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How can Industry 4.0 help the global steel industry achieve greater efficiencies?

Taking place in Warsaw, Poland, the Future Steel Forum assembles speakers from academia and the steel industry to examine how technological innovations can revolutionize steel production. Matthew Moggridge, Editor of Steel Times International, talks about the themes and perspectives steelmakers must consider as they shift to a digital manufacturing platform.

According to the 2016 Global Industry 4.0 Survey conducted by the consulting firm PwC, the buzz surrounding Industry 4.0 has moved on from what some had earlier considered as hype to actual investment and real results. This investment, in turn, is translating into increasingly advanced levels of digitization and integration. 67% of respondents from the metals sector, among them companies in the steel industry, say they expect to reach advanced levels of digitization in their vertical value chains by 2020.

Matthew Moggridge, Editor of Steel Times International, shares a similar view. “The steel industry is well prepared for Industry 4.0 and has, for a long time, been at the forefront of industrial technological development,” he says.

“There are companies, such as Primetals Technologies, SMS group, Danieli Automation, Fives, among others, who have been pushing the boundaries of digital manufacturing and partnering with leading steelmakers such as ArcelorMittal, Tata Steel, Voestalpine and many others to develop the concept of Industry 4.0.”

Moggridge adds that in the US, Big River Steel is arguably the first smart steel plant. The company recently partnered with Noodle.ai, a San Francisco-based Enterprise Artificial Intelligence company, to implement Enterprise AI to optimize operations at the former’s scrap metal recycling and steel production facility in Osceola, Arkansas.

Efficiencies and challenges

Broadly speaking, Industry 4.0 assists the global steel industry in its quest for greater efficiencies while raising new concerns. On the one hand, as digitization has moved from being an augmenting capability for steel companies to something that is now becoming a disruptive force, the PwC report says that it is delivering supply chain agility, deeper process understanding and higher production utilization.

The report states: “Automation is combining with data analytics to enable much higher flexibility as well as more efficiency in production. Algorithms are linking the physical properties of the materials with production costs and plant constraints to improve efficiency. Processes that were previously separated are now being integrated, leading to reductions of heat loss, energy consumption, throughput time, inventory as well as better price optimization.”

On the other hand, the people aspect also needs to be addressed. PwC states that companies will need to make sure staff members understand how the company is evolving and how they can be a part of the change. From PwC’s interviews with metals companies, the biggest challenges involve issues such as culture, leadership and the economic case for change.

In addition, Moggridge cites Dirk Schaefer, assistant professor of design engineering at the University of Bath, UK, who argues that the development of a new work force will also prove challenging within the context of Industry 4.0. Schaefer believes that investing in workforce education is essential. “Each of the previous industrial revolutions resulted in a surge of unemployment. There is no reason to believe that this will be any different this time around, unless preventive action is taken today,” Schaefer asserts.

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