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Steel enters robotic revolution

Apr 24, 2014 | 08:00 PM | Gregory DL Morris

Tags  steel production, robots, Lawrence Kavanagh, Steel market Development Institute, American Iron and Steel Institute, AISI, Association for Iron and Steel Technology, Ron Ashburn Adam Parr

Robots may seem to be a uniquely American development: strong, smart, efficient, advanced, even cool. But “robot” as a sensible moving machine was coined in 1923 in the English translation of the 1920 play by Czech journalist and writer Karel Capek, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. The word is loosely translated as “worker” but comes from the Czech robota, meaning drudgery—not cool or high-tech, but definitely in line with robots’ use in steelmaking, where the machines keep human operators out of hot, heavy, toxic, and tedious or dangerous situations.

Beyond their use in mills, robots also provide a small but growing market for steel. Most machines have bodies and main arms made of steel, usually characterized as structural steel, or carbon steel, but there are applications for stainless and specialty steels in joints, bearings, actuators, control rods and other performance components.

Robot manufacturers don’t buy directly from mills but instead purchase components from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), who in turn acquire material from service centers. The markets both for robots in steelmaking and for steel in robot making are growing and accelerating, but because the market is small and highly fragmented, hard statistics are not available.

Steel mills are already highly automated operations, full of “intelligent” machines, said Lawrence W. Kavanagh, president of the Steel Market Development Institute, part of the American Iron and Steel Institute. “We have had feedback controls for many years. In my opinion, any intelligent machine could be considered a robot, but the machines are very different from what people see in car-makers’ ads showing their assembly lines,” he said.

The steel industry tends to be an enthusiastic and early adopter of any technology that makes it more efficient or keeps human workers away from dangerous situations, according to Kavanagh. “I started in 1982 or ’83, and even then we had a robot that would go inside the top of the casting machine, go all through it measuring gaps, and come out the bottom.” Other early uses for robots in steelmaking included immersion probes, always a dangerous and onerous task for humans. “There is certainly a trend in our industry to increase automation,” he said. “That includes increasing application of robots.”

Kavanagh said that the accelerating adoption of robotics will be on display at one of the premiere trade shows in the industry, the Association for Iron and Steel Technology’s annual AISTech conference and exposition, running from May 5 through May 8 in Indianapolis.

AIST executive director Ron Ashburn reiterated Kavanagh’s points. “The expo has a lot of companies demonstrating machines with advanced applications,” which he described as “six degrees of freedom: up and down the x-, y- and z-axes, but also roll, pitch and yaw. That is what I see as a robot—that freedom of movement. We have had automation in the steel industry since the dawn of the age of electricity, but it is that mechanical motion in space that makes the difference.”

The technology continues to evolve, Ashburn said, particularly with cameras, lasers and artificial intelligence. “There is a very natural fit for robots in any environment that requires an emphasis on safety,” he said. “Our goal in the steel industry is a safer environment for the people on the shop floor. I believe ... we will have, within our lifetime, a fully robotic melt shop where the operator never has to leave the pulpit. At least, that is the goal.”

Therein lies another differentiation between process automation and robotics as used in the steel mill, Ashburn said. Automation is usually implemented to increase efficiency, while the use of robotics is primarily to improve safety. “If we can improve efficiency also by use of robotics then that is a bonus, but safety is the driver.”

That, he said, is precisely why the primary use of robotics has been on the hot side of the shop. “We also see applications in casting, rolling and finishing, as well as in materials handling and logistics, but again the key use is keeping people out of harm’s way.”

An early robotics application was applying semi-liquid refractory by so-called “gunning robots,” Ashburn said. “That was the first application, I believe. There was also tonnage and metallurgy sampling. The robots do have to be able to tolerate heat-intensive environment, but they are well insulated and cooled. For heavy lifting the most common grade of steel for chassis and arms is A-36, which is a low- to medium-carbon structural steel.”

Beyond those basic structural components in robots there are uses for special bar quality steel that require extensive machining, Ashburn said. “And at any pivot point there is going to be a bushing or a bearing that requires specialty steels that may carry a premium for the suppliers. That would also apply to hydraulic cylinders, pressure vessels, rods and actuators. Some of those applications could require chromed high-strength steel. There will be a lot of interesting papers at the conference about the grades of steel required in many robotic applications.”

Many steel mills also use robots in their metallurgical labs, Ashburn said. “That process has been automated for many years. The robot can pick a lance, insert the lance and take the sample. Then the sample is taken from the melt shop floor by pneumatic tube—like the ones you see at drive-up teller windows at a bank—and over to the lab. At the lab another robot prepares the sample, tests the sample, then sends the report to the operator so he can make whatever changes are necessary to the melt based on the sample testing.”

For all the widespread and growing number of applications, Ashburn said the use of robotics in steel is still in a very early developmental stage. “As things stand now, this business is definitely being driven by the OEMs, the machine builders. They are the ones pulling the robot makers into their business.”

For all the robotic advances that push the “cool” factor to new heights, the focus in the mill is not on being cool but keeping cool, especially in the hot zones. “We view robotic technology as a great role for industrial safety,” Steel Manufacturers Association vice president of policy and communications Adam B. Parr said. “The primary goal is to separate people from hot areas and keep people away from heavy moving machines. We use robots to do measuring and sampling at the electric-arc furnace. We harness technology to keep people safe.”

That said, mills vary greatly in size, capacity, complexity and age. “Mill owners are always looking for ways to modernize for greater safety and efficiency, and there is already a lot of automation in the mills, but it is difficult to characterize applications because mills vary so much.”

With both the technology boom and manufacturing renaissance building momentum across the United States, more robot components and finished machines are being made domestically, but most of the machines being sold worldwide today are manufactured overseas, according to Alex Shikany, director of market analysis at the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), the parent organization for several industrial technology groups, including the Robotic Industries Association.

“Typically, industrial robots are made of steel, but also other materials,” Shikany said. “The most common industrial applications are articulated robots as you would see in an automobile plant.” Those machines are fixed to the shop floor or limited in their own relative movement on a guideway or frame, but they have arms with several axes of motion. Given that strength in shear, compression and torsion are all important, he said, “steel is often a key material for structural, mounting and movement components.”

Among end-use markets in metals—steel production, primary metal making, casting, cutting, forging and welding, as well as ancillary materials, processes and applications, including refractory—there is a common value proposition for robots, Shikany said. “Robots make those processes more competitive and more efficient. In all of those you have heat, dirt, great weight, moving parts. Human beings are far better in other parts of the business, and that is especially true for steel and metals.”

A3 has seen faster development in other industrial segments. “There is innovation on all fronts, but in recent months we have seen industrial robots come along fastest in areas like electronics and semiconductors. That does not mean there is not innovation in other industrial end uses; it just means they are not the hottest area of advancement right now,” Shikany said. “I would characterize robotics in the metals industry as steady. Robots are very important in steel, and steel is important in robotics anywhere payloads, durability and run length are rising.”

Even if innovation is advancing faster in other manufacturing segments, there is a trickle-down and scale-up effect in robotics. “There is a lot of focus right now on areas like vision, especially in uses like inspection for quality and consistency in finished goods,” Shikany said. “That is also being extended to assembly and preparation for shipment. Robotic technology is very relevant in all those applications.”

So far, he said, the focus has been on small footprints, tight tolerances and grip ability, but that work is likely to be scaled up to heavier industrial applications. The same goes for multiple axes of motion and manipulation. The development takes place in small, light applications in clean rooms first, then moves to heavier and more hostile environments.

One prime example, Shikany noted, is grip. “In steel, there have been magnetic and vacuum gripping for a long time. But there is very interesting work being done in new micro-adhesion capabilities.”

Not surprisingly, A3 and its affiliated organizations have their own biennial trade show and conference, Automate. The next is scheduled for March 2015 at McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago in conjunction with materials-handling show ProMat, Shikany said. “Beyond the expo floor there is a full conference with paper presentations and an education series. There is a registration fee for that, but on the expo floor we have informal ‘tech huddles’ that are free. All of the major robotics companies have lines of machines that are designed specifically for long service life in harsh environments. They know that steel and metals are a very important market.”

Coming full circle on the question of what is and isn’t a robot, Swedish company Brokk AB makes a range of machines specifically designed for use in steel mills to keep human workers away from hazardous environments such as refractory cleaning. They move around the mill, have sophisticated sensors, vision capabilities and complex ranges of motion in the job.

Within the steel industry they are widely referred to as robots, but the company itself is reluctant to use that term because the machines are strictly remote controlled. They have on-board sensing and vision, but they do not do anything without operator input. That can be an operator on the mill floor a few feet a way or, in nuclear power plants, hundreds of yards away, heavily shielded from radiation. 

It may be a distinction without a difference, but remote-controlled machines used by police, fire and military are often called robots, but if it looks like a high-tech mini excavator that might not be its true name. “People call our machines demolition robots,” said Peter Bigwood, vice president of sales and marketing for Brokk’s North American subsidiary, Brokk Inc., “but strictly speaking the machine always needs an operator. So we call it a remote-controlled demolition machine.” That said, Brokk does have a device that can be programmed to remove an even layer of concrete from a slab in the hot-room of a nuclear facility, while a vacuum tube removes the residue.

Theoretically, it could be possible to program a machine to remove the gross layers of refractory, with an operator-controlled final fine cleaning. But “there is an art to brick removal,” Bigwood said, “and the industry is a long way from a smart machine that can do it by itself.”

While development continues, Bigwood is focused on the current needs in steel with current robotic technology. “At the mills we are talking to, safety is a huge issue,” he said. The focus is manual-labor displacement, and Bigwood is circumspect about how the topic is presented. He stressed that machines aren’t putting people out of work; instead, they are freeing them to work in better, safer parts of the mill.

“We are getting to the point where the workers and the labor organizations understand this,” Bigwood said. “I was in a mill recently, and they had a cat mounted above an electric-arc furnace, and that is what they used, blindly, to clean the furnace. In another mill they plunked the machine into the furnace—after it cooled, at least a little. There was an operator in the cat and another spotter. That is what we want to eliminate. That should be done by a machine with video and remote control from a safe location. Our argument is: get the operator out of the furnace”

Another mill application that is seeing increased robotic applications, especially in Europe, is tap-hole cleaning. “This is a new approach, and some companies get it,” Bigwood said. Indeed, the Brokk machines look like any backhoe loader that could be used in road repair, albeit about a quarter of the size and with the operator standing next to it rather than riding in a cab. “The analogy is fair, at least in appearance,” Bigwood said. “But in power-to-weight ratio, one of our machines would smoke an excavator.” 

In another example of development trickling down and being scaled up, Bigwood said new technology introduced for machines used in nuclear plants are hand-like manipulators that are controlled by the operator moving his hand inside a sensor-studded glove. “Every movement of the operator’s fingers and hand is replicated by the machine,” he said.

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