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Smart Factories: The future of the Aluminium industry

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By Mr. Naveen Mehta

Smart factories or intelligent factories are the future of a sustainable world, and one of its most vital elements in this journey is the role of engineered aluminium. Having a different combination of modern technologies, a smart factory strives to create a hyper-flexible, self-adapting manufacturing capability to produce materials essential to human progress. It attempts to develop new forms of efficiency and flexibility by connecting different processes, information streams, and stakeholders in a streamlined fashion to build a better future – one where value-added aluminium products will play an even more significant role in creating engineering machines and solving challenges in a carbon-constrained world.

Introducing Industry 4.0:  

After the computerisation of all processes and implementation of digital activities in industries in the late 1990s marked the onset of the Third Industrial Revolution, we are now moving towards Industry 4.0 or the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In the aluminium industry, the world over, this refers to the concept of factories in which machines are augmented with wireless connectivity, sensors, artificial intelligence, and in all possibilities, connected to an enhanced system that can make decisions and operate smartly. 

Though digitalisation is rapidly becoming an integral part of factories, the changes brought by newer technologies in metal production are yet to be fully realised in the metal industry. Digitisation, the basic framework of Industry 4.0, includes interconnectivity, automation and robotics, machine learning, real-time data, the Industrial Internet of Things, smart manufacturing, and augmented reality, many of which are still in their early phases of implementation. However, a few leading aluminium players have turned from torchbearers to transformers. By introducing path-breaking technologies, they have already implemented some framework elements and slowly moving towards creating futuristic state-of-the-art manufacturing plants, making intelligent factories a reality in time.

Smart factories, the way forward:

As the aluminium industry is fundamental for the growth of a country, companies are reinventing themselves to cater to the changing socio-economic norms. Facing challenges from a volatile economy, environmental concerns, and stricter safety and carbon regulations, this high energy-intensive sector is improving its efficiency and productivity by making intelligent use of the data and information available within its plant. And at the same time, this provides better safety and environmental sustainability crucial for the future generation. 
The industry as it stands:
Although many companies are either still gathering information on digitalisation or in the process of developing a strategy, leading players in the industry are already deploying Industry 4.0 applications in production, R&D, distribution, logistics, and supply chain. In addition to this, state-of-the-art technologies are applied in production control, the networking of machines, and production processes. Simultaneously, companies link up with partners on mobile devices and through cloud computing. However, in the aluminium industry, which comprises alumina refining to aluminium smelting and various downstream processes and recycling, the meaning of digitalisation and automation slightly differs. 

A sneak peek into smart factories:

The digital production process and control system in an aluminium plant revolves around a computer system so that the whole process can be monitored, analysed, and optimised effectively in real-time. It also includes facilitating the smooth running of operations, maintenance, and better error diagnosis. The automation and robotics technologies have gone
to a level where day-to-day tasks can now be performed in a high-risk, high-temperature zone with zero human intervention. On the one hand, the manufacturing units widely use robotics in constructing ingots bundles; on the other, Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) are now a part of pot rooms and cast houses. Next is the Industrial Internet of Things which uses intelligent
sensors and actuators to enhance the overall manufacturing and industrial processes. Last but not least is AI, which allows a computer program to act smartly like a human brain. Still, in an infant stage, AI is all set to transform the aluminium sector by keeping a tab on energy consumption and more.  

In conclusion: 

Looking at the previous revolutionary developments of manufacturing from its beginning until today, it is noticeable that the period between these revolutions drastically reduced, and we are taking rapid steps into a sustainable future. Therefore, industry players must reassess their production process and strategise their operations in the line of complete digital engagements, as digital manufacturing is the thing of the future. And if there is one sector that cannot afford
to take a back seat in this transformational change, it is the aluminium industry.

( The author is President – Operations at Jindal Aluminium. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.)

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