From talking injectors to wireless asset control

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Tata Steel is huge. This international steel giant has over ten thousand employees in the Netherlands. The company's site near the North Sea takes up over 750 hectares and is located in three different municipalities. Control, security and maintenance of the Tata Steel factories and installations are a constant challenge.

Article from Objective 29, 2018

Research and innovation

“Our department has two main goals: sustainable employability of employees and reducing human errors.” Kees Bunck of Tata Steel speaks passionately about his work as program manager at the department of Industrial Automation and Robotization (IA&R). “It is an exciting place to work. We do a lot of research and innovation. We usually start with a proof of concept. When this is successful, a pilot will follow and if that is also a success, the solution will be made into a business standard. This final step is perhaps the most difficult one, because it involves the biggest changes for the work units.”

Link between human and machine

Tata Steel consists of different work units, each with their own specialty, such as furnaces, hot and cold rolling mills and packaging steel. Separately, the work units are larger than most SMEs. They have quite a lot of autonomy. This autonomy can be a strengthbut at the same time it can form a barrier for synergy between the work units. The department of IA&R looks for solutions in the field of employability and security that can be used in multiple work units. They are often technological solutions, but IA&R also considers processes.

“A company like Tata Steel is naturally quite focused on technology. They often say: when we buy a new machine, everything will fall into place. This is obviously not always the case. What I find most challenging, is shaping the link between human and machine. Optimal usage of technological tools to create maximal support for the employees during their tasks.”

Talking injectors

Technolution supports IA&R during the development of new solutions based on the Sense2Grow platform. The huge site of Tata Steel houses many installations that need to be checked on a regular basis, say once a month. The employees head out in twos, often on bicycle, to take measurements, inspect machines and perform maintenance tasks. Sometimes, they have to go underground, into a cellar or into a cabinet. Not the most pleasant work at times.

“At one point, the company started asking about LoRa,” says Kees Bunck. “They asked whether we could implement the wireless LoRa technology for some of the more difficult checks. We initially responded by starting a proof of concept with sensors on the grease injectors that are used to lubricate the machines. The grease level in the injectors was being checked manually each month, so that was a good test case without a risk of failure. With the proof of concept, the sensors would communicate their grease level each hour. Soon, they were being referred to as 'the talking injectors'.

When we wanted to continue this project, we consulted various parties. In the end, we chose Technolution. They seemed surprisingly capable – and that is not something I say lightly. They offer us solutions and actively participate in the entire process. We have collaborated on a pilot for our entire site. Technolution took care of the quality of the network by installing a sufficient number of LoRa receivers, placing sensors and managing the storage and monitoring of the data.”

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Think Big, Start Small

When you are dealing with talking injectors, the frequency of measurements does not have to be high. Even when the injectors communicate a measurement only once a day, this is still thirty times as often as the manual measurements. The success of this pilot means that the Tata Steel employees soon will have to perform fewer measurements and checks in those hard to reach places. Kees Bunck's department soon received requests about similar solutions.

“IA&R motto is to 'Think Big, Start Small'. Thinking big is something most of us can do. Starting small is a lot harder. IA&R is pretty good at it though and I think Technolution is too. We started small with LoRa technology. You can see now that new ideas are swiftly making an appearance. When we have the tools and they fit into our strategy, we will start working with them.

Before the pilot with the talking injectors had finished, we already received a request whether we could start doing dew point measurements. At a certain temperature – the dew point – the metal rolls in the production halls start to gather condensation which can result in white rust or mottled rust. This sometimes forces us to reject an entire batch. We have done the research and the answer is: yes, we can perform dew point measurements with wireless LoRa sensors. However, this would have to be measured twelve times per hour, otherwise it is pointless.

The availability of the network and the frequency of the measurements are important and need to be monitored constantly. This is where Technolution comes in. We expand our network as required. When the reception falters, Technolution joins us to look for a solution.”

Wireless all the way

Dew point and injector measurements are only a few LoRa solutions on which Tata Steel and Technolution are currently working. Essentially, virtually any type of sensor can be made LoRa compatible within the Sense2Grow platform. Tata Steel and Technolution both have developed a solution to do this. Kees Bunck is reluctant to say which one is working better.

“Well, perhaps Technolution's node is just ahead of ours. In essence: we can make almost any sensor communicate wireless with the LoRa network. This leaves the door open for wireless asset control. If there is a suitable sensor or actuator, we can go wireless. With the help of the node, we can place sensors in difficult locations, for instance on a rotating part of which we wish to monitor the status. Another application could be to prevent misalignment of conveyor belts. We now have wired switches that take care of that, but the belts are sometimes hundred of meters long and can be hard to wire properly. Wireless switches are more practical in that case.”

A partner's playground

As an innovation department, IA&R has a unique position within Tata Steel. The department offers partners lots of freedom. The next step is a proof of concept for 3D localization that Technolution has developed. These senors track each other's location accurately, even over great distances. The underlying technology is Ultra Wide Band. Tata Steel wants to know whether this solution is suitable for localizing rollers that often need to be moved for maintenance.

Kees Bunck: “We facilitate a test environment for our partners; a playground, if you will. If it works out, we can continue development together. If it falls through, no hard feelings. For example, we are also interested in the possibilities of ultrasound measurements. Perhaps Technolution would like to take a crack at it?”

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