At FLSmidth, the digitalization team collects millions of these measurements: almost 92 million on 30 June, 2020. In total, our digitalization server stores about 20GB of new data – daily. And that’s just from the 64 sites, totalling 2616 assets, that are connected to our IoT platform. As the number of assets linked to that platform rises, the amount will only grow.
This huge expansion of data is vital. It’s the fuel for the digital transformation that is essential to the next stage of process optimization and sustainability in the cement industry. In short, it’s the industry’s future.
Take cost of production.
In an industry where overcapacity is common, controlling the cost of production is essential to survival. This was one the points made by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in its report, ‘Why Cement Producers Need to Embrace Industry 4.0’. BCG cites analytics-driven predictive maintenance, digital process simulation powered by artificial intelligence (digital twinning), and integrated control towers – where many plants are controlled from one location – as some of the areas in which cement companies can reap the rewards of this data-driven revolution.
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 may all sound complex. But it boils down to a very simple idea: the more you know, the smarter decisions you are able to make. With the huge amount of data available, we can know a lot about how a cement plant is running. Too much for any human operator to process, in fact. Which is where digital tools, such as advanced process control, AI, Big Data, Cloud computing, augmented reality, and IoT, come into play. They take the data and allow it to be turned into decisions.
Data-driven decisions. Which are, ultimately, smarter decisions.It’s not just about cost, though. It’s about sustainability too. One area where these two interests collide is with predictive quality analysis. Today, producers tend to over-engineer their raw meal with high-quality limestone and additives to ensure quality targets are met. Or they might over-mill the cement for the same reason, as a finer product correlates to higher final strength.
Both are costly options. But as final quality is something of a mystery until actually tested at the end of production, they’re seen as necessary costs to guarantee quality targets.
With digitalization, that mystery can be revealed. Raw meal can be finely controlled to ensure the optimal mix to meet quality targets, while avoiding overspend on additives and higher-quality materials. This optimization brings benefits in terms of lower energy consumption (reducing emissions) and less wear on mechanical parts (lower maintenance costs and use of consumable wear parts).
It also allows the use of lower-quality and alternative raw materials, meaning less has to be mined and reserves last longer. All of which is great for the long-term sustainability of the industry.
A data-driven approach brings similar benefits to alternative fuel use, which BCG reckons could help cut the cement industry’s energy bill (currently about 45% of total production costs) in half, all while reducing CO2 emissions from an industry under pressure to do its part for climate change.
For all their sustainability benefits, however, alternative fuels bring a level of instability to the process – a result of their inherent variability. At higher levels of fuel substitution, such as those implied by BCG, that instability can only be controlled with the aid of digital control solutions.
Meanwhile, on average, a cement plant with a digitalized process optimisation setup uses 6% less energy per tonne of cement than a plant with no digital setup.
The world is changing fast – and inevitably. The question is therefore not if cement companies adopt digitalization and the benefits of data-driven decision making, but when. Because those that don’t will quickly be left behind, overwhelmed by the challenges and overtaken by their digital-savvy competition. This cannot be dismissed as a passing fad; it is future of the industry.