VN Balasubramanian, Director, Head BU Cement, thyssenkrupp Industries India
An apparent shift towards automation is viable in all sectors. Cement segment is no exception. What do you think?
Cement plants which have come up in the last decade are equipped with comparatively new generation technology and a fairly high degree of automation. But the older plants are still lagging in automation and are manually controlled to a great extent.
In the "post-Covid era", a perceptible shift is likely from manual control to AI-based control. Such a transition would be due to the new challenges not only in the form of availability and cost of manpower but also transparency, quality and reliability. To scale down the OPEX (operational expenditure), we expect invest-ments in the field of automation and digitalisation. It would vary depending on the present operating model and desired model. Though the latest plants are equipped with state-of-the-art modern systems, plant owners constantly strive for increased transparency, throughput and efficiency.
Automation is capital intense. Do you think the cost factor is keeping the companies away from IT adaptation?
To some extent, cost is definitely a factor influencing a decision to go forward, but that is not the only factor. The importance of adaptation to technology is palpable. Automation goes hand in hand with digitalisation. thyssenkrupp has several models that showcase how automation enhances value in product quality, transparency, cost-cutting and competitiveness. Domain experts using the ongoing production process raw data can develop an efficient solution to add value to the customer's projects by enhancing efficiency, effec-tiveness and consistency, thereby reducing net operating cost and improving product quality. Our digital strategy forms the basis for developing new ways to improve margins. However, when the overall benefits and advantages are expounded properly, the hesitation to go forward fades.
Owing to the pandemic, remote implementation is the latest "in thing" now. Could you elaborate on the challenges?
Implementation of most of the cement project activities like civil works, steel fabrication, erection works and electrical works cannot be carried out remotely. But there are some activities which can be carried out remotely with the help of information technology. Recently, during the Covid-19 lockdown, thyssenkrupp successfully carried out remote performance guarantee tests of a cement plant in North America from Ger-many. Typically, for such tests more than 10-12 engineers from OEM (original equipment manufacturer) and sub-suppliers need to be physically present at site. But under the prevailing circumstances, it was not possible and we did it remotely with the support of the client's staff by creating a virtual CCR in Germany and monitored from there for 8-9 days. That was a huge success. Such a feat was unthinkable even a year ago.
Now, as the travel restrictions continue, we are attempting to hot-commission a full pyro-processing plant located in a remote area in Africa, from India and Germany. This would be again a first-of-its-kind effort. Automation and IT have helped us dare to dream and charter territories hitherto unimaginable.
thyssenkrupp has worked both in retrofitting as well as in turnkey projects. Can you highlight which is more challenging?
Both types of projects come with their own set of challenges. In turnkey projects, the entire onus lies on the EPC (engineering, procurement and construction) contractor. Secondly, handling and retaining a huge labour force in remote areas, especially during situations like Covid, is a black box. Thirdly, in contracts with civil construction in scope, "soil risks" is an area where massive and nasty surprises lurk below surface. Fourthly, delays in the project due to various reasons beyond the control of the EPC contractor, is accompanied by compensation payouts, unpredictable increase in prices of input components and, in some cases, foreign trade risks as well.
In retrofitting projects, normally the scope is limited and the values are invariably lower. But the challenges are no less diverse. Such projects usually move in tandem with an operative plant or part thereof, thereby restricting freedom to work and enhancing safety concerns. Execution has to be planned to perfection as hook-up to a plant stoppage is usually envisaged and delay leads to serious consequences.
In addition, hidden surprises also spring up leading to additional costs and time. Non-availability of adequate, accurate engineering details and drawings for such activities is another issue. Another handicap is non-availability of sufficient expert and reliable agencies to execute retrofit jobs.
In retrofitting projects, normally the scope is limited and the values are invariably lower. But the challenges are no less diverse. Such projects usually move in tandem with an operative plant