Automation driving cement sector
Automation driving cement sector

Automation driving cement sector

In the new world order, data analytics and AI are the latest "in thing". Cement industry, which was lagging in this area over the decades, is gradually switching over to IT and automation by moving from manual expert control to AI-based control. AI-based control enables the smooth running of plants with remote controls and data-based predictive maintenance, which reduces the downtime.

The cement industry, an integral part of India's infrastructure growth story, has showed impressive progression in the last century. A sharp rise in demand for cement in the country has spurred global major players of the cement segment to enter India either by way of acquisitions or through investments.

Over the last two decades, the cement industry has made significant progress in terms of output, improved tech-nological adaptation in machines, process management and emission control. In the last few years the focus has shifted to technology adaptations that result in increased efficiency, output and predictive maintenance.

The fourth industry revolution, or Industry 4.0, for the cement industry is "Plants of Tomorrow." This is expected to develop a strong communication link between physical and digital systems. In a cement plant, the 4.0 revolution can enhance overall efficiency and rationalise rising costs.

In a manually-controlled cement plant, one has to depend on engineers and their expertise for several hours to simply assess the quality of the end product. With 4.0 in place, companies will be able to do the same in a shorter period as real-time data would be available.

The implementation would include a combination of automation technologies, robotics, artificial intelligence, and predictive maintenance data analysis. The cement industry process involves multiple layers of processing which requires dynamic technology. The communication among the machines that involves remote sensing, remote controlling, process control etc would only give the expected output on the automation side.

The adaptation of technology can be broadly classified into two: the automation of machines and overall technology-driven control process. With the penetration of highly efficient products and IoT, AI and Data Analytics, the process has become even simpler.

Because of complexities in working mechanisms and being capital intense, the cement industry takes more time in adaptations. The outbreak of Covid-19 and its impact across the globe has positively triggered the need for automation in cement industry. While the Indian cement segment is expected to see a demand dip of 30 to 40 per cent with uncertainty looming over revival, it is imperative for companies to look at ways to implement cost-effective steps.

Though products (both hardware and software) have been available in the Indian market for years, the cement industry has its own challenges in IT adaptation. A majority of the cement plants that were set up years or even decades ago have no engineering data available. The plants that have come up in the last two decades, according to technology providing companies, are pretty much in line with the requirements of IT adaptations. A retrofitting project also can throw surprises which directly impact implementation of technology in the factory.

Process and challenges
Experts in the cement sector are of the opinion that the only way forward for the cement industry is to embrace technology.

VN Balasubramanian, Director, Head BU Cement, thyssenkrupp Industries India, points out: "Information technology is an important tool for learning, thinking, data acquisition and processing, self-production and coop-eration. In short, I would say that at ThyssenKrupp, we consistently endeavour to upgrade competency and per-formance by developing new technology to move towards our goal of "future-ready cement plants."

While elaborating on the different stages of implementation, Meenu Singhal, Vice President, Schneider Electric India for Industry Automation Business, says, "There are three main pillars of the co-structure that enable the cement industry to do a lot of work on a decent platform to adapt IoT. "First is the edge control, where the devices are connected to provide real-time solution by enabling the local control and the edge. Then come the apps and applications. Here, the data from the connected devices are collected, analysed and up-layered. The data collected are merged for analysing of energy optimisation, process simulationùboth management and control-asset maintenance, asset management, optimisation and all other aspects pertaining to remote-management of plants."

He points out that IT applications can produce complete data sheet and analytics which, in turn, help the plant people to take informed decisions. "It can prevent the delay of waiting for an expert to visit the plant to resolve the issues. Now the transfer of knowledge will happen more through remote connectivity. And this makes the commissioning more easier, more productive and highly efficient. The entire visual will be IT-connected and can be accessed," he explains.

Cost factor
Touched upon the crucial point of cost involved, Krishnadas Manjaparra, ABB's business head of industrial automation process industries for South Asia, Middle-East, and Africa, explains, "Forward thinking people realise that the cost of putting good automation and digital system is quite low when compared to its benefits. Go to any cement manufacturer who is very, very price-sensitive, the person would still have an ERP (enterprise resource planning) system."

According to Balasubramanian of ThyssenKrupp, "The execution of cement projects, in general, is indeed a huge challenge as it has not been attempted in the past in the cement industry. The number of capex projects in cement is likely to slow down in the next couple of quarters till the market stabilises. The focus shifts to cost optimisation, throughput enhancement to reduce OPEX with minimum CAPEX and minimal human interactions. This is where IT solutions come in."

The demand for cement has dipped around 40 per cent and it is expected to remain so for the next few quarters. Government initiatives on infrastructure projects will help the revival of the segment. But right now it's not hap-pening.

In the cement industry there is room for optimising production and improving energy efficiency. There is also room for optimising production management, sustainability, supply chain management. A dip in demand means proportionate reduction in manufacturing, which calls for reduction of cost as well. Industries are taking steps and investing in segments where they can do more with less effort and produce more effectively and efficiently.

AI, ML and remote sensing
As compared to other segments, the implementation of AI and ML in the cement sector has been a bit slow. AI touches people, machines, boxes, efficiency etc. The change in fact is faster than expected. Delay in adapting to AI and ML can directly impact competitiveness. In these extremely challenging times, industries are becoming agile and taking advantage of this opportunity.

In the wake of pandemic lockdown, many are resorting to implanting automation projects remotely.

Krishnadas Manjaparra of ABB narrates a remote-controlled operation: "In just a few months, we have commissioned a full cement processing plant remotely. The basic work of connecting devices was handled by the customer and commissioning was carried out remotely. I see this as the way forward in the new world. Teams can watch over plants for the customers and resolve issues as and when alerts/alarms are triggered. There are simulations where alarm analytics run in the background and issue detection in the remote centre is faster. We have AI-based solutions relating to assets and asset reliability. We collect various data, such as device temperatures, loading patterns, ambient temperatures and the happenings inside the cabinets to do AI-based analytics. Based on that, we alert the customer to the probability of failure of a particular part or electronic device. These are already implemented. However, a lot more on asset reliability and process side is in the pipeline."

Product solutions
Highlighting the various products offered by ThyssenKrupp, Balasubramanian points out, "There are four types of product solutions: analytics and reporting, predictive maintenance, performance optimisation and predictive operation.The benefits for customers include increased transparency, plant availability, safety, reduction in un-planned down time, improved throughput, quality and efficiency, leading to reduction in operating costs and even forecast production and demand."

He further elaborates by saying, "The key solutions in our portfolio include almost every aspect of cement plant. For example, Conveyor volume flow control, AI-based conveyor belt condition monitoring system, mine and stockpile mapping services, digital inventory control for circular stockyards, drone inspection and surveillance services, ML-based bucket wheel excavator (BWE) tooth-wear detection, advanced positioning system, PlantScan 3D for plant mapping services, grinding equipment performance monitoring and improvement services, advanced analytics consulting, learning management system services, cement plant energy management system."

Challenges in remote implementation
Meenu Singhal of Schneider adds, "No doubt you need manpower at the site, but the majority of this manpower will start shifting to digital. So, there is core manpower which is needed to be at the plant. Such manpower will have to go through reskilling for IT, which means we have to keep the reskilling element agile and adaptive to switching over to IoT platforms. These people within their own plants should be made more prescinded entities of the vendors to do the commissioning. Now majority of that support will shift to remote, by using IT-enabled cameras, connected products such as circuit breakers, meters, drives, all the possible instrumentation products, including boxes. In a cement plant, the boxes are mission critical and the edge of the IoT network is a must."

Way forward
When we look at disturbances, the disturbance-oriented investments and project consulting investments from the cement industry are going to increase drastically. "As we move forward, investment could be in cyber security. In terms of air modulations and upgradation of existing assets, we need to ensure delivery of a better lifetime of the assets that the plant owners have installed. At times, it is thought that the plant is pretty old and needs to be replaced. But with slight modifications and modernisation, 20 to 30 per cent of more years can be added to the plant's life. So, I think businesses in terms of services and retrofits are going to increase and that is one area which we are hopeful and very optimistic about," points out Meenu Singhal.

Krishnadas concludes by saying, "Going forward, we are actively looking to monitor business-related key per-formance indicator (KPI) combined with process KPI. This will enable the manufacturer to sense the threshold well in advance and deploy means to minimise loss of potential opportunities. We are building such remote-driven solutions."

The core aim of IT or automation service would help cement companies to improve efficiency through data man-agement, supply chain management, production management, resource integration, energy optimisation and process optimisation. The challenge, however, will be ensuring a cyber-secured built-in gateway.

- RENJINI LIZA VARGHESE

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