One of China’s leading cement companies has reduced its energy consumption and increased its productivity, resource utilisation and profitability thanks to an end-to-end smart factory system it has developed with China Telecom and Huawei, according to the company’s deputy general manager, He Chengfa, speaking at the Huawei Connect in Shanghai last week.
He was one of a number of senior executives speaking at the event about real-life applications of 5G.
Conch Group has been working on smart factories in the cement industry since 2016, “Compared with chemical and metallurgical industries, cement is also a process industry,” said He at the event. “Most of the [mining] operations are still manual and vulnerable to human factors and influence. Our quality control so far mostly relies on human intervention, in terms of sampling and testing and controlling, so that involves a long cycle and delay of intervention.”
The deputy general manager warned that some of the workplaces in the industry “are very exhausting”, including packaging, mining and transportation. “All very tiring and hazardous for the workers,” he noted.
Given the worldwide company scale, Conch Group uses intelligent systems to control the mining processes more effectively. “Our resources can be better utilised and we also save energy.” He pointed out that “70% of the energy we use is coal and power and we save a lot of them, and we also enhance our labour productivity”.
It took two years to develop the smart factory concept into reality, with the first going into production in Chuzhou, a city in Anhui province that is 30km north-west of Nanjing. “The cement factory has been transformed into a smart factory end-to-end,” said He.
That transformation runs from mining and transport of the limestone, to pulverisation. “And then for the factory, we need to burn that limestone into ashes and turn it into dust.” The third stage is packaging and delivery.
The production platform starts from digital mining, says He. “Quality control, feedback, dispatching of the vehicles are all automated.” Then the production lines have been automated. “We used to rely on manual operation by experts. Human factors had a major play and influence.”
Automation continues to the packaging and dispatch system, and to quality control. “For the whole process, quality sampling, testing and feedback have been all automated. “In operation and maintenance, safety and environment are all included in the platform.” There is an intelligent management platform which combines execution and marketing, as well as sales.
“By developing smart cement manufacturing, we have achieved good results,” said He, sharing some numbers.
“By developing smart energy, our energy consumption can be reduced by 2%,” he said, “and labour productivity has gone up by 20%, and resource utilisation by 4%.”
Conch Group started with 4G mobile technology in its smart cement factories, but in August 2019 it moved to 5G, working with China Telecom and Huawei. “We piloted 5G in two places, one factory in Chuzhou and the other in Wuhu,” said He. Wuhu is about 100km south of Chuzhou.
The company uses 5G technologies for autonomous driving vehicles and high-definition video monitoring, as well as remote control for equipment.
The limestone mines are opencast, said He, with miners working two shifts a day. “But the cement factory is working three shifts, so the efficiency of mining is only two thirds of the cement production line.”
Another concern: “For mining, safety is a challenge. Blasting, transportation and shovelling are all involved – and they work in the same area at the same time, so there are some safety risks.”
In the past, Conch Group managed these operations manually. Now, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) monitor the blast areas “and the terrain features are updated automatically”, said He. “5G technologies are also used to control autonomous driving for mine transportation.”
He calculates that “once autonomous driving is rolled out, mining efficiency can be gained by 30%. And the operation could become 24/7.”
He also talked equipment inspection in the company’s cement factories, especially in the cement industries. “Cement making is a typical process industry: the production has to go on for 20 hours and therefore the equipment also operates around the clock.”
An inspector is a key person in the process. “The inspector needs to check key components and steps on a manual basis, but this is susceptible to many factors, especially for reliability,” said He.
“By marrying artificial intelligence (AI), 5G and cloud, we were able to monitor equipment status. AI enables remote control and operation, manual inspection workload has been reduced a lot and inspection efficiency is tripled and quadrupled.”
Conch Group’s smart factory system was honoured in September 2020 at the Jianghuai Economic Forum and World Manufacturing Conference as one of the most innovative applications of 5G+ industrial internet services.
“We have collaborated with the China Cement Association and published the 5G Smart Cement Bluebook, detailing the application scenarios for 5G technologies in smart cement factories, using our projects as case study,” said He.
“China Telecom, Huawei and other leading industries have consolidated 5G+ industrial internet application scenarios and the technical requirements.” The aim is that 5G+ smart solutions can be standardised and quickly replicated in the cement industry.
What are the financial savings? In Conch Group’s Wuanjiao plant, the company will complete the development of an end-to-end whole-process smart production line within the next two years. “We can recoup the investment,” said He.
“If only one of the 40 production lines can be equipped with such technologies, we can gain 1 billion RMB a year.” That’s the equivalent of $146 million.
“We represent 10% of the Chinese market,” He continued. “If the solutions can be rolled out across the industry, the yearly gain will amount to 10 billion RMB.” In other words, $1.46 billion.
“Last year, the industry earned about 160 billion RMB in total, so usually the yearly profit is around 100 billion. That means by such intelligent transformation, the profit can be enhanced by 10%.”
He said Conch is going to partner with China Telecom and Huawei, and apply 5G, AI, big data, cloud, internet of things (IoT) and other techniques “to develop the formation of a cement industrial internet platform”, using Conch’s techniques, “and push the traditional industry towards intelligence and informatisation … so as to take solid strides along the path of high quality development.”