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Tech tac toe: metals plan their next IT move

Jun 26, 2013 | 08:00 PM | Myra Pinkham

Tags  information technology, Patrick Gallagher, Management Science Associates Inc., Chuck Cinkowski, U.S. Steel Corp., Andrew Zoryk, Accenture Ltd., manufacturing execution system ArcelorMittal Dofasco Inc.

Information technology (IT) is an important tool for steelmakers in their quest to improve the quality of their products while also producing their steel more efficiently and safer.

“It is fair to say that most mills can’t make steel or don’t make steel without information technology being involved in the game,” said Patrick Gallagher, vice president of metals and advanced manufacturing at Management Science Associates Inc., Pittsburgh.

IT has been widely used throughout the steel sector--from mining operations through the production of finished product--for some time, said Chuck Cinkowski, director of plant processes at U.S. Steel Corp.’s Great Lakes Works in Ecorse, Mich. This includes a wide range of technologies, such as programmable logic controllers, distributed control systems, advanced networking technologies and supervisory control and data acquisition systems.

Steelmakers can use IT to monitor processes to measure how they are performing and convey that information to operators, Cinkowski said. IT also is used to automate a number of functions that used to be done manually to allow for cost improvement and to improve yield or model processes to predict the outcome of several different scenarios.

“To mass produce stronger, lighter steels that could be competitive with alternative materials being considered by automakers and other major customers, we need to have tighter control of our steelmaking processes and know when we need to make corrective adjustments,” he said, noting that only through automation can steel mill operators consistently get the results they seek.

Andrew Zoryk, managing director and global leader at the metals enterprise solutions group of global consultancy Accenture Ltd., said that many steel companies have seen dramatic improvements as a result of the IT systems they’ve implemented.

While Zoryk didn’t quantify the improvement, he said that large steel companies could save upward of $15 million annually through advanced supply chain management solutions alone, with some companies he has worked with reporting a 10- to 30-percent reduction in inventory levels, thus reducing working capital costs.

Steel companies also have reported a dramatic reduction in lead times--as much as 20 to 50 percent--and have increased by as much as 20 to 40 percent their ability to deliver orders within the time frame promised to customers, he said.

Dramatic improvements have been seen at ArcelorMittal Dofasco Inc., particularly with process optimization, product quality, throughput and overall ability to serve customers, according to Michael Dudzic, the Hamilton, Ontario-based company’s manager of process automation.

Dofasco recently completed a major revamping of its manufacturing execution system (MES) for its operations--from exiting the hot mill through all of its finishing lines. “The new MES is an enabling technology that provides interactive cross-plant planning functionality to ensure close alignment and improve material flow through all assets,” Dudzic said. “The system has improved the speed of access to manufacturing information to support customers, improved quality and enabled faster decision-making,” as well as resulting in inventory reduction, fewer delays and improvements in quality and yield.

“It is currently endemic for most plants in the United States to have very sophisticated controls on all aspects of the steelmaking process,” largely because of the advantages that can be reaped, Gallagher said. On the hot end, mills have software controlling the amount of energy going into their blast furnace, basic oxygen furnace or electric-arc furnace, allowing the steelmaker to monitor temperature and off-gas and creating a computer-generated model to alert the operator when the steel is ready to be tapped.

Models can be generated to calculate the scrap, ferroalloys and other raw material requirements needed to produce a given grade of steel, he said, while at the refining stage models are generated to ensure that the correct amount of oxygen or electricity is used to achieve the optimum temperature and chemistry mix. Also with IT, when samples of a batch of steel are sent to the chemistry laboratory, results can be transmitted quickly, enabling the operators to make better, faster decisions.

IT also can help control casting speeds and detect problem spots, allowing operators to cut out bad pieces and optimize the good sections of the slab or billet to improve quality, Gallagher said.

The rolling mill most readily lends itself to automation, as computers can control many aspects of the steelmaking process, including the gauge and width, he said, resulting in a need for fewer operators to oversee the process.

While all major steelmakers use some kind of IT solutions, the type and the extent varies by company, according to John Busser, a project manager at Hatch Ltd., Mississauga, Ontario.

Some companies opt for more robust, higher-upfront-cost distributed control systems (DCS) from the get-go, he said. However, the more popular approach probably has been to divide processes into smaller sections, with each “island” or “silo” having independent controllers that can be connected, or bridged, over an Ethernet or some other kind of control system so they can communicate with each other, he said. This allows a company to progress as needed and as finances allow, but it also requires a little more planning to make sure that all the pieces fit together appropriately.

This highlights the differences in incorporating IT in a greenfield plant vs. a brownfield expansion, Zoryk said. “With greenfield facilities, there is more freedom in terms of implementing a good solution because there is no history to deal with and no legacy processes in place. It is a clean sheet of paper, so you have the opportunity to design a true leading practice to support information technology processes.”

The bigger challenge is with a brownfield facility, which is more likely to have an outdated IT system--likely an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that is inadequate to deal with the company’s master data--or has different IT systems throughout the business, Zoryk said. “The challenges involved in a brownfield facility have become particularly more relevant because of the number of mergers and acquisitions of companies and divestment of operations during the past five to 10 years.”

Busser said that many of the control systems that steelmakers have been adding to their facilities recently allow them to improve their efficiency by about 1 to 2 percent. While that doesn’t sound like a lot, it actually translates into a significant savings since it goes directly to the bottom line. “Even a percent or two savings can give them a competitive advantage.”

Even with all that steelmakers have accomplished through automation, there is still a long way to go, Cinkowski said, especially as industry technical centers and research centers improve the way steels are made. “As new materials are developed, we have to determine the best way to manufacture them and these automation systems are key to finding that way,” he said, predicting an increase in the use of wireless technology and radio frequency identification.

Dudzic doesn’t see any drastic changes going forward, but rather continuous improvement of current technologies and the way steelmakers utilize them to keep improving productivity and efficiency. He pointed to the ability to leverage data warehousing through the use of manufacturing business intelligence tools. “That technology would allow us to achieve a more complete and faster understanding of our processes through improved data organization and visualization,” he said.

North American steelmakers are among the most efficient in the world, taking less than one man-hour to produce a ton of steel, Gallagher said. “A lot of that has to do with smarter management and better equipment. But it is also related to information technology and being able to get information fast.”

But efficiencies could improve through mobile computing, he said. “I think that we will see more hand-held devices, even smart phones, recording parts of the steelmaking process and sharing information.”

Gallagher said that another area of future focus is cyber security. While there have been no major incidents in the industrial control systems market, that it is a grave concern, he said. “I think there are ways you can do that and limit the types of information you make available, and there are ways to encrypt data to make sure things are secure from that perspective.”

Vision technology also will improve. “With vision systems, we are able to continuously monitor the quality of products much more consistently than we could with human eyes,” Cinkowski said, adding that while they aren’t perfect, vision machines can better identify, in minute detail, the surface quality of steel.

“There is strong interest within the information technology community to figure out how to build systems that will help to protect steelmaking operators,” Gallagher said, adding that if there is a way to use camera technology to look for coils in a coil yard rather than risking a worker getting hurt, “we want to do that.”

While there are huge opportunities to improve operations, to do so steelmakers must first determine the correct IT landscape for their processes, what applications will get the best results and how these can be integrated with current systems, Zoryk said. “If they do this, they can build a very good platform for the future.”

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