Metallurgical steelmaking factory at dusk.

Modern solutions to age-old issues

Tools to help metals operators futureproof their business

Men working in the steel yard

For thousands of years, innovative thinking in metals production has allowed society to experience the benefits of iron, copper, steel and bronze.

A recent discovery in Sri Lanka uncovered how natural wind pressure during monsoon season was used as far back as the first millennium AD to raise the temperature of furnaces and help produce high-carbon steel1. While this process may seem detached from the metals industry of today, it can still teach operators a valuable lesson about how existing tools and processes have always been used to strategically overcome challenges such as inefficiency or production levels. And though digitalisation, sustainability and the effects of the pandemic have moved the goalposts somewhat for modern metal facilities, if operators can finally solve these underlying issues, then the industry will be well on its way to a more sustainable and productive future.

1. Optimising efficiencies and reducing costs

Metals' operators are largely focused on keeping efficiency up and costs down; the crux of which lies in maintaining their equipment effectively so uptime remains high. Operating conditions are harsh enough on machinery as it is, so optimum production is a difficult goal to maintain. Combine this with volatile energy and material prices, as well as unexpected supply chain disruption, and the task can sometimes seem insurmountable.

The solution: Combining lubricants and technology

One simple answer is to make sure lubricants are being selected – and then used in equipment – correctly. The use of the right lubricant has seen one of our partners save more than $12,000 in energy costs for just one application: crane gearboxes2. And when paired with suitable digital solutions – like remote oil condition monitoring – its impact can be even greater. With real-time machinery data outlining important metrics like viscosity range and remaining oil life, efficiency levels can be raised to new heights, while downtime becomes a lot less likely or at least can be better scheduled around busy production periods.

2. Waste management

From Sri Lanka to South Korea, governing bodies are introducing stricter waste management requirements into law, and companies must ensure their own internal structures are in place and robust. The proper, and efficient, disposal of waste is not just an environmental issue however, but a financial one too. Ultimately, unnecessary waste means unnecessary costs, whether through inefficient equipment, poor use of lubrication or increased disposal fees. The same applies to water usage and management: with large quantities of water used for cleaning and cooling purposes, operators have a responsibility to optimise water usage so as not to further contribute to resource exploitation.

The solution: Streamlining and automation

Metal plants can combat this by streamlining processes wherever possible. This begins with a clearer understanding of lifecycle thinking and the circular economy – where products and services are designed with waste reduction, repurposing and recycling in mind. A perfect example is the re-refining of oil to recover base oils and other bio-based components, as opposed to traditional disposal routes. But it also extends to the integration of bespoke digital technologies. Automating processes, by introducing robotics for example, can boost efficiency, which is why 63% of metal manufacturing executives are considering automation investment3. Whereas, effective enterprise resource planning (ERP) software can help to simplify the complex requirements – such as pricing, inventory and yield – that define many internal value chains across the metals industry. With agile software systems that can help operators to capture, store and dissect large datasets, strategies can be sharpened around real-time trends and therefore made more impactful.

3. Decarbonising the supply chain

Steel worker looking at tablet standing next to big laser cutting machine

While the metals industry has done a lot over the last few years to become more sustainable from top to bottom, decarbonisation is still extremely high on the agenda. After all, the steel industry alone is still one of the top three contributors to CO2 emissions globally4. Although attention is shifting from a focus on Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions – produced directly by companies or indirectly through the purchase of energy – to Scope 3 emissions. These are emissions accrued throughout the entire supply chain, and can include everything from raw materials, operations and distribution to how the products are used and disposed of by customers.

The solution: Strengthening your ecosystem

Because a key challenge here is the complexity of carbon accounting and tracking – as well as the limited direct influence operators can have on some of these areas – sustainability reporting systems can be extremely useful. As the World Economic Forum’s Mining and Metals Blockchain Initiative has proven, these allow for carbon emissions to be tracked, while providing sharper insight and visibility across the supply chain5. Another tactic is to engage a strategic partner who may be better placed to advise on low-carbon solutions. Gavin Warner, Global Commercial Sustainability General Manager at Shell says: “Working with a partner like Shell Lubricant Solutions can help operators introduce everything from carbon neutral lubricants and carbon offsets to alternative energy solutions and employee training – all with the aim of reducing, avoiding and compensating for emissions."

“Working with a partner like Shell Lubricant Solutions can help operators introduce everything from carbon neutral lubricants and carbon offsets to alternative energy solutions and employee training.”

Gavin Warner, Shell

Despite uncontrollable external variables – from pandemics to price fluctuations – industry demand forecasts remain strong, with the World Steel Association having raised its 2021 steel growth projection to 5.8%6. The opportunity for metals' operators is therefore clear. But to capitalise, businesses must focus on the variables they can control – equipment efficiency, internal costs and their carbon footprint – while reaching out to partners like Shell when additional expertise is needed. And by understanding that sustainability solutions can co-exist with business performance and economic benefits, operators can be confident in weathering the storm, even if that storm reaches monsoon-like levels.

Footnotes

1 University of Exeter. “Modern and ancient technology meet.” Humanities.Exeter.ac.uk. July 08, 2013.

2 The savings indicated are specific to the calculation date and customer site. These calculations may vary from site to site and from time to time, depending on, for example, the application, the operating conditions, the current products being used, the condition of the equipment and the maintenance practices

3 The Business Research Company. “Metal products global market report 2021: COVID 19 impact and recovery to 2030.” ReportLinker.com. January, 2021.

4 Ajitesh Anand, Toralf Hagenbruch, Anoop Muppalla and Benedikt Zeumer. “Tackling the challenge of decarbonizing steelmaking.” McKinsey & Company. May 18, 2021.

5 World Economic Forum. “Blockchain can trace carbon emissions for mining, metals companies, proof of concept released.” WEForum.org. December 15, 2020.

6 Diana Kinch. “Worldsteel raises 2021 steel demand growth forecast to 5.8%.” SPGlobal.com. April 15, 2021.

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