Oman’s Sohar Aluminium is looking to harness the transformational potential of the Industry 4.0 Revolution to position itself as a “smelter of the future” in the aluminium sector
by Roberto Guccione
Sohar Aluminium was formed in September 2004 to undertake a landmark Greenfield aluminium smelter project in the Sultanate of Oman. The company has made advanced technology a priority ever since its formation. From the use of leading-edge smelting technology with progressive increase in amperage, to the deployment of state-of-the-art production, efficiency and safety optimization tools, technological innovation has long been the cornerstone of its ambition to become the benchmark smelter in the region.
Today, Sohar Aluminium is on the cusp of yet another exciting, if momentous, leap into the future, this time around aided by a raft of emerging technologies that form part of the 4th Industrial Revolution. From Mobile Connectivity, Artificial Intelligence and Big Data to Robotics, Internet of Things (IoT) and Machine Learning, Industry 4.0 has the potential to accelerate the digital transformation under way at Sohar Aluminium.
Notwithstanding the universal buzz surrounding the 4th Industrial Revolution, the IT and Automation Team at Sohar Aluminium is little fazed by the daunting task ahead of them. After all, keeping Sohar Aluminium on the cutting-edge of smelting technology and operational excellence has been their overarching goal from the outset of the company’s launch a decade ago. “Sohar Aluminium has embraced some elements of Industry 4.0 ever since we came on stream and we continue to evaluate new technologies and innovations as they materialize. This is a continuous journey of improvement which we don’t foresee an end to,” explained Abdullah Al Maamari, IT Manager. Indeed, automation – a key facet of Industry 4.0’s suite of breakthrough technologies has long been the hallmark of Sohar Aluminium’s investment in a modern smelter. Advanced automation technologies are a defining characteristic of the company’s operations. Similarly, robotics is an integral part of the company’s Casthouse operations, eliminating any potential for human interaction with unsafe material handling, thereby reducing the risk of injury to its operators. Robotic cranes assist in the stacking of the refined metal bundles and applying labels to them.
A potential game-changer for Sohar Aluminium is the Internet of Things (IoT) – an ecosystem of connected machines, equipment, devices and physical objects that can communicate with each other. “In our case, we use the Industrial IoT, which connects all of our systems with the enterprise,” said Ibrahim AL Maawali, Automation Superintendent. “Thus, all of the data from the shop floor, production units, and so on, is captured on our dashboards in real time. Right now, we are evaluating various IoT solutions that add value to our business.”
Equally promising is the deployment of Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions to improve process control at Sohar Aluminium. With a combination of ML and AI, the IT and Automation team sees the potential to automatically record, network and use numerous machine and system parameters that can be harnessed to plan downtimes, increase productivity, and drive quality.
Not surprisingly, some elements of Machine Learning are already part of Sohar Aluminium’s processes – the result of an abiding commitment to staying abreast of technology, according to Paul Ridgway, Automation Specialist. “Machine Learning has been around for quite some time, under the guise of Intelligent Systems. It’s only now been rebranded as Machine Learning. Still, we are looking into the use of ML in some of our processes to better formulate our set-points, and so on.”
Data Analytics – another Industry 4.0 technological offering is also proving handy in enhancing maintenance and operational processes at Sohar Aluminium. “We use our historical data to forecast equipment failures and process deviations. This improves our uptime and allows us to do more proactive maintenance rather than reactive and it also enables us to achieve a high level of operational production,” said Ibrahim.
Industry 4.0 promises to unleash a wide range of game-changing benefits for Sohar Aluminium, says Paul. “Sohar Aluminium believes that Industry 4.0 helps in improving productivity, efficiency, safety, resource utilization, increasing machines uptime and reducing breakdowns by using smart sensors and such technologies. Also, it enables self-diagnosis, reducing turnover time, preventing breakdowns, reducing the human intervention which will reduce human errors.”
The Core IT Team
Abdullah, Ibrahim and Paul are part of a core team of subject experts drawn from the company’s IT and Automation Department with the mandate to make Industry 4.0 a reality within Sohar Aluminium. “We are a young, dynamic group of professionals with the requisite skillsets to unlock the potential of the 4th Industrial Revolution for the benefit of our operations. Our management, recognizing the immense potential of Industry 4.0, is eager for the comprehensive roll-out of these solutions across all facets of our operations and indeed the wider value chain.”
The adoption of Industry 4.0 tools began in earnest last year with members of the Core IT Team evaluating the applicability of these technologies and their deployment in key departments within the organization. At the same time, the IT team has begun to engage with vendors of 4.0 technologies and solutions with a view to ascertaining their efficacy within Sohar Aluminium. Furthermore, as talented professionals in their own right, members of the IT and Automation Team have come up with their own in-house solutions as cost-effective alternatives to vendor-promoted offerings.
As for a timeline to have Industry 4.0 technologies up and running within Sohar Aluminium, there is none! Abdullah explained: “Technologies, by their very nature, keep evolving. Before Industry 4.0, there were three different waves that also evolved over decades. Our responsibility is to look at technologies and trends, as and when they come on the market, that will help us enhance our productivity, cost-efficiency and competitiveness. Industry 4.0 is just another leg on this continuous journey in our quest for business and operational excellence. Besides, as some of these technologies represent expensive investments, we need to suitably evaluate them to ensure there are returns for the company.”
Mindful that the roll-out of Industry 4.0 is no small feat, Sohar Aluminium has embarked on a plant-wide awareness programme designed to ensure that the company’s sizable technical staff are fully on board in the delivery of this ambitious project. At the same time, the company is also engaging with key stakeholders and local communities on the importance of this initiative in ensuring the safe, successful and sustainable operation of Sohar Aluminium well into the future.