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May-2024

A new data driven era for global manufacturing

Is the heat treatment industry keeping pace with the essential new digitalisation of systems in businesses to ensure growth and survival.

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Article Summary

The heat treatment industry, integral to manufacturing, has entered an era where digital transformation is not just beneficial but essential. Industry 4.0, characterised by smart technology and interconnected systems, compels businesses to evaluate and adopt digital strategies. With stringent standards such as AMS2750, CQI-9, and ISO 20431:2023, the industry’s push towards digitalisation is less a matter of choice and more a mandate for survival and growth.

In the heat treatment industry, the shift from paper-based records to digital platforms has transformed procedures and has also multiplied the data available for operational improvement. Yet, the industry grapples with a significant challenge: much of this rich data pool still needs to be tapped, hindered by hurdles in integration, quality, and analysis amidst an overwhelming volume of information.

Precision and control are paramount to heat treatment processes. However, although an exponential increase in data could offer valuable insights and pathways to optimise processes, without proper integration and analysis tools, this wealth of data remains underutilised. Many organisations find themselves data-rich but insight-poor, unable to fully harness the power of the information they collect. This challenge is not just about collecting data; it’s about translating it into actionable insights that drive decision-making and operational efficiency.

The benefits of integrating and harnessing the power of data within the entire thermal process include increased operational efficiency, enhanced quality control, and optimised energy utilisation. So, should the industry be taking a bolder approach and accelerating the adoption of latest technologies and Industry 4.0 methodologies? If so, how should this be approached? Ultimately the answer may be that there is no choice if heat treaters are to meet increasingly stringent standards and remain competitive in the marketplace for the future.

Data, Data, Everywhere
In an era where the Industrial Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, and smart devices are becoming increasingly commonplace, data is becoming more and more powerful and valuable.

Heat treatment processes are vital to the precision and reliability of the mechanical properties of materials and accuracy during processing to ensure components meet the required standards in industries such as aerospace is of utmost importance. How a material is heat treated will determine how it performs, its resistance to wear and tear, and its conformity to industry standards.

Data integration can yield measurable benefits, such as enhanced operational efficiency, tighter quality control, and optimised energy consumption. By effectively capturing and analysing data across the thermal process, businesses can uncover inefficiencies, predict equipment malfunctions, and improve product quality, all of which contribute to better performance metrics like overall equipment effectiveness (OEE).

Standards Driving Digital Transformation
Standards such as AMS2750 and CQI-9 have been instrumental in steering the industry towards a more rigorous, data-driven environment. These standards do not just enforce compliance; they encourage a mindset shift by stressing the importance of temperature uniformity, calibration, and detailed process documentation. Indeed, compliance is no longer a checkbox exercise but a continuous improvement journey, backed by data that supports decision-making and process optimisation. By adopting digital platforms, heat treatment operators can store and manage data more effectively, facilitating easier compliance and revealing process insights that can help improve decision-making.

Thermal Loop: The Critical Components
The thermal loop is at the core of the heat treatment process, comprising various components that work in unison to achieve desired outcomes.

Advanced silicon controlled rectifiers (SCRs)enhance heat treatment processes by providing predictive load management capabilities and utilising hybrid firing algorithms to optimise energy consumption. These SCRs manage real-time energy monitoring and control, employing algorithms that efficiently handle peak power loads and adapt through methods like load shedding or sharing. Hybrid firing techniques combine various firing approaches to better manage power factors and lessen adverse effects on electrical infrastructure.

The design of heaters plays a fundamental role as well. The switching speed and frequency significantly affects the lifespan of heaters; modern, rapid switching technologies (hybrid firing) can extend the life of heaters far beyond that achieved with traditional mechanical contactors. Advanced computational engineering allows for the quick testing, simulation, and modelling of these systems. Improved temperature uniformity in today’s thermal loop systems is a direct result of these advancements.

Temperature sensors are crucial, measuring the heat levels and communicating data back to the process PID (proportional – integral – derivative) controllers, which adjust the power output to maintain the heat treatment process profile, including heat, cool, and soak cycles, ensuring consistency and accuracy throughout the duration of the process. Finally, a robust data management system is required to record process parameters and prove process requirements were met. Modern data platforms enable the efficient collection of secure raw data (tamperevident) and provide the replay and reporting necessary to meet the standards. The newer platforms also offer the latest industry communication protocols (MQTT / OPC UA) to ease data transfer across enterprise systems.

Integration of the thermal loop components
The heat treatment industry is experiencing a lag in integrating the many elements within the thermal process. Each component might operate with efficiency, but the lack of synergy across the system leads to missed opportunities for performance improvement and energy savings. This disconnect poses several challenges:
- Inconsistent Quality: Without a fully integrated system, maintaining consistent quality is a constant battle, often leading to increased scrap and rework.
- Operational Inefficiencies: Disparate systems lead to redundancy and a lack of transparency, which in turn results in inefficient operations.
- Energy Inefficiency: Without integration, energy consumption is higher, impacting both costs and environmental sustainability.

A lack of integration between the elements of the thermal loop leads to process inefficiencies, increased risk of quality control issues, and energy wastage. To overcome these challenges, a holistic approach to data integration is imperative, where every segment of the thermal loop, from electrical supply to process control, are designed to work as one and communicates seamlessly, enabling full optimisation of the process.


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