Two key elements in the Metals industry have undergone dramatic change due to COVID-19: Capacity and cost. Metal and mining operations from the US to Peru and from Canada to Australia have been shutting down because of social distancing norms and unpredictable lockdowns. Simultaneously, with the Manufacturing and Construction and Engineering sectors badly hit by the pandemic, demand for metals is shrinking. Amidst this, there are fears that global trade wars will send a massive tremor through the industry. Dollar-priced metals would dent demand from China, a leading consumer of metals. The drastic 20% fall in copper prices since its peak in June 2018 is an indicator of the difficult times that lie aheadi. And copper is just the tip of the iceberg. Iron, manganese, nickel, steel, and aluminum that are inputs for wind turbines, batteries, smart phones, home appliances, automobiles, etc., have been badly affected. As the metals industry stalls, it must look for ways to guide itself into a more predictable and resilient future.
The Metals industry is unique. Smelters and production plants cannot stop and start operations at the touch of a button. Shutting down operations and rebooting them takes time and cuts into budgets. What the industry needs are systems and processes that make it agile and responsive to market changes and resilient against unpredictable catastrophes like COVID-19.
After decades of investing in infrastructure, this is the right time for the industry to reset. We predict that the industry will demonstrate an increasing appetite for advanced technology to manage capacities and cost.
Aluminum production as a case in point
Every dollar generated in the metals industry creates an additional $1.25 of activity elsewhere in the economy, thereby directly impacting a nation’s GDP. Although the benefits are huge, the production of metals is complex.
The production of aluminum, that involves bauxite mining, alumina refinery, carbon area, potlines and cast house, provides a prime example of the complexities.
Bauxite Mining: Bauxite gives us aluminum, the most abundant metal on the planet. Manufacturers have adopted state-of-the-art technologies to mine bauxite and transport it to refineries. The mining involves five steps – preparation of the mining area, mining, crushing, ore conveyors and rehabilitation.
Alumina Refinery: Bauxite ore is refined into alumina, which is the feedstock for aluminum smelters. Most alumina refineries are large enough to house hundreds of soccer fields with pipes that run for hundreds of kilometers, hundreds of tanks, thousands of conveyors and instruments that run between 5,000 to 8,000 meters with the ability to process five million tons of bauxite into two million tons of alumina. The scale presents severe challenges.
With hundreds of pipes, conveyors and pumps, it is important to continuously monitor the health of these assets and enable predictive and prescriptive maintenance. This helps avoid downtime that affects the refinery and midstream operations involving potlines.
A look at a specific scenario helps understand this better. Rectifier stacks are used by alumina refineries to convert alternating current to direct current. The uncertainty in operating temperatures leads the rectifier stacks to usually operate below 100 kA because they rely on manual infrared (IR) thermography for temperature measurements. This impacts operating current and material throughput. Using advanced sensors to continuously monitor temperature can help avoid catastrophic failures. Some of the other business use cases are overfill and spill prevention, energy management and loss control, monitoring of safety and near-miss incidents.
Carbon Area and Potlines: Potlines are the lifeline of the smelting plants. Hundreds of pots liquefy aluminum using electrolysis. The main inputs for the pot are electricity, alumina, anodes and cryolite bath. To run the electrolysis process, each pot must be equipped with anodes and cathodes. Anodes are consumed during the process and are usually replaced based upon consumption or once every 28 days. New anodes are produced in-house within the carbon area. Anodes go through 3 stages – Green anodes are produced by mixing calcined petroleum-coke, coal-tar pitch, recycled scraps, and anode butts (old anodes that come out of potlines) by mixing and vibro-compaction; these are then baked in kilns for 14+ days; baked anodes are sent to a rodding shop where they are stemmed with two anodic blocks. The quality of the anodes affects the quantity of production. But the anodes are often not of the best quality.
Cast House: Smelting produces liquid aluminum, which is cast into a wide range of products that are converted to finished goods for industries like Automotive, Electronics, Construction, Aerospace, and Food Packaging. The smelting process is prone to fatal injuries.
The challenges that these multiple processes throw up include:
Can the Metals industry take a massive leap of faith and adopt Industry 4.0 technologies like Data Sciences, Predictive Analytics, Automation, Cloud, Computer Vision, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), and Augmented Reality (AR) to overcome these challenges? Fortunately, the industry has a great track record. It has redeemed itself multiple times over the past several years.
Even today, leaders in the industry are upping the ante by several notches by examining how technology can create interventions to shape the Metals industry of the future.
A 5R Framework to address challenges
Wipro’s 5R framework is designed to assist the Industry overcome its challenges. The 5Rs cover becoming Responsible, Responsive, Reliable, Resilient, and Re-skilled.
Marching into the future
The future belongs to combining the cognitive powers of humans with the analytical powers of IT systems and the capacity of robots to generate physical ability. Binding these into a seamless experience will be the focus of leaders in the industry as they march towards Industry 5.0!
Distinguished Member of Technical Staff
Senthil is a Distinguished Member of Technical Staff at Wipro and a digital leader who ‘Translates Concepts into Reality and Ideas into Execution’. He is a business strategist and Industry 4.0 specialist with multiple years of experience working with clients across the globe on Digital Transformation leveraging exponential technologies like IoT, AI, Blockchain, and Computer Vision impacting multiple business functions like Production, Supply Chain and Operations, Finance, Customer and Employee Engagement. He has presented in multiple developer workshops, IEEE conferences, and to C-suite executives. Senthil has published several technical papers in international conferences and is the inventor of multiple granted patents in the areas of digital transformation.