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Three days in Nashville

May 31, 2017 | 08:00 PM | Grace Asenov

Steel guitars took on a whole new meaning in Music City USA last month when roughly 6,500 industry participants travelled to the home of the Grand Ole Opry to attend AISTech 2017, meet and greet and get a front-row look at the latest in mill technology.

Digitalization is the latest and loudest rallying cry for U.S. steelmakers looking to unlock growth and cut costs in a global market rife with competition and overcapacity

There was no missing the message, which was shared from the podium, along the aisles and in private conversations among the roughly 6,500 attendees gathered at the Association for Iron and Steel Technology’s (AIST’s) annual AISTech conference held in Nashville, Tenn., the second week of May. 

Big River Steel LLC chief executive officer David Stickler kicked off the conference May 9 with a keynote address underscoring the embrace of automation and technology by the country’s newest steelmaker.

“We view ourselves as the newest and most technologically advanced scrap recycling and steel production facility in the world,” Stickler said, describing Big River as “a technology company that just happens to make steel.”

The company’s new mill in Osceola, Ark. which, recorded its first full month of production in January, incorporates and capitalizes on the rapid advancements in technology introduced in recent years, including developments in automation, artificial intelligence and cloud computing, according to Stickler.

“(Automation) allows us to keep our headcount low,” he said during the presentation, citing Big River’s current workforce of 435 workers, who are set to produce 1.6-million tons of finished steel products annually, or 4,000 tons per worker. The company plans to eventually double production to 3.4-million tons annually with an additional 200 workers, Stickler noted.

On the artificial intelligence or AI front, Big River is outfitted with a “system of sensors and measurement tools that go well beyond just predictive maintenance,” he pointed out. “We believe that the use of artificial intelligence will allow us to be that much more competitive and ultimately that much more profitable.”

Notably, Big River does not rely on an information technology (IT) department to keep operations running smoothly, opting instead for a cloud-based support system. “That’s saved us tens and tens of millions of dollars,” Stickler said. “We also believe that it gives us enhanced cybersecurity.”

Cloud, no cloud or somewhere in between, protecting mill computer systems against potential cyberattacks, particularly as the attacks and attackers grow more sophisticated, was the focus of an AISTech technical session held May 10. Massimo Collotta of BM S.p.A discussed the growing need to protect steel mill computer systems from theft or damages to hardware, software and violations such as unauthorized access to sensitive data.

Another technical session addressed how steelmakers can leverage real-time operational data and analytics to improve production efficiency and plan for “what-if” scenarios. Osvaldo A. Bascur, global mining and metals industry principal at OSIsoft LLC a San Leandro, Calif.-based software manufacturer explained how steel companies can harness raw, real-time operational data to “train” their computer systems to answer useful questions by placing the raw data into meaningful contexts.

Steelmakers can harness technology to improve their businesses in three main ways, Barbara K. Smith, chief operating officer of Commercial Metals Co., told delegates during a panel on May 10.
“One, of course, is (introducing) new products or applications, or changing the characteristics of a product,” Smith said. “Another is the use of technology in production processes, which speaks to more efficiency, lowering costs and improving quality so you can remain competitive.

“The third (approach) is innovation as it relates to the customer, and serving the customer in a differentiated way,” Smith added. “We’re living in such a virtual world now, and we’re looking at how to connect with our customers in an easier way.”

Although automation may be a mandate for steelmakers, it does not necessarily translate into a negative outlook for jobs, Smith noted. “There are those who think automation is a negative and is going to reduce jobs. Personally, I think it can be an enabler and create higher-quality jobs.”

All things considered, the steepest digital challenge confronting steelmakers today is the integration of systems and production units, Markus Ringhofer, sales manager of Industry 4.0 for electrics and automation at Primetals Technologies Austria GmbH, told AMM in an interview at AISTech on May 10. Primetals Technologies Ltd. a Frimley, U.K.-based joint venture of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Siemens is an engineering and plant construction company serving the metals industry.

Achieving digital unity can be accomplished by focusing on three main steps: vertical integration, or combining systems across the classic automation levels from the sensor to the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system; horizontal integration, or incorporating systems along the entire production chain; and life-cycle integration, or coordinating the entire life-cycle of a plant from basic engineering to decommissioning, Ringhofer explained. By striving for digital unity, steelmakers can improve quality, productivity and efficiency and, in the process, enhance competitiveness, he said.

“Automation models have been around for years, but now with the attention on digitalization, they are getting a greater spotlight,” Ringhofer noted. “Plant managers now have the necessity to change and improve” given the competitiveness of today’s market, he added.

Steelmakers are increasingly focusing on digital integration in regions such as Europe and China Ringhofer observed. “I am certain that this will become an increasing topic in the U.S. in coming years,” he said.


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