Over the past year I have visited numerous steel plants across the US and Canada and I always return with the same question: why does a region like North America, which is so advanced in many different kinds of technology, still appear to be lagging in the Digital Transformation as it relates to crane automation in the steel industry?
Part of the answer may lie in a story about how one of the most famous rock groups of all time, AC/DC, got their name. In the very early days before they were known as AC/DC, lead guitarist Angus Young used to have his sister Margaret sew his famous “school boy” outfits that he wore on-stage. One day he noticed “AC/DC” written on the side of the sewing machine she used and he thought the name perfectly matched their high voltage style of music and, as they say, the rest is history.
Back to the steel industry… When it came to choosing AC or DC for powering their factories, the steel industry in North America essentially made DC their de facto standard for many, many years. Unfortunately, the legacy infrastructure around DC has been slow to change even though it is at a disadvantage today compared to AC when it comes to a number of things. For example, DC motors and drives are expensive to repair and parts can take a very long time to obtain (if they can even be sourced at all). DC equipment has more components and therefore is inherently less reliable. And most importantly, DC equipment is much less compatible with the digital transformation sweeping the industry and cannot benefit fully from digitalization. In fact, DC technology has fallen off most manufacturers’ R&D programs and will likely never catch up.
Looking now to AC technology, one of the biggest opportunities that digitalization could offer the steel industry is enabling the use of AC variable speed drives. These can be used to significantly improve performance of travelling overhead (bridge) cranes that lift and transport heavy products like slabs and coils.
AC variable speed drives can more smoothly and efficiently move the crane itself along its rails, as well as shift the lifting carriage back and forth and raise or lower materials. And if integrated as part of an autonomous crane system, crane operations are not only more efficient and safer, but they also increase crane availability up to 99,5% thanks to the reduction in mechanical stress and wear and the resulting reduction in equipment maintenance and repairs.
So today, when upgrades are anticipated, it requires a different approach to the one traditionally taken. It has to be seen as an opportunity to modernize and transform the business, not just to replace old and problematic equipment. I’m not talking about the future here but what’s happening right now in the market. Europe with Industry 4.0 and Asia with the China 2025 program have already taken major steps forward. Steps which have enabled autonomous operations with true unmanned automatic cranes that are connected to the ERP of the facility and therefore completely integrated into the supply chain, all with very reasonable ROIs.
If you are interested in learning more, we suggest this webinar on the technology behind crane modernization and autonomous cranes. To watch on-demand, please register here.