The basis | Connectivity is the foundation for digitalization
The challenge | Unstructured automation processes
The method | From basic fix to sophisticated solution
The advantage | Twin expertise for profitable projects
The vision | A clean interface with customers
Christian Geerkens, Vice President, Electrical and Automation
Systems Division (left) and Bernhard Steenken, CEO, SMS digital
Isolation spells the beginning of the end. That applies to companies, but also to each individual. In contrast, if you create and use connections, you can achieve great things. This idea is more relevant than ever, because the networking principle dominates current social change. The best example is social networks, which impressively demonstrate that information that can be shared brings people together.
In the business sector, networking has an even further-reaching dimension, as Bernhard Steenken, CEO, SMS digital GmbH, explains:
“Connectivity is the basis for everything – without connectivity there can be no digitalization.”
The SMS group subsidiary supplies the technology and solutions its customers need to digitalize their plants and operations. Yet the integration effort behind digitalization is frequently very high. It’s a process often underestimated.
The great challenge SMS group employees face is the inhomogeneous automation landscape at customers’ facilities, which partly results from a large number of interfaces. It means the data is also unstructured and inhomogeneous. “To solve this connectivity problem, we have created a product named Data Factory. First, the customer collects unstructured data, then it is saved as smart data, in other words transformed into structured and homogeneous data,” explains Steenken.
This premium data forms the basis for all further steps in the company’s digitalization. It must be available so that software solutions can be developed and effectively applied. Companies can only utilize the potentials of digitalization if they have structured data.
WHAT CUSTOMERS WANT
• Completely digitalized internal processes to optimize their supply chains
• Process workflows improved by digitalization (quality, output, delivery times)
• Software rulebooks purchased from SMS group or written themselves
• Data-sharing or intentional avoidance
When developing digital applications, SMS group works in a totally user-centered way. That means involving the customer in the process right from the start. Both sides discuss, evaluate, and implement initial ideas together.
“When it comes to digitalization, it’s not just about doing something better. The digital products must have a very concrete user benefit – that’s our first priority,” says Christian Geerkens, Vice President, Electrics and Automation Systems Division. Examples of a palpable benefit are increased product quality and improved output or delivery periods.
A well-structured procedure backs up the SMS group digitalization processes. Without it, Steenken and Geerkens both agree, the task would not be possible at all. Geerkens explains:
“Today, all customers are looking intensively at digitalization. Many conventional plant operators see it as a great opportunity.”
However, due to the countless possibilities offered by digitalization, sometimes companies expect too much at once. “Step one is always making the plant ‘digital ready.’ That means ensuring connectivity by creating structured and recoverable data. Then our advice to customers is: Start with the applications you already have and proprietary software solutions. This is a small investment that pays off very quickly,” explains Steenken.
It enables companies to successfully achieve flagship projects. The next step up is individual software solutions or the integration of artificial intelligence. This procedure not only makes sense with regard to step-by-step digitalization, but also as a way to win over skeptics. “Digitalization is fundamentally controversial because it divides two generations. So it’s important to first achieve acceptance. And the best way to do that is with successful pilot projects,” says Steenken. In other words, having a big vision and starting small.
When it comes to the effective use of artificial intelligence, SMS group stands out with its extensive competence. This comprises not only digital expertise, but also profound understanding of processes in the steel industry. “Linking these two together is what makes solutions really smart and efficient,” says Steenken, and Geerkens adds: “We are the only company on the market to offer this combination. It’s a decisive success factor for us.”
The SMS employees can implement their process knowledge directly in the algorithms. For example, if a data specialist suspects there is a data anomaly in the process, the SMS group process experts can immediately spot that the cause is a phase change. As a result, the work is more efficient. “This is how we save customers a lot of money and provide a faster result,” says Steenken.
THE REVOLUTION IN CONVENTIONAL SERVICE PRODUCTS
Connectivity is also a major topic in the Technical Service Division. One example is remote support using augmented reality. It enables our service experts to assess situations and provide support without having to be on-site. Digitalization is revolutionizing conventional service products. SMS group’s Technical Service created its first digital products years ago. Today, they provide a good springboard into the digital age.
“We will utilize the possibilities of the Learning Steel Mill for our service business as well.”
Jochen Burg, Vice President, Technical Service
Therefore, his formula for SMS group’s success is: Digital expertise and process understanding lead to customer benefit – and ensure the customer reaches the desired goal.
“Linking digital expertise and process understanding is what makes solutions really smart and efficient.”
Looking to the future, Steenken expects connectivity to become the standard basis, so that advance preparation with the customer is no longer necessary. “Whether the customer takes care of this itself or we create the basis jointly – my vision is that the customer has clean data and we have a mutual interface. Then we’ll be able to easily provide apps the customer can try out,” adds Steenken.
Geerkens also has clear ideas about how connectivity provides the conditions for future developments: A single system will link all the data belonging to a company in one database. The customer will have a choice of various platforms with applications it can use for its production processes.
“SMS group offers its own platform that gives customers the option of using the Data Factory to analyze their existing process models and determine how they can optimize their production.”
The two men agree that companies should see digitalization and the underlying connectivity as an opportunity. “Companies that don’t utilize the opportunities of digitalization now won’t survive,” says Geerkens, and Steenken adds: “It’s no good ignoring megatrends. They indicate to all of us – including the metal industry – where we are headed in the future.”
“At sms digital GmbH, we pool our expertise on digitalization and link it with our products and technologies.”
Prof. Dr.-Ing. Katja Windt, CDO, SMS group GmbH
Apart from constantly further developing and optimizing our existing products, we also keep connectivity in mind when continually creating new, innovative solutions.
We are convinced that only the use of innovative yet mature sensor systems combined with smart electronics and software will fully meet future customer requirements. Intelligent, self-learning control algorithms will, in the future, process individual measurement data to optimize complete processes. A concrete example of this is the ongoing further development of our hotCAM into an intelligent automated mill stand control system.
At the same time, process automation is an important element of the megatrend connectivity, which is key to meeting our own performance standards.