In cement production, it pays off to be an early adopter of new technology. Industry 4.0 will reduce costs, increase the bottom line, and even help attract and retain talent. Boston Consulting Group recently published a report highlighting five areas where cement producers can benefit from Industry 4.0, so we called them up for a talk on the future of cement.
The lower the production cost, the better chance of survival. This could be the motto for most cement producers around the world, who have left no stone unturned in their quest to optimise production. The only hope for any real further gains is step change in the approach. In short, to optimise further, a revolution is needed. And now, the revolution is here. Industry 4.0, often referred to as the 4th Industrial Revolution will take us to the next level.
Industry 4.0 exploits new technologies like Internet of Things and Cloud Computing to create powerful connections between physical and digital systems. This opens possibilities and new solutions for further optimisation. With the enormous energy consumption, rising cost challenges, and the overall complexity, cement production will benefit from Industry 4.0.
The benefits of being late to the party
Compared to other industries, cement producers are already late to the party, and few players have implemented Industry 4.0 initiatives systematically. The good news is that this gives the first movers some advantages.
“Typically, being first mover is associated with some level of risk. But, by now, most of these technologies have been used across several other industries. From a technological standpoint it has proven its worth. The first mover has some other advantages. One is the aspect of time, because whether you succeed or fail as first mover, you don’t have to play catch up with a competitor who already reduced their cost with X dollars per ton. The second thing is, as you embark on this journey, a lot of the technology partners will be very open to experimenting and customizing for individual plants upfront, before the solutions become industry wide standard solutions,” says Sumit Gupta, Managing Director, Boston Consulting Group.
What is Industry 4.0
Industry 4.0 is also referred to as the 4th Industrial Revolution. The term covers the current trend of digitalization and data exchange in automation and manufacturing technology.
Some of the important elements of Industry 4.0 are Internet of Things (IoT), Cloud Computing, Big Data and Analytics, Virtual Twins, Augmented Reality, Autonomous Robots, and Cyber-Physical Systems.
In a Smart Factory based on Industry 4.0, all automation and manufacturing technology will be connected to a cloud solution with a connection to the internet. This will, at least in theory, allow users to customize products online and manufacturers to produce batch size of one without additional costs compared to large batches. This requires flexible robots and algorithms that calculate the most efficient production process without human interaction.
Reduce costs and attract talent
Sumit Gupta is also one of three authors on a recently published report by Boston Consulting Group titled Why Cement Producers Need to Embrace Industry 4.0. In the report, Boston Consulting Group list five areas of Industry 4.0 of particular interest to the cement industry. But before diving into those, he shares the two main reasons why cement producers need to embrace this digital future.
One is cost, the other is talent. Industry 4.0 is a lever to introduce the right technology to reduce costs and apply more to the bottom line across the entire cement value chain. It also gives the option of running more plants remotely, and this will help attract talent in a time where we have a skill gap.
The set of recommendations includes analytics-driven predictive maintenance. Predictive maintenance addresses issues before the equipment breaks down, and this requires sensors attached to all critical machines to monitor conditions such as vibration, temperature and pressure. These sensors must be connected to a network and send data for analysis. Through machine-learning, cement producers will be able to uncover root causes of past failures and predict the risk of failure for each machine. Predictive maintenance has been a hot topic within the discipline of automation for years, and this is a good place to start the digitalization journey because a number of solutions are already available.
“For equipment unique to the cement industry, such as the kiln and grinding media, you need a customised solution. In this area, equipment suppliers have the potential to develop industry specific solutions that will generate max value. In contrast, a stacker reclaimer is common in many industries and there are already many solutions available. In general, there are enough frameworks available to start a solution that will point you in the right direction,” Sumit Gupta says.
Simulate your production process
Digital twins is the second area Boston Consulting Group points to. Digital twins allow cement companies to mirror the entire production process through a digital model. The model allows you to simulate how adjusting one setting impacts all other settings. As the computers can comprehend far more data than the human brain, this allows for optimisation that is not possible with traditional tools through testing various scenarios in a safe and costless environment. With Artificial Intelligence and machine learning, the software will even improve itself along the way in a spiral for continuous optimisation.
As good as this sounds, it still requires a good deal of work to programme accurate digital twins. Here, Mr. Gupta underlines that you don’t need a full-scale self-improving model to start reaping the benefits.
“Here you can apply the concept of the minimum viable product. People have played between two fences where either they don’t want to do it, or they want a full-scale solution from day one. But it is a step-by-step process where your first model is not the end-state but good enough to start using. Don’t expect everything to be simulated perfect from day one, but pick an area and replicate it. Then, as the model keeps learning, you will see much better results in six months or one year’s time, and then the ROI step-by-step becomes lucrative,” he says.
Technology creates more jobs
Building accurate digital twins requires cooperation between experienced employees from the cement plants and data scientists. Here lies a challenge, as some employees are reluctant to share information.
“Some of these resident experts don’t want to share information because they grew up in a system where information is power. They feel threatened by the new technology because they don’t know their role in the future. It is a big management task to make people understand that the technology does not threaten their jobs, but actually creates an opportunity for them to develop new expertise. Most of the applications we are talking about will aid the human effort and take productivity to the next level. Some low-end jobs might go across, but I see more jobs being created. The initial fear of losing one’s job will always be there, and this is where the role of management comes in – tell people what is coming, let them know that they are part of the solution, and share the benefits across the organisation,” Gupta says.
Cut energy expenses in half
Simulating the process in a digital twin also has very beneficial impacts on the next two areas mentioned in the report: Predictive Quality Analysis and Alternative Fuel Optimization. The quality analysis can help reduce overspending where producers tend to use costly, high-quality limestone and additives to meet quality targets. A self-learning digital twin will, over-time, associate all the process input parameters and the raw material characteristics with the quality outcome and thus reduce the overspending.
The same goes for the energy expenditures that today represent 45% or more of total cement production costs. According to Boston Consulting Group, this could be cut in half by using alternative fuels, which today accounts for only 17% of the industry’s overall fuel use globally.
Sumit Gupta mentions three barriers that digital simulation can help overcome: securing the source of alternative fuel; replace the right level of fuel with alternative fuel; and use the right quantity in the right mix.
“Digital solutions can create clear advantages across these three areas, even the supply. You can tap down on your sources of supply and get an overview of what is going to arrive when,” he says.
When you use a digital twin to simulate the environment, you can really look at what the right range is for your plant, and instead of increasing by one percent, perhaps you can increase by five percent. It makes the journey faster.
Taking the first steps
The last area of recommendation in the report is The Integrated Control Tower. A digitized cement plant can be run remotely. According to the report, the few plants that do this already are experiencing reduction of up to 15% in operating costs, significant workforce optimisation, lower maintenance costs, and improvements in safety and working conditions. Points that match very well with the early comment about using Industry 4.0 to compensate for the skill gap.
Reading the report and talking to Sumit Gupta, Industry 4.0 sounds like the obvious next step for cement producers. But, how do you put in into practise, and where do you begin? To answer the first part of the questions, the report lists five general steps:
- grasp the current situation,
- set the vision,
- conduct pilots,
- create a reference factory,
- establish strong governance.
But when facing everyday challenges at the plant, you might be more interested in the answer to the second part of the question on where in your flowsheet you should set in.
“It really depends on the plant and the current situation of the plant. If all plants were equal, anything around the mill and the kiln would have maximum impact. But I have seen plants running really well, but the limestone mine needs improvement, and for some it’s logistics that need improvement. So, the question of whether cost, quality or capability improvements is the right first step is different for every plant. If everything is good, look at the kiln and the mill – this is where Industry 4.0 will take productivity to the next level,” Sumit Gupta says.
Industry 4.0’s biggest impact in cement
According to a recent report by Boston Consulting Group, five areas of Industry 4.0 in particular hold great potential for cement manufacturers today:
- Analytics-Driven Predictive Maintenance
- End-to-End Optimisation via Digital Twin
- Predictive Quality Analysis
- Alternative Fuel Optimisation
- Integrated Control Towers