Wheels of automation picking up pace
Wheels of automation picking up pace

Wheels of automation picking up pace

For the cement industry, it is imperative to adapt ways to address the key challenges of energy saving, water conservation, reduction in carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions, and material resource and waste management. The question is how does one address this? An answer to this is process control automation, and major players in India's cement sector feel the same.

Steel and cement are the two most critical elements of the construction industry. Any movement in these two components can have a direct impact on the infrastructure and economy of the country. Currently, India is the second largest cement producer in the world with a production capacity of more than 500 million tonne per annum (MTPA), and is expected to cross 550 MTPA by the end of 2020.

According to a projection in a report published by Research and Markets titled "Global Cement Market Insight, Trends and Forecast 2019-2021: Production, Consumption, Imports & Exports", the global cement consumption volume is expected to reach 4.42 billion tonnes in 2021, growing at a CAGR of 2.96 per cent during the period 2018-2021.

Increasing construction activities, rising urbanisation and higher disposable income are likely to be the growth drivers. However, the growth of the market would be challenged by depleting fossil fuel reserves. A few notable trends include expansion of civil engineering sector on a global scale, rising demand for green cement and increasing infrastructure projects in developing regions.

"The global cement industry is expanding in terms of production as well as consumption volume. The rising construction activities at a fast pace is promoting the cement demand considerably. The market demand for cement from civil engineering industry is rising strongly, due to the increasing investment by government on residential as well as public work sectors. This is enabling the cement manufacturers to produce cement on a large scale and thereby raising the consumption volume also," the report highlighted.

India: Still lagging
Though Indian exports cement to the international market, the country is far behind with $295.8 million, which is 2.9 per cent of the total international market. According to 2018 statistics, Vietnam led the pack with $1.1 billion (11.1 per cent of total cement exports). China is much ahead of India in ranking with more than double the share in its kitty. However, there is a bigger gap created by China with fewer exports, which can be filled by India if the companies increase their exports.

Cement as an industry is energy intense, highly raw material-driven, water intense, and has a higher environmental impact. Cement industry in India consumes 10 per cent of the total coal produced and 6 per cent of the total power consumed in the country. Typically, a cement plant consumes between 60-100 KW to produce one tonne of cement.

With the help of advanced technology the industry has been taking steps to control the environmental impact by adopting various measures. Reducing water intake by shifting from the previous wet process to the latest dry process, shifting of captive power from thermal (coal) to heat recovery as cement plants generate high temperature during the manufacturing process.

Change is happening
Cement factories are notorious for high greenhouse gas emissions. However, major players have been taking steps to mitigate the shortcomings and, to a large extent, have succeeded in their efforts by adopting various technologies.

For the industry, it is imperative to adapt ways to the address the key challenges of energy saving, water conservation, reduction in carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions, material resource and waste management. The question is how does one address this? One-line answer to this is process control automation. The industry is in agreement that the cement industry requires faster changes to realise the set Vision 2030.

Here again, process control automation is seen with much apprehension: the disruption it creates, the cost factor, up-skilling of existing manpower, and the challenges of retrofitting.

Highlighting the solutions available for issues concerning cement plants these days, Rajat Kishore, Managing Director & Vice President- Process Automation India Hub, Schneider Electric India, points out, "In Schneider Electric, we have a specific initiative called "eco structure" for the cement industry. This helps plants to achieve greater efficiency with digitally-enabled solutions, through which energy monitoring and control solutions are provided. The solution also gives a transparent view of energy usage of productions both in the production process usage as well is in identifying potential savings. It also helps companies realise how automation is key to addressing the challenges of the cement industry."

Process control digitalisation
Cement industry in India has enormous opportunities for new investments. Plants are being set up, new captive plants are being done and the annual capacity is ever increasing. With a healthy pipeline of infrastructure development and hoisting sector in the offing, Indian cement industry is expected to gain momentum. To cater to the increasing demand, companies should also look at increasing efficiency in operations by automation.

The huge growth of infrastructure puts pressure on the cement manufacturers to become more and more efficient, and explore and attract entry of more international players to meet the competition. The fierce competition is driving the industry players to adopt automation. However, the key factor that would drive the automation process is the government regulations that stipulate strict compliance to reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Dwelling upon the digitalisation aspect vis-a-vis the cement industry, Mark Yseboodt, Sales Manager Automation - Minerals, Siemens AG, says, "Digitalisation is a very broad concept that can have various positive influences on a cement manufacturer's costs, depending on the specific application in question."

Digital platform
He goes on to explain: "A simple logistics example is a digital platform where customers can place their order to the cement producer. The platform tells the customer and their truck driver where to find the nearest plant to pick up the order. The truck driver is identified with an RFID tag at the weighbridge at the entrance. The truck is guided to the right silo. He only has access to the silo that contains the type of cement that was ordered. The truck is loaded with the required amount of cement and leaves the plant through the weighbridge at the exit and an invoice is generated. Such a solution ensures that trucks are not loaded with the wrong cement type or quantity. Cement theft is avoided. An additional bonus is that by keeping track of the truck drivers and their behaviour, the plant can blacklist drivers that don't respect the rules, thus improving the onsite safety."

When such simple technologies are available, what is preventing the cement industry from adapting to them, one wonders!

Rajat Kishore of Schneider adds, "The resistance to change invariably comes from the fear of how much you want to change. Take for instance, upscaling of manpower. Cement industry has a combination of skilled and unskilled manpower. The industry faces the challenge of finding suitably-trained manpower, especially equipped to handle newer technology. In my personal experience domestic cement players are increasingly adopting automation in process control. One will be surprised to know one of the technologies is called "digital road map". What is noticeable is that they are adopting our automation and energy-saving solutions. A tendency has been developed but things are moving at a slow pace. But change is not inevitable."

Next technology
Elaborating on the next level of technology, Yseboodt of Siemens says,"Remote access is becoming more and more the standard, resulting in the need for newly-killed people at cement plants. This has been going on for some years now. The main trend is the continued development of digitalisation solutions in various parts of the process. Basically, plant data is collected, transferred and stored so that it is available where and when it is required. We are seeing cases where additional data from the field is being used to improve the production process."

But is collection of data feasible and manageable? According to Yseboodt, data collection and management isn't problematic at all!"Generating more data in itself is often not difficult. Simply, add another sensor. However, it is important to remember that most cement plants are running plants and there is often a limit to the amount of data that can be added to the control system. In fact, a lot of the data from the sensors is not necessarily required to control the process itself. Some data may only be relevant for maintenance purposes or for quality KPIs. In such cases, it is important not to overload the CPUs with irrelevant data," he says, adding: "The trend today is to create an additional data channel. Smart switches route the signals through the CPU and/or through the additional channel. In this way, you can add as much data as you want to your plant without (negatively) interfering with the existing automation system. The second data channel is designed to be fully secure and the data can be made available to selected users to see only what they need to see."

He further adds: "This new transparent layer of data analytics is gaining importance above the plant automation DCS, in which data is being quickly made available to customers on their machines and which help them to analyse and plan future course of action. Data analytics on plant data helps to define optimisation strategies as well as facilitate predictive maintenance."

According to Yseboodt,"Data analytics is paving the path for Artificial Intelligence (AI), a new technology that is finding its way into the cement industry. AI creates opportunities to solve issues that couldn't be handled in the past. By collecting and archiving relevant data, it becomes possible to recognise patterns and detect anomalies that previously remained invisible. This allows the plant operators or the automation system to take corrective measures before an actual problem occurs."

Way forward
Smart Mining Platforms that can communicate with the machinery in the factory, support predictive assets maintenance on site, and support augmented reality, virtual reality and digital print. In the cement industry the objective is to achieve operational asset management excellence by increasing the readiness to leverage new age automation and deployment of integrated distant solutions. As AI and Machine Learning are taking their first steps into the cement industry, manufacturers are hopeful of a better management system at a reasonable cost.

- LIZA V

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