At first glance, many parts of the metals industry may not seem the most obvious candidates for digital technology-driven efficiency gains. For one, many of the manufacturing processes are generations old. Steelmakers have been using electric arc furnaces and Linz-Donawitz processes since shortly after World War II, while aluminium producers have been smelting the light metal using the Hall–Héroult process since its discovery late in the nineteenth century.
And it is difficult to apply modern, industrial data-driven pricing methods to markets where one’s own prices are not in one’s own control, are commonly set on exchanges, and have themselves become speculative financial instruments for lightning fast algorithmic traders.
But advances in digital technology, and the falling prices thereof, are now offering miners and metal producers significant advantages when it comes to even the oldest production processes and the longest standing production challenges.
More affordable and, crucially, smaller sensing equipment allows producers to retro-fit older equipment with the new sensing hardware, while more advanced software networks with total connectivity between various systems allows one to leverage existing automation and control systems to offer new ways of approaching asset lifecycle and maintenance, productivity, and energy optimisation.
Processing data and digitally monitoring production equipment are not new concepts to metals industry makers, any more so than automation. But smart analytics is still a nascent industry, and being able to process all of that data for multiple variables and run it all through advanced analytic software almost instantaneously to provide floor operators with real-time visual representations is something that is only now becoming possible and affordable for many manufacturing companies operating on thin margins.
The future for metals industry manufacturing is one of an interconnected data universe where automated machines talk to each other and respond to the slightest fluctuations to all manner of inputs, while companies are able to share and leverage highly analytical data with customers and suppliers in a vast digital community. And the journey to that future has begun.