Amid rapid technological change across traditional industries, Oman’s Sohar Aluminium is looking to harness the transformational potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (also known as Industry 4.0) to position itself as a ‘smelter of the future’ in the metals sector.

The company has made advanced technology a priority ever since its formation in 2004, implementing automation and robotics within the smelter’s casthouse operations from the beginning in order to minimise the interaction of human operator with unsafe material handling and therefore the risk of injury. Robotic cranes, for example, assist in the stacking of refined metal bundles and applying labels to them.

Last year, however, the adoption of Industry 4.0 tools began in earnest with members of the core IT team evaluating the applicability of various technologies, engaging with 4.0 technology vendors and also coming up with their own in-house solutions as cost-effective alternatives to vendor-promoted offerings.

Leveraging IoT

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.

“We are using Industrial IoT to connects all of our systems with the enterprise,” said automation superintendent Ibrahim al-Maawali. “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.”

Sohar Aluminium

Equally promising is the deployment of machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) data analytics solutions to improve process control and help schedule maintenance.

By combining the two technologies, the IT and automation team sees the potential to automatically record, network and use numerous machine and system parameters to plan downtime, increase productivity and drive quality.

“We can use our historical data to forecast equipment failures and process deviations, allowing us to improve our uptime and perform proactive rather than reactive maintenance,” says al-Maawali.

Automation specialist Paul Ridgway notes how Industry 4.0 can help improve productivity, efficiency, safety, resource utilisation, machine uptime and reduce breakdowns by using smart sensors and such technologies. “It should also enable self-diagnosis, prevent breakdowns, reduce turnover time, and cut down on human intervention and errors,” he adds.

Continuous effort

Some elements of ML are familiar to Sohar Aluminium’s workforce, notes Ridgway. “Machine learning has been around for quite some time, under the guise of intelligent systems,” he says.

“It’s only now been re-branded 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.”

Critically, Sohar Aluminium has also embarked on an ongoing plant-wide awareness programme designed to ensure that its technical staff are on-board with the delivery of the project.

Even so, Industry 4.0 technology adoption tends to defy rigid implementation timelines due to its explorative nature.

“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 materialise,” explains IT Manager Abdullah al-Maamari. “This is a continuous journey of improvement which we don’t foresee an end to.

“Technologies, by their very nature, keep evolving,” he notes. “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.”

Overall, however, Industry 4.0 is expected to unlock wide-ranging benefits for the smelter.

About the team

Abdullah al-Maamari, Ibrahim al-Maawali and Paul Ridgway 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