Speeding up digitalization in complex process industries

Digitalization is today’s buzzword but how to really get it rolling aluminium?

Outotec has a uniquely broad offering mining and metals processing solutions – spanning across practically all metals all the way from the concentrator plant to various metals refining routes. This also gives Outotec the benefit of seeing what is happen across the industry, in different metals value chains. The one thing all metals have in common is that digitalization is today’s hot topic. Comparing aluminium to many other metals, let along the minerals processing value chain, we are only in the beginning of this journey. Arguably, most other metals value chains are further ahead. Why?

For me, the problem is a mismatch between different parties. Our customers have to piece together their process plants (e.g. alumina refineries, aluminium smelters) from a multitude of different technology vendors, often with the help of an EPCM / engineering company whose primary task is to execute the capital investment project on time and to budget, placing less emphasis on the operations afterwards. It’s therefore up to our customers to piece together their digital platforms and trying to integrate the data collected by a number of different equipment from almost as many providers. The end result I see is that the corporate programs are still often aimed at architecting the “overall solution”, piecing together the puzzle of which landscape is right for the given operation as a whole, while at the operational level, operations managers are still yearning for the practical applications that will help them meet their operational targets.

Then there are the big analytics companies of the world, who each promote their own “big data platforms”. These can be a great solution to customers who can’t afford to build their own platforms, but again they are not the experts in the process or the equipment. The solution is often to “measure everything” and then through advanced analytics, artificial intelligence, neural networks, try to find the patterns and deliver optimization results. In other words, they reverse engineer the actual chemical and physical processes that occur with in plants – and upfront it’s quite difficult to accurately forecast the results.

The technology vendors, Outotec included, also have our own digitalization programs. For us the challenge is size and scale. In our value chain, for example, we compete with quite similar companies – mid sized companies (revenues 1-3 billion euros) for whom alumina / aluminium is only a part of the overall product portfolio. However, the basic philosophies of measurement, data collection and data analytics are common, which is why we work on two fronts. Firstly, developing a set of proprietary tools that work across industries that manage data analysis and measurement, trying to be as flexible as possible with how our customers want to use our products. Secondly, we need to tie our efforts to very practical applications. Many equipment vendors, unlike us, have also teamed up with analytics companies to develop the applications, but they are then tied to the given platform – which again might not be compatible with what the plant operator is installing.

What’s the solution in short-mid term?

We believe that while from a resource perspective Outotec may be smaller than the big analytics companies, we have are structurally advantaged by the fact that we understand the processes. We also have our own proprietary analytics software suitable for “digitizing” the process knowledge we have. This can directly be inputted with the equations that drive the process, and we also understand what benefits to look for.

Outotec’s digital strategy has been already for many years to work on two levels. Firstly, we need a common data management architecture that can work across our products and handle the collection and analysis of data. We made the decision as part of our digital strategy to make our platform independent of which platform our end customer is using. We called it the ACT, and have made it so that it can tie up to whatever our customers are using. Then, the equally important part has been to work on the practical applications of the data handling from day 1 – and now the results of this work are starting to show also in our more complex plant products, in addition to the equipment applications which we have developed already earlier.

In alumina, we got our first references last year for our Calciner Optimizer. This entails installing certain measurement systems into the calciner for real time analysis, and giving the operator real time advice on how to adjust operating parameters. The tool has engrained all the process knowledge we have in a codified package, without having to reverse engineer the processes. What to optimize depends on the calciner, but typical uses are saving on fuel, increasing throughput or optimizing maintenance. The results so far have been promising, with very high paybacks for the customer. Our model is based on a license fee; with annual benefits far exceeding the fee.

In aluminium carbon plants, we are working on the same two level structure – building the measurement “platform” on Outotec’s common system architecture, while continuously increasing the number of applications available for each machine to provide quick payback for our customers. In Green Anode Plants and Rodshops, the applications range from preventative maintenance all the way to optimizing certain elements in the carbon area that we know have an impact on potline performance – this, we believe, is where the real money lies. The potential here is huge, but it requires us to work with our customers further down the chain to get the right feedback data; and this is the dialogue we are currently starting to see increasingly with our customers. As a curiosity, Outotec develop its first Anode and Rod tracking system already over 10 years ago – and in hindsight it seems we were ahead of our time. This was not high on the agendas of companies, and the analytics software to develop calculations to bring in the value was not yet developed enough.

How to speed things up?

I believe there are several things operators can do:

  1. Maintain tight dialogue between the “corporate agenda” and what the operations teams require and see as potential benefits
  2. While working on the bigger architectural questions, Have an open mind to working with vendors on the practical solutions. The final architecture doesn’t necessarily have to be all figured out before starting to use some of the practical applications.
  3. Pilot with practical applications bit by bit – these can later be integrated into the larger road map. It’s important to bring several parties to work collaboratively; the concept of what we’re trying to accomplish in each application needs to be clear, but the exact details of the business case may only be verified along the journey.

I’m very excited about the potential of digitalization, and when I talk to people working for companies that focus on one end to end piece of equipment or production system, I can see the benefits already starting to materialize. (e.g. elevators, look at what fellow-Finnish company Kone is doing, or ship engines, what Wärtsilä is doing, or what has already been accomplished in the mining / metals industry at an equipment level) I have also come to realise, however, that as we in the aluminium industry deal with complex process plants with multiple vendors working on one process, getting to the benefits is not that quick. It requires a strong coordination effort between our customers and us vendors, and also an open mind to test out new things and open new avenues of partnership.

In our next edition, we’ll be deep diving further into the state of digitalization in the aluminium industry, by value chain. You can also join us for a presentation on the topic at the CRU World Aluminium conference in London 24-26 April.


Antti Koulumies | Vice President, Aluminium Business Line

Antti Koulumies leads Outotec’s Aluminium Business line, which comprises of Outotec’s alumina refinery and aluminium smelter technologies. Antti started in his role in the summer of 2018, giving him a relatively fresh perspective to the aluminium industry. Previously, Antti worked as Outotec’s head of corporate strategy and controlling, supporting Outotec weather through the tougher times of the mining and metals industry 2015-2018. Antti’s background is with McKinsey and Company where he worked as a consultant working across Europe, South Africa, China and North America.

Antti is based in Cologne, Germany and is a native of Finland, and is an avid skier and golfer. You will also find him at the next Nice-Cannes marathon in November.