Digitalization of the steel industry has been ongoing for decades now. In recent years, it has gained great momentum from the current industry 4.0 trend and newly emergent technologies. However, there are still challenges to be solved. And besides, the digitalization itself is a continuously developing process. The extreme environmental pressure to reduce CO2 emissions is also accelerating the introduction of new technologies in the field of steelmaking. This article discusses the recent trends in industry 4.0 in the context of Electric Arc Furnaces (EAF) and how the digitalization path unfolds in the coming years.
This is especially interesting in the EAF process context. Digitalization of process control has been noted to be the most impactful of all the digitalization possibilities in the metals industry’s value chain (McKinsey, 2021).
Industry 4.0 and digitalization
Digitalization means the transformation of business functions, models, and interactions into digital ones (whereas “digitization” means the conversion of analog data into digital form). It also includes the integration of digital technologies and automation. (Clerck, 2017)
Industry 4.0 expands this field to integrated systems, the internet of things, cloud computing, simulations, autonomous robotics, and advanced analytics. The vision of industry 4.0 is to achieve significantly higher efficiency and productivity of production processes with systems, machines, people, and products communicating and cooperating directly with each other. (Lydon, 2020)
However, this is only one definition for Industry 4.0. There is no standard, and the journey towards peak technological maturity should be completely flexible and adaptable to the needs of your business.
What does digitalization and industry 4.0 mean for the EAF process?
For EAFs digitalization and industry 4.0 means everything from using digital control systems to complex simulations and process optimization with machine learning models. Though, recurring topics consider mainly optimization of the process performance, online measuring and data gathering, process modeling, integration of control systems, and automatization of the process practices.
Modern EAFs have already adapted the basic digitalization level. The processes are controlled with digital systems and many of the process steps are automated. Nevertheless, there are still chokepoints that slow down the development and the digitalization process is far from its peak digital maturity. For example, typically bit more than the half of the energy supplied to the furnace is utilized for melting the scrap. The energy efficiency could be far higher in the ideal world.
One of the main aspects of industry 4.0 is the connectivity of devices. This means that the devices measuring and controlling the process but also the different processes and systems are interconnected and communicate with each other. This enables dynamic control of the processes and material flows which leads to better efficiency and productivity. The second benefit of the interconnectivity is that it also produces data as a byproduct. This enables more precise modeling and analysis of the process. Though it has to be kept in mind that not all data is necessary and only high-quality data is useful.
Challenges & success factors
One crucial issue in the development of EAF technologies and processes has been the extreme conditions inside the furnace during the melting and refining phase. Heat and splashing molten slag and metal put limitations on what can be done inside the furnace. This has been especially difficult for the process sensors and measurement systems. The ordinary measurement equipment is not built to withstand the intensity of the EAF process.
The skill gap and lack of digitally capable personnel have also been noted as one of the main barriers to overcome in the implementation of industry 4.0 technologies (Murri et al., 2021). And there is also always some resistance to change when adopting new practices and technologies.
It must also be noted that the everyday challenges of real-life will and do set their limitations for industry 4.0 adaption. Tight manufacturing deadlines, management expectations, supply chain bottlenecks, cost reduction programs, regulations, etc. make it difficult to test new practices and technologies. Process managers and engineers will always have to balance the operative work and development initiatives in a production environment.
However, McKinsey’s research indicates that there are also success factors to accelerate digital development. The five main factors are:
- Ability to set bold targets and strategies
- Investments in the digital journey
- Flexible data and technology architecture
- Ability to build internal capabilities at scale, learning programs
- Company-wide governance of digital efforts
These success factors might seem irrelevant in the everyday work with EAFs but it’s useful to understand how the big picture of digital development on a factory scale might form and what might be the reasons for some decisions regarding digitalization programs and initiatives.
Next steps in the digitalization journey
McMorrow (2022) states that to make the journey towards industry 4.0 easier for your factory, you should have big goals, but you should start small. The journey is an evolutionary process and there is no fixed plan. The journey could start from a single production line or a single process. This could mean, for example, measuring the EAF process and timing process phases such as basket loads initiation of burners based on the real-time scrap melting information.
By starting small, it is easier to manage the development projects and the risks associated. It also leaves room for unexpected challenges but also emerging opportunities. Developing the digital capability in small increments also leaves some room for testing which is the foundation for new innovations.
We at Luxmet believe that the core foundation for industry 4.0 development and digitalization is real-time data from the live processes. Understanding what happens during the process is critical in seeking optimal productivity and efficiency. The data enables a more thorough analysis of the processes but also dynamic real-time control. Reacting live process conditions is far more efficient than statistical models based on historical data when there are unknown and changing process variables involved.
If you want to learn more about how to measure your Electric Arc Furnace in real-time don’t hesitate to contact our experts.
Clerck, J. Digitization, Digitalization, and Digital Transformation: The Differences. i-SCOOP. 2017. Available online: https://www.i-scoop.eu/digital-transformation/digitization-digitalization-digital-transformation-disruption/
Lydon, B. How Industry 4.0 and Digitization Improves Manufacturing Responsiveness, Quality, and Efficiency. ISA. 2020. Available online: https://blog.isa.org/industry-40-digitization-improve-manufacturing-responsiveness-quality-efficiency-iot<
McKinsey & Company. How digital and analytics can unlock the full potential in steel. 2021. Available online https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/metals-and-mining/our-insights/how-digital-and-analytics-can-unlock-full-potential-in-steel
McMorrow, Industry 4.0 – A Realistic Pathway to the Smart factory. 2022. Available online https://slcontrols.com/en/industry-4-0-realistic-pathway-smart-factory/
Murri et al. Digital Transformation in European Steel Industry: State of Art and Future Scenario. ESSA. 2021. Available online: https://www.estep.eu/assets/Uploads/ESSA-D2.1-Technological-and-Economic-Development-in-the-Steel-Industry-Version-2.pdf