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Process optimization makes firms steady in tough times

Keywords: Tags  Schneider Electric, innovation, technology, TMEIC, Greycon Ltd, OSIsoft LLC, optimization, software IT???

Time means money, and money means stability, something that many metals companies are desperately seeking particularly during periods of reduced demand and lower prices. Keeping production processes at a steady – and higher functioning – rate is one means of increasing yield and therefore profitability.

But how companies achieve those higher levels of efficiency differ based on the nature of their businesses and their adoption of varying process and information technology optimization strategies that all seek to lower costs and improve productivity and ultimately profitability.

As a leading energy technology provider, Schneider Electric fully values the power contained in various raw materials and minerals. Focusing on clients “from pit to port,” the Andover, Mass.-based U.S. team works with raw materials and minerals providers to identify “real time optimization opportunities by using small versus big data to create an accurate view of the production process,” said Alan Morrow, consulting application engineer. “We can develop models that run at a high frequency to reduce process variability and push a process to its equipment and quality constrains on a minute-by-minute basis. The result is increased productivity, yield and therefore profitability,” he said.

Morrow’s coworker Joe Fillion, business value consultant, explained that Schneider Electric’s approach to optimization includes “condition-based monitoring that allows the plant to focus on things that need attention or are about to break and not those that don’t need attention. Predictive maintenance is part of our view but there needs to be a good plant maintenance scheduling system integrated into an overall production planning system. For equipment not tied into an MES (manufacturing executive system) or ERP (enterprise resource planning) system, there needs to be a maintenance management system to capture operating data to reduce downtime. Unplanned downtime is a huge drain on profitability.”

“Everything comes down to profitability,” said Morrow, a sentiment echoed by Schneider Electric’s Bill Poe, senior principal technical consultant, who works with increasing throughput to maximize financial results in minerals processing facilities. “By utilizing advanced process control technology, we can work with hydro and pyro metallurgical processes by addressing operations such as grinding, floatation, flash furnaces, hearths and roasters to reduce variability in the quality of the product and achieve a lower cost per unit of production.”

Like Schneider Electric, TMEIC, Roanoke, Va., also has a global footprint and decades of experience in helping clients optimize their facilities. But it was only in the past few years that TMEIC formalized its mill audit procedures to capture its broad range of experience allowing the firm to further market its services and successes.

One of the premises of the audit process is to unlock hidden or lost mill potential by identifying major operating and process control issues limiting production and quality in a rolling mill. “In order to provide the client the best return on investment, TMEIC’s experts identify the ideal improvement at the ideal cost,” said Bryan Beard, application engineer, industrial systems. “We are partnering with our clients to achieve the maximum yield with the highest quality by analyzing rolling mill data coupled with mill availability and the maintenance structure and history. From there, we can make recommendations for best practices as developed by TMEIC’s global footprint of experience.”

Through data analysis and an on-site audit, TMEIC recently assisted a steel company to achieve significant improvements in costs and productivity in a hot strip mill. Following TMEIC recommendations, the client replaced controls and automation in several areas of the mill that resulted in an annual $22-million cost savings with an opportunity for an additional $6 million annual improvement as a result of increased mill availability.

Also building on a global footprint of experience is Greycon Ltd., London, which is a fairly recent entrant into providing optimization strategies specific to the metals industry by focusing on select finishing facilities, particularly in tube and pipe mills, and on a wide range of metals service centers and distributors. “These plants, particularly those providing value-added services, have processes that are sequence-dependent with higher set up times and are faced with stock control or customer services challenges,” said Abder Guezour, vice president of global sales. He said Greycon is “working with these plants on performance optimization and on achieving the balance between production efficiency, inventory levels, customer service levels, quality, transportation and logistics costs.”

Greycon’s Guezour points to the increasing trend of marrying process optimization and information technology solutions and overlays. “While some clients approach IT solutions as overlays, others view IT applications in distinct silos specific to certain types of processes or machines. Therefore, they can capture the low-hanging fruit and see immediate benefits before moving to the next steps in the process and eventually to an enterprise-wide solution. However, IT installations need to be treated carefully as they can fail by taking longer than anticipated to install, not being on budget or not delivering the expected benefits,” he said.

Schneider Electric’s Poe and Morrow agree that optimized individual units continue to be their focus to achieve additional efficiency and reduce variability for increased throughput. “OT and IT are getting closer but firewalls and other barriers still exist,” said Poe. Schneider Electric’s Fillion added, “We focus on condition-based monitoring to pay attention to the things that need fixing and not those that don’t. However, an IT overlay would provide a comprehensive real-time view of the production environment.”

OSIsoft LLC, San Leandro, Calif., which works to make operational data more available and integrated with IT systems and in-plant process optimization strategies, sees the need for an IT solution that brings together all real-time production data. Perry Zalevsky, industry principal for metals and mining, sees IT overlays working in tandem with mill-oriented advanced process control systems that “provide the manufacturing parameters needed for quality products. However, data and sophisticated IT techniques can help better control every single parameter. You can have a different control system for each different process and you can add an overall approach whereby software is used to integrate the data from each individual process control system into a more coordinated system.”

OSIsoft first pioneered the storing and management of operational data in a software system more than 30 years ago as a means for “pulling together real-time data. For the operational side of the business, companies are starting to develop ‘master data’ on one main data base that encompasses advanced process control and predictive analytics. The days are behind us when six or eight people would spend most of their time trying to find the operating data, create one or more spread sheets and then attack the problem. Enterprise-wide solutions and mobile devices mean that people can have a comprehensive look at all the business and operating data and meet the needs of people, process and technology. One area for growth in the future is installing sensors and other diagnostic devices on mobile equipment to help prevent or anticipate system failure. Our PI System provides the unification of data across the enterprise and can move it to the cloud to allow this flexibility,” Zalevsky said.

OSIsoft’s PI System is a widely used technology for the Industrial Internet of Things that captures real-time data inside metals and mining sites and transforms it into actionable information streams that help people reduce costs, optimize production and make critical business decisions.

TMEIC’s Beard also recognizes the need for both IT and process optimization strategies as both “continue to grow exponentially. Our uTool system was developed for industrial clients to simplify the gathering and access to this plant data, using the plant network or our uWeb offering. uTool enhances productivity, offering connectivity to key mill information and diagnostic power as well as offering an integrated view of product, process and system information. We are entering a new industrial revolution with the interconnectivity of machines and processes.” Those new horizons also include, according to Beard, the expansion of “big data and analytics to further interconnectivity of machines in the plant and at different locations.”

While much work is focused on their clients’ equipment, many involved in working to optimize their or their clients’ facilities have not forgotten one important element of the production process – people.

“Operational excellence can include operator training tools to help people make the right decisions based on available information. We want to be able to give our operators the tools to push the capabilities of their facilities to operate more profitably on a real-time basis,” said Schneider Electric’s Poe. His colleague Fillion agrees:

“If we provide people with the right information at the time they need it, they can make necessary changes in the process. And that integrated approach to people excellence and asset management will increase profitability.”

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