The race to digitise the cement industry

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The big announcement from LafargeHolcim this week was the launch of its Industry 4.0 plan known as ‘Plants of Tomorrow.’ The scheme hopes to use automation technologies and robotics, artificial intelligence, predictive maintenance and digital twin technologies across the company’s entire production process. Operational efficiency gains of 15 - 20% are promised.

There wasn’t much detail beyond the use of the Siggenthal integrated cement plant in Switzerland as the ‘lighthouse’ of the scheme, where around 30 proof-of-concept technology ideas will be tested. One technology it did flesh out a little was its long-running Technical Information System (TIS). This follows the work between Holcim and the power and automation product supplier ABB. LafargeHolcim says that over 80% of its plants around the world use the TIS to provide data transparency at plant, country, regional and global level. It added that some country operations have more than a decade of historic technical data available. This last point is pertinent as the data could potentially be used to support the training of any machine learning algorithms the company might want to invest in. The building materials company also mentioned its LH Maqer subsidiary. This startup incubator was launched at the end of 2018.

LafargeHolcim appears to be playing catch up here with Cemex, which has steadily been promoting its own Industry 4.0 developments in recent years. Emphasis on ‘promotion’ here as only yesterday, the day LafargeHolcim made its big reveal, Cemex happened to release information about a recent roundtable in France that it participated in on digitisation and productivity in the construction sector.

Notably in March 2019, the Mexican multinational struck a deal with Petuum to implement its Industrial AI Autopilot software products for autonomous cement plant operations at its plants around the world in March 2019. Readers can find out more about Petuum’s work with Cemex in the June 2019 issue of Global Cement Magazine. In late 2017 Cemex too set up a division, Cemex Ventures, to engage with startups, universities and other organisations. Cemex has also been building its digital customer integration platform Cemex Go since around the same time.

One interpretation of Industry 4.0 is as a German-industrial approach to the so-called fourth or digital revolution pushed by Anglophone software companies. The idea of taking as much data from a production process, such as making cement, is enticing but the prospect of actually doing something useful with this tsunami of information is daunting. Typically algorithm techniques or predictive maintenance seem so far to focus on discrete parts of a process such as a finish grinding mill or final product logistics networks. Companies like Germany’s Inform focus on the latter for example and, incidentally, it celebrated its 50th anniversary this week.

If automated systems start making apparently nonsensical yet useful decisions across the whole raw materials, production and supply chains, then Industry 4.0 will reach its full potential. This moment, if it comes, will be analogous to the time IBM’s computer Deep Blue managed to beat chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in the late 1990s. What’s more likely are automated systems that can perform consistently outside the human operator comfort zone edging up against hard physical process constraints.

Meanwhile, what will be interesting to watch here is whether LafargeHolcim will be able to leverage any advantage over Cemex by having more cement plants to pull data from. Before LafargeHolcim started selling off its south-east Asian subsidiaries it had more than three times as many cement plants as Cemex. If data really is more valuable than oil these days then starting late in the industrial digital arms race may not be as deleterious as one might first think.

Last modified on 10 July 2019

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