The life cycle of mill equipment spans decades, but the market forces affecting the metals industry can turn on a dime. That promotes the need for up-to-date automation to remain competitive while not breaking the bank with massive capital investments needed for a brand new facility.
Instead, the upgrades to automated process control systems can produce the increases in quality demanded by the market and efficiency demanded by the mills owners. Finding the right kinds of solutions involve identifying needs and working with technology providers.
For metals producers, Primetals Technologies Ltd., with headquarters in London, offers a wide range of progressive electrics and automation technologies from drives and power systems to basic automation systems (level 1 automation) to technological packages combining process technology, mechatronics and automation to process optimization systems (level 2 automation) to quality control systems for individual plant units as well as through-process quality control.
We are a technology provider and not just a systems integrator, according to Hans-Juergen Zeiher, global head of Primetals Technologies electrics and automation business segment, and we own the technology that is prevalent in todays mills. Primetals Technologies was formed in 2015 as a joint venture, combining the portfolios of Mitsubishi-Hitachi Metals Machinery and Siemens VAI Metals Technologies. Those companies embrace a technological legacy of about 160 years with such well known and widely used brands as VAI, Morgan USA and Kvaerner.
A big share of our work involves upgrading existing equipment with state-of-the-art components and solutions. For example, we look at the existing controls and, if analog, recommend upgrading to digital controls, which enable producers to reach higher automation levels. This is the basis for the production of higher-quality steel grades, reduction of production errors, and thus the main lever to improve productivity. There is also the issue of spare parts availability for mill equipment with process control replacement parts eventually becoming scarce. Investing in a process control upgrade can easily last 15 to 20 years old, thus further extending the useful life of mill equipment, Zeiher said.
Dave Wagner is also in the business of giving new life to older mills. As the founder and managing member of Control Design Solutions Ltd., Bowling Green, Ohio, Wagners company, specializing in customized engineering services, programming and design, has worked with mills that use in a single line a collection of equipment bought from disparate prior owners. Working with metal suppliers to the automotive industry, Wagner has upgraded mills with different process control systems of differing technologies that are married into one system. We have repurposed equipment to mechanically work together while unifying them with automated controls.
One recent project involved a new control system for a blanking line. Components of the line came from three different facilities. Control Design Solutions removed all existing controls and designed a new control system overlay. That system overlay justified the cost of the equipment acquisition by using available machinery that was successfully united at a significantly lower cost than investment in an entirely new line, Wagner said, allowing the mill owner to improve quality and efficiency. Another automotive supplier turned to Control Design Solutions for increased quality on a laminating line with new edge guide controls to ensure thorough coating of the entire width of the steel.
Process control upgrades also constitute a significant area of engagement for TMEIC, with North American headquarters in Roanoke, Va. Tom Richards, chief specialist, cold mills, pointed to the scarcity of replacement parts when upgrading existing lines. Obsolescence is a really big factor when approaching an upgrade due to lack of parts. Mechanical equipment lasts longer than electrical technology, which ages faster. An older automation system also may have artificial constraints from being poorly designed, thus preventing a more efficient operation. We talk to our clients to identify and remove those constraints and design a new automation system that is customized and optimizes their facility and solutions.
Managing an upgrade involves careful, deliberate planning for a producing line with regular customers. A strategy must be developed to minimize the downtime of the line to provide minimal disruption to the customer. Improvements may be able to be made in phases, Richards said. And in the planning for the upgrade, TMEIC helps the customer determine priorities such as increased quality or production. We do a lot of listening and help them identify what they want to accomplish and how we can help.
The Bradbury Group of companies uses an integrated approach in the design and manufacturing of equipment from its headquarters in Moundridge, Kan., and process control information technology from its Beck Automation LLC unit, headquarters in St. Louis, to upgrade existing lines and install new ones for coil processing and roll-forming companies. We are seeing the need to replace older systems where replacement parts are no longer available, along with the desire to couple the control of the equipment with business functions. Todays customers want an integrated and connected environment tying their production functions to their ERP (enterprise resource planning) business systems, according to Ryan Durst, Bradburys vice president of sales and marketing.
Increasingly, Bradbury is working with customers to increase the automation of the complete complement of business and production functions such as order scheduling, inventory management and control, material handling and all the way to downstream operations such as stacking and other secondary operations. Customers also want to tie together value-added services such as leveling, coil processing, slitting and metal forming. Other customers want equipment and control retrofits to bring their operating lines up to current standards of technology for greater efficiency, better real-time data and a more connected environment among all facets of their business, Durst said. Current Bradbury projects include upgrades to cut-to-length and leveling lines, insulated metal panel lines and steel framing lines.
Control Design Solutions Wagner sees a lot of projects to upgrade automated process control as being driven by market forces, particularly quality. In his work with metals suppliers to the automotive industry, his customers are working with much tighter tolerances than before. The advent of advanced high-strength steels requires different instrumentation and different levelers. For companies supplying aluminum for automotive, we are adding oilers to existing lines. Everything we do is driven by the demands from their customers, and they cant always make do with what they had, Wagner said.
In addition to quality and part obsolescence, there are other reasons for improving automated process control systems including efficiency and ease of operation. Primetals Technologies Zeiher sees enhanced computational power as forming one comprehensive piece of global, fully integrated automation. Customers want systems with high standards and a proven track record that people on the shop floor can easily use. The new systems also need to interface with many different platforms. Our engineering staff adds value here with their comprehensive knowledge of different automation systems. Wagner knows that modern automation can help improve safety and quality, and safety is the easiest selling point. Safety standards have drastically changed since the 1980s. To be able to automatically position a piece of steel without an operator in close proximity to the steel greatly improves the potential for an accident-free operation. We work with the mill owner to make the upgrade with safety in mind.
In listening to its customers, TMEIC hears of various needs that can frequently be met through newer automated process control. One customer recently switched from old DC main drive motors and drives to new AC technology on a cold-rolling line. The new drives are more efficient and operate at 1.0 power factor, thus significantly reducing energy consumption. Another TMEIC cold mill installation resulted in quality improvements by instituting tighter controls for thickness that allow the mill to run closer to minimum thickness to enable the customer to produce more pieces per ton. Yield was increased by reducing head and tail lengths, and mill utilization was improved with diagnostics that allow operators and maintenance personnel to quickly pinpoint the source of a problem.
Global technology provider Primetals Technologies is currently engaged in an automation upgrade at a leading U.S. plate producer. Primetals Technologies will replace the entire mills existing drives and control system with new drives, automation and human machine interface (HMI), a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system, an HMI software system, and a level 2 automation solution. Our latest HMI software involves redesigned systems to produce the maximum human-friendly platform. It embraces tools such as a 3-D diagnosis that lets the operator click on the problem area. The technology is designed with the belief that the mill owner wants its employees to solve most of the problems they experience without calling in the outside experts, Zeiher said.
Where do people fit in the technology equation? Durst, Richards, Wagner and Zeiher all believe that advanced automation process controls help people do their jobs more effectively and lower the costs of day-to-day operation. Younger people coming into the workforce begin their careers as commissioning and maintenance engineers. They expect to see different types of interfaces. But we do see greater degrees of comfort and acceptance of newer technologies in the global market. We are also seeing younger people who dont necessarily know how to work with old-style programming. Those most comfortable with older technologies are retiring, and the newer employees want to work with newer, more familiar automation systems, Primetals Technologies Zeiher said. Todays automation controls and download features allow our customers to process data and deliver it to the line without having to repeat data entry and increase the risk of human error. Technology allows people to focus on other critical aspects of the equipment, production and the overall business, Bradburys Durst said. Control Design Solutions Wagner added, Updated automation results in fewer people running a line, thus improving efficiency.
At the end of the day, investment decisions are driven by the demands of the market and the customers. The decision is whether to buy new or rebuild with new process controls. Quality is the Achilles heel that often tips the scale in favor of any new investment. We all want more and better, which creates more work for systems integrators, Wagner said.