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Furnaces 4.0

Steam engines, electricity and electronics were the causes of the three major industrial revolutions. And now, we are living through the fourth industrial revolution, called Industry 4.0, Industrial Internet, IoT (Internet of Things), different people give it different names. The physical world is connected to the digital world and there is great potential for benefits to industries.

In little time, we will inform the refrigerator in our home which products we want to be there, by default. The refrigerator can then order from supermarkets, comparing prices. Supermarket inventories will be connected to factories, which in turn will produce the items being consumed. Factory suppliers will produce raw materials based on their use by the industries. And remember, it will all start with the yogurt that you removed from your refrigerator for breakfast.

As many industries use thermal processes in their manufacturing and one of the main thermal equipment are industrial furnaces, at what level are furnaces already 4.0?  

We have just manufactured a thermal treatment furnace, which I will use as an example. The furnace, in addition of having its devices exchanging data and information, via network protocol, meets several Industry 4.0 premises:

Real-time operation capacity: data provided by all devices in real-time, thus ensuring the opportunity of making decisions. What is the temperature in one of the furnace sixteen control points? What's the temperature difference from the set-point? What's the reason for this difference? Should the cycle be aborted? What is the furnace consumption since the start of the batch?

Integration with management systems: the furnace can change its operating characteristics based on external parameters. For example, if the factory's energy management system notices that the contracted demand may be exceeded, it will automatically adjust the maximum furnace power, avoiding penalties.

Connectivity: Several furnace components are connected via wireless network, avoiding connector weariness and interference. Furthermore, the furnace connects to the factory's supervision system, providing data and information for the manufacturing process. For example, the relative energy consumption can be constantly evaluated (kWh/t of steel).

Remote Operation, Supervision and Maintenance: the user can adjust the process, monitor and diagnose failures locally, in the supervision system, or on any device connected to the Internet. For example, from our factory we can inform the customer that there is a deviation in a specific phase of a certain control zone, suggesting a specific intervention.

Prediction: the furnace itself sends emails to maintenance, informing, for example, how long the bearing is in operation, enabling its replacement during its expected lifespan. It would be like the warning we receive on our car dashboard, but with several components involved, not just the motor lubricating oil.

Data security: All control variables are encrypted and can also be stored in the cloud, ensuring traceability even in case of casualties. Therefore, damage resulting from lightning strikes, for example, would not jeopardize historical operation data.

Energy efficiency: Both resistors and recirculating air conditioning units are activated by variable power controllers. Therefore, energy is consumed strictly according to necessity, avoiding waste.

Operational security: Even with all this connectivity, the local operator still has the priority to operate the equipment. Therefore, even if there is a remote instruction, the local operation remains predominant.

As the next challenge, we understand that there is still little interaction among the furnace with production planning and control. Thus, greater connectivity between plant equipment and the ERP will bring even greater benefits to industries.