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:
- Asset breakdowns and unplanned downtime
- Underutilization of equipment
- Manual paper-based operations adding to inefficiency
- Safety and compliance concerns
- High energy usage and emissions
- Raw materials missing quality requirements
- Technical abnormalities in the production process
- Difficulty in managing upstream and downstream inventory
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.
- Becoming Responsible
Anodes are an important component in manufacturing aluminum. They determine pot performance indicators like carbon consumption, electrical efficiency, quality and quantity of aluminum produced, etc. Wipro recently helped address this area for an aluminum major using Computer Vision and AI to identify and track the anodes during the carbon manufacturing process. This would not have been a priority for the organization but the pandemic forced them to undertake the initiative and address the new normal. The engagement indicates that the pandemic is heightening the response of the industry to become more “Responsible” and to creating a sustainable model that balances production with environmental stewardship and public and employee health concerns.
- Driving Responsiveness
The metals industry usually does not provide finished goods. Billets are cast into different forms based on the customer’s industry segment. But the customer is keen to understand the quality of metal delivered to them. Can a spectrometer test determine the grade of the metal or can a vacuum test check the gas porosity inside the molten metal and the results shared with the customer to demonstrate responsiveness? The test team can upload the data to a Blockchain controlled decentralized ledger, making the data immutable.
- Staying Reliable and Resilient
The list of challenges that Metals manufacturers face is growing. In the near term, manufacturers must turn to digital technologies to build a “Reliable” and “Resilient” organization. To do this, they must adopt a data-centric approach by connecting operations and data from mining to cast house and also be able to predict demand and feed it back to downstream operations and drive optimal production (and vice versa). Data captured from operations, sensors, partner systems, supply chains, and ERP can be used for a variety of improvements. Some of the target improvement could be optimization of feedstock costs, predictability in the demand for new products, supply chain resilience, capturing signals for predictive maintenance, guiding autonomous systems, improved yield, and enhanced risk mitigation. For Sesa Sterlite Ltd, an associate company of Vedanta Resources Plc, Wipro has successfully delivered a reduction in metal loss per kilogram in the potline by 0.02%, a reduction in costs associated with Anode Effect by 30% and a reduction in power consumption of 0.2% for the same process.ii
- Readying for Reskilling
The single-biggest change the industry must prepare for is the use of advanced technology. Automation is seeping into every industry, making it possible to improve throughput and create safer working environments. However, automation has seen limited penetration in the Metals industry. This is because of constraints like lack of skills associated with automation. But technology is moving at a rapid pace. Automated guided vehicles using LIDAR and 5G technologies are here and could drive unmanned crane operations in the movement of anodes in the baking kiln or in the smelting process. Training the workforce to leverage automation will be critical to success.
Hard robots could be deployed in highly challenging environments where the risk factor merits the use of extreme technology. These bots could be used for feeding and transferring loads, hot metal collection or changing tools. This would require a new level of collaboration between man and machines, placing inordinate emphasis on “reskilling” existing workforces.
Technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) can provide workers with expert guided assistance for their processes at the point of operations, ensuring improved performance as well as higher safety. Again, this calls for urgent re-skilling of the workforce.
Wipro’s iX Solution range is ideally suited for the industry. It can be adapted to provide remote expert assistance via video, audio, messaging, and annotation in real-time. Remote experts can see what the operational teams see to troubleshoot problems together, faster. Another solution augments information onto objects within the physical environment, blending physical machine, real-time data, and virtual knowledge for faster troubleshooting, guidance, and fixes.
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!