Smarter plants through artificial intelligence

Günther Winter has been with Primetals Technologies for 38 years and currently holds the position of Technology Officer and Head of Innovation Electrics & Automation. Winter has led and participated in the creation of numerous innovative automation solutions. He views process automation from a holistic standpoint and strives to see the big picture of how steel producers can optimally set up their operations for maximum efficiency and profitability.

What do you consider to be the core challenge in the push toward digitalization?

Günther Winter: First and foremost, digitalization is going to increase the creation of added value along the full metals-production chain. This can be done, for instance, to increase productivity, flexibility of operations and product quality. However, a core challenge that steel producers are facing is the transfer of application knowledge from their seasoned operators to the next generation of employees. In many cases, new employees arrive with far less experience than their predecessors. This will increasingly become a widespread problem over the coming years. Digital assistants and the digitalization of know-how will be supporting our customers in their agenda. Our Through-Process Optimization and Maintenance and Asset Technology are examples of superposed systems for intelligent production capable of implementing existing operational and maintenance know-how and providing a high-quality database for the training of software systems based on artificial intelligence —such as digital assistants. Last but not least, cyber-physical systems, i.e. our implementation of the next generation of process automation, will optimally collaborate with our digital assistants and our superposed systems for intelligent production. They will make process control even more autonomous and robust.

Digitalization aims to connect all process steps within a plant in order to control and optimize overall efficiency. This is a big undertaking, so how far along are we?

Günther Winter: Compared to other industries, the steel business in general—and Primetals Technologies in particular—has been ahead in terms of the level of process automation for a long time. This is a fact. But it is also true that most automation systems have been limited to specific parts of the production chain, and are based on heterogeneous systems that are difficult to connect with one another, which would be an essential prerequisite for a technology to participate in the Internet of Things. Many steel producers still have to upgrade their equipment in order to properly mirror and interconnect their processes through software. This will take place in successive steps, for instance, within the scope of modernization projects, and Primetals Technologies will provide its customers with scalable modernization packages.

Is there any one country that you think is moving toward digitalized steel production more forcefully than others?

Günther Winter: The Chinese government has issued the so­-called “Made in China 2025” program, which is without parallel in its ambition. However, we are also seeing impressive progress in our customer projects in the EU, USA, Japan, and other countries.

Will artificial intelligence play a role in the steel plant of tomorrow?

Günther Winter: Yes. I am glad to state that Primetals Technologies is a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence. We introduced machine learning and neural networks to the steel industry in the mid of the 90s. Since then, we have accumulated many references for the enhancement of process models with artificial intelligence. Let me give you some concrete examples: our Acoustic Expert, a technology that relies on smart analysis of recorded sounds, is an excellent tool for condition monitoring. Also, the interlinked data history of our Through-Process Optimization system is an excellent basis for data analytics and for the creation of expert systems, which enables comprehensive fine-tuning of the full steel-production chain. Recently, machine-learning technology has made further vast advancements, especially in the area of imaging, autonomous systems, and digital assistants. I think that machine learning in metals will continue to play an important role, especially in complementing our advanced cyber-physical systems with digital assistants. Overall, Primetals Technologies is continuously enhancing its portfolio of solutions that incorporate artificial intelligence in all the fields that I just mentioned, and many more!