mining operations.

Changing market mechanisms is a strong driving force which will require flexibility of operations and mass-customisation of products with a small batch-size and short lead-time.

Surfing the waves of this change will require the steel industry to have a sharp awareness of customer dynamics and expertise on the implementation of tools and strategies offered through Industry 4.0.

This new revolution will also accelerate a shift of labour expertise from production sites to more specialised areas, where digitisation will bring about increased efficiencies.