• S Sathish, Partner |
7 min read

Enhancing EBITDA per tonne has been a constant pursuit by cement manufacturers owing to rising input costs. The current quarter performance is better than the last, but the performance is yet to reach desired levels. Companies in the cement sector have been exploring ways to bring in innovative and sustainable ways to minimise the RM inflation impact and protect their EBITDA performance. Many leaders in the sector have turned to Digital methodologies and accelerators to bring in precise improvements in a scalable and sustainable way.

There are many digital enablers such as Artificial intelligence (AI), Machine learning, Video Analytics and recently Gen AI is also a great support. But the strategy to get maximum returns from Digital technologies is to identify those business-critical areas, choose the right digital accelerator and apply them to get the maximum efficiencies. 

Cement manufacturing value stream starts from Mining where the limestone is extracted, passing through the crushers, Raw mill, Kiln, where the conversion happens to a clinker, and then to grinding & packing towards dispatch. Asset reliability, Energy consumption and RM consumption control become critical parameters in Cement manufacturing and Digital accelerators are applied in these areas to optimise operations.

This article talks about 10 different areas with its accelerators to bring in sustainable benefits. 

Digital Accelerator 1: Intelligent mine mix optimizer powered by AI

Currently in many cement plants, mine planning is manual and is done through offline coordination between mining team, geologists and QA team. There is no realtime analysis to take informed decisions which leads to variation in ore quality which in turn affects clinker quality. Further this also increases rehandling of ore to balance quality and unplanned movements of HEMM. An intelligent mine mix optimiser powered by AI can ingest different data points such as geological data, mine sampling analysis data, past extraction data etc to arrive and guide the optimal mine mix realtime. The AI can provide inputs to the dumpers and loaders on field based on realtime outputs. This mine mix optimiser can help in reducing variability to a significant level. 

Digital Accelerator 2: Digital Twin of Raw mill and Cement mill for energy optimisation

Vertical roller mills are one of the core energy consuming equipment in a cement plant. Currently energy consumption is managed by adjusting 15 to 20 parameters manually every shift leading to significant variation in power consumed. Realtime optimisation on 15 to 20 parameters may not be manually possible and is prone to errors. Further no detailed analysis is done correlating output quality with energy consumption. Digital twins are a powerful option to simulate conditions to arrive at the best possible energy management strategy along with increased grinding efficiency.

Digital Accelerator 3: AI powered fuel optimizer for kiln

Energy consumption in kilns forms a significant part of the overall energy costs incurred in cement manufacturing. It is determined based on different parameters including raw meal consistency, nozzle feed rate, burning zone temperature, kiln motor current, ID fan flow rate, etc. Based on experience maturity spectrum, we have seen huge variability in kcal/kg across different plants. A fuel optimiser for kiln powered by AI, learns based on past data and suggests right setting parameters that gets fed into DCS in a cement plant, delivering the best kcal/kg based on nature of input parameters. 

Digital Accelerator 4: Machine Learning based Predictive Asset Management

Reliability is a key factor in cement plants that ensures uninterrupted output. Stacker, Gear boxes, ID Fans are some of failure prone equipments affecting Kiln run days. We have seen in some of the plants   that the reliability hovers around 68-75% because of these issues affecting performance. A machine learning based Predictive Asset Management program helps in anticipating failures in advance and align preventive maintenance practices accordingly. Data is collected from respective machine using sensors to predict burn wear, shaft misalignments, coupling failures etc. This approach helps in enhancing reliability higher than 90%.

Digital Accelerator 5: Machine Learning and Analytics based HEMM Condition monitoring

Realtime visibility of reliability of HEMM equipments is not available. Minor/major stoppages occur frequently affecting HEMM productivity, Some of the common reasons for stoppages include Tyre failure, Electrical fault, Engine Fault and air pressure issues. Real time condition monitoring solution by collecting data on Tyre pressure, fuel levels and consumption through sensors along with data from load cells, coupled with a robust AI/ML solution helps in reducing downtime to the tune of 40%.

Digital Accelerator 6: Asset Management through Digital logbooks

At present maintenance is driven predominantly based on Paper based PM checklists which makes it difficult to manually update for any changes and makes future reference difficult. This also doesn’t facilitate for Equipment breakdown analysis/ Root cause identification and affects manual productivity to maintain these logbooks. Digital Logbooks with a mobile access/update is a good option enables recording of data realtime and also facilitates analysis. The Digital logbooks coupled with Analytics helps in providing insights to technicians/supervisors to enhance quality of maintenance.

Digital Accelerator 7: Digital Control Tower enabling Connected Operations

Typically cement plants have data points existing in different plant databases though connected by ERP.  But the data is not available in an organized form to benchmark performance parameters between plants or understand best performing equipment across plants, or if leadership wants to drill down on poor efficiency in a plant. This makes it difficult for corporates to track performance centrally and are dependent for data on emails from plant teams.  Digital control tower is a powerful accelerator where Information Technology (IT) data from ERP/databases/platforms and Operations Technology (OT) from machines through sensors are integrated to provide meaningful insights to take decisions and also helps in tracking actions against those decisions.

Digital Accelerator 8: Drone linked Video analytics for tracking Piles and Projects

Getting data from piles/tracking physical progress on projects has been a tough task and hence this information is only collected on a periodic basis. Pile information if not taken fairly accurately will lead to issues on clinker quality. In projects it becomes difficult to access heights/ risk prone areas. 

Drone linked with Video analytics is used by many Cement players to monitor piles on regular basis and video analytics helps in analysing the data collected through drones to identify changes in patterns. In projects, this method helps in tracking the physical progress and helps in reviewing progress online realtime. This has brought in significant improvement in efficiencies in Operations and project tracking. 

Digital Accelerator 9: Gen AI based Equipment Knowledge management

A lot of equipment specification data exists in OEM manuals, and it becomes an arduous task to ferret those manuals to search for any specific query. Further if one needs to compare the Preventive maintenance checklists with the OEM specifications, it is manually done which is laborious. Gen AI comes as a great enabler where it can read the Digital Equipment manuals and can provide answers for queries from the manual at the click of a button. It can also compare documents to show the differences between PM checklists and OEM manuals. Many organisations have started using this feature across Maintenance and Quality disciplines. 

Digital Accelerator 10: Augmented Reality and Digital SOPs for Skill development

Skill development has become very critical these days with the number of opportunities available and increasing attrition. Realtime access of the right information while performing the job is an emerging as an expected need and this is being met by Augmented reality based Digital SOPs. Operators while performing the respective step can access this Digital SOPs and visualize the right SOP through AR which helps in minimizing errors. We see this getting adopted by some of the leaders in skill critical areas to start with. 

Conclusion: Digital accelerator is not an option for Cement players but a necessity

In a nutshell, Digital accelerators are great enablers  to enhance efficiency and productivity for cement players to enhance profitability.  Adoption of these Digital technologies is no more an option but a necessity for Cement manufacturers to enhance sustained profitability. 

A version of this article was published on Dec 16, 2023  by Manufacturing Today India.com