Data mining & smart steel
How digitalization transforms traditional industries
When thinking about steel production, cutting-edge technology and groundbreaking innovation are commonly not the first things that spring to mind. With its roots in the Second Industrial Revolution – an era that saw the rapid growth of large-scale mass production – the steel industry is still widely seen as traditional, with the need for careful management and a hands-on approach. However, things have come a long way since the demand for railways first spurred the expansion of the steel business in the late 1800s.
As the metal and mining industry continues to adapt to the automation of production and consumption, it seems a new revolution is on its way, bringing with it both opportunities and challenges: Industry 4.0. First coined in Germany, the term Industry 4.0 means the anticipated Fourth Industrial Revolution – the next major phase of innovation to shape the organization and management of the manufacturing world. It refers to the greater integration of smart technology into the work place. According to experts, Industry 4.0 will change how, where and by whom decisions about physical processes are made.
The Internet of Things
Industry 4.0 relies on the internet. More precisely the Internet of Things (IoT) – connections that can be made between devices equipped with sensors, software and wireless capabilities, coupled with a growing capacity to collect and store data. According to the OECD, the IoT could interconnect some 50 billion devices by 2020, a tenfold increase from current connections. Its potential is huge. For industries such as metal and mining, greater connectivity and data sharing will play a significant role in alleviating a number of issues presented by their nature: from remote locations and widespread supply chains, to fluctuating markets and potentially hazardous working environments.
It is perhaps no surprise then that companies in the metal and mining business are now looking at ways to transform not only their internal processes but also the way in which they interact with suppliers and customers. We take a look at the implications these developments might have for the industry.
Safety is paramount to industries such as metals and mining, with employees often using large machinery or working in locations that present risks. Industry 4.0 could help safety-relevant information to be spread more quickly and more widely. Wearable sensors, such as wristbands for example, can now check for the presence of hazardous materials or monitor employee exhaustion levels whilst at work. As such devices are connected via mobile or satellite transmission to supervisors and control centers, quick decisions can be made and communicated if necessary. At a structural level, conditions within mines can be automatically managed, for example through remotely controlled or on-demand ventilation systems that can check and adjust air circulation if required.
Enabling predictive maintenance
Both the metal and mining industry rely on extensive amounts of equipment. Maintaining this can be costly, not only in terms of the repair costs themselves, but also due to the drop in production rates that can result from a malfunction in critical devices. Significant progress in data availability and machine learning now enables maintenance work to be anticipated and carried out before something goes wrong. Certain equipment may even be able to schedule its own maintenance, whilst simultaneously shifting work to elsewhere in the network. As many checks can be made remotely, timing can also be more flexible, no longer requiring a visit to a mine or a production site.
Access to real-time data means that production can be constantly adjusted to meet consumer demand. Data can be analyzed to identify trends and reveal what customers want, enabling companies to better plan what to provide and when. Increased machine-to-machine communication also allows for automated stock management, meaning materials that are running low can immediately be re-ordered. Finally, real-time data aids the monitoring of products themselves. This can be particularly useful in the metal industry, where inconsistencies in quality can arise. Rather than sample-based assessments for quality control purposes, every single piece can be checked through the use of sensors. The cause of any errors can then be easily traced back and amended. Checking all products results in fewer callbacks and more efficient production.
Changing skills base
The increasing implementation of the internet and web-based systems means mechanical engineering is becoming inseparable from IT. Developing knowledge of new technologies is therefore essential for engineers. Digital and analytic skills are also required for decision-making tasks that cannot be automated. Another key change is the increasing separation between people and machines, workplace and employee, with much of the oversight of metal and mining sites being conducted wirelessly from afar. According to the World Economic Forum, this separation could make traditional industries more appealing to millennials, as remote or isolated locations become less characteristic.
Outlook: metal and mining industries at a crossroads
Industry 4.0 is still a relatively new term. While some are beginning to make the transition, it could still take time before physical objects are completely integrated into an information network. As industries such as metal and mining are still widely seen as traditional, it is clear that a cultural shift is also required. Digital trust is paramount for success, as well as the skills and competencies to manage these new technologies. Ultimately, it will be customer demand that fuels the change, as firms become increasingly able to compete on delivering exactly what is required, when it is required. Whilst the internet has long governed the way media, financial services and retailers operate, it seems now could be the time for heavy industry. Watch this (virtual) space.