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Small Steps to Digital Plant Success

Smart businesses are getting to know the value of intelligent, predictive, digital systems by setting aside and modernizing a small section of their plant.

When Fortescue designed and developed their Solomon Hub mine in the Hamersley Ranges, the scale of the project was impressive. At the time of their creation, the Firetail and Kings ore mines (together making up the Solomon Hub) created the world’s largest PROFINET Industrial Ethernet network. This network played an enormous role in productivity and efficiency improvements.

Australia’s largest PROFINET network at Fortescue has played an enormous role in delivering substantial productivity and efficiency improvements. A business needn’t be the size of Fortescue to realize the types of competitive advantages that digital communication networking offers.

The network, for example, helped Fortescue to capture real-time data from various machinery and devices in the field. This allowed the business to monitor not only its asset and production levels but also the health of its machinery. As a result, the viability of the site has constantly been maintained. Predictive data has identified issues ahead of time, allowing preventative maintenance to take place and ensuring smooth operation. Incredibly, the cost of producing a ton of iron ore was reduced by almost 66%.

“Of course, not everything has been due to the networking of their plant,” says Rafael Koenig, Profibus Australia Chairman and Managing Director of Weidmuller Australia. “But it has been an essential part of Fortescue’s strategy to employ the latest automation technology to support productivity goals.”

A business needn’t be the size of Fortescue to realize the types of competitive advantages that digital communication networking offers.

“It’s simply about the upgrading of legacy systems, not about making an instant leap to Industry 4.0,” says Fritz Woller, Executive Officer Engineering with IS Systems. “Making even a small move towards a modern control system opens a door and allows a business to begin to truly appreciate the value of access to data.”

Woller says committing to a relatively minor upgrade in a small part of a plant, from an analogue system to a digital platform, will realize entirely unexpected benefits. One client, for example, was fed up with sourcing increasingly rare spare parts for his legacy factory system so commissioned a digital fieldbus.

Soon after its installation, a machine was automatically shut down because the newly intelligent devices on the fieldbus sensed a serious problem.

“The devices that sat on the fieldbus told the plant manager that there was a phase imbalance in a transformer and therefore the new system switched that machine off,” Woller explains. “If it continued running then the motor would have been destroyed. That saved an awful lot of equipment damage, and they were able to quickly fix the transformer and get everything up and running again.”

“When hesitant the best approach is to simply identify the issue that is causing the most pain, then work with an automation industry partner to develop a solution for this problem.” Jim Wallace (Balluff)

This predictive maintenance capability, knowing about issues before they become serious problems, is just one of the many benefits of digital systems.

“In a nutshell, the new systems offer the ability to keep a plant running more efficiently,” says Jim Wallace, Marketing Manager at Balluff Pty Ltd. “It means less downtime, less unplanned maintenance, faster change-over time and increasing quality and throughput.”

“Implementation usually starts off on a small scale, which helps to control costs and to develop an appreciation of the real-world benefits the digital system offers. When clients begin to realize those benefits, they expand the systems across their plants.”

Installing a new technology plant-wide is difficult and daunting, Wallace says. Often the best approach is to simply identify the issue that is causing you the most pain, then work with an automation industry partner to develop a solution to this problem.

“Pick off some low-hanging fruit to justify and learn about the investment,” he says. “Work through it in small sections across the factory and learn along the way the many new benefits such a system offers.”

“As manufacturers and suppliers, we have a shared responsibility to get these systems correct. It is not about flicking a switch to go from the old technology to the new technology. It is about the fact that most companies have performance potential that they don’t even recognize until they begin to employ the new technology and appreciate its awesome productivity benefits.”

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