Last month, CEMEX announced that it had become the first company in the cement industry to successfully operate plants by remote control. From its Centro de Control Cemento (C3) in Monterrey, Mexico, the company is able to track live data from 14 cement plants, 25 kilns, and 86 grinding mills across the company. It also monitors a cement plant in Colombia and the US.
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C3 is however able to do more than just monitor operations. “The system’s uninterrupted monitoring provides information about each stage of the production process, as well as the performance of equipment installed in the cement plants,” the company explained. “This enables C3 operators to not only monitor but also take immediate corrective actions, in coordination with the company’s local operations staff, and have access to the installed intelligent control systems to minimise any deviation from safety, environmental efficiency, and product quality targets.”
Operating large-scale industrial facilities by remote control is not new. In the mining industry, for example, Rio Tinto has led the way with its Mine of the Future programme. This allows the company to operate its remote Pilbara iron ore mining operations from a single centre in Perth. Running since 2008, the Mine of the Future programme includes autonomous truck haulage and drilling, as well as plans for the world’s first fully-autonomous heavy-haul railway.
The benefits for adopters of remote and autonomous operation are easy to see. The application of best practice across a network of plants improves efficiency and reliability (CEMEX claims to have seen a 50% reduction in the number of operational incidents since the start-up of C3). There are also safety benefits to the remote control of equipment in hazardous working environments.
Moreover, when it comes to attracting talent, there are potential advantages to centralising operational activities in a central convenient location. The iron ore mines of Western Australia are a remote and harsh operating environment: Perth is a much easier ‘sell’ for potential employees – especially those of younger generations for whom the use of technology is so natural. The C3 in Monterrey presumably has a similar potential draw to new entrants into the cement industry.
On a similar theme, global lime producer, Carmeuse, recently announced that it had purchased a CAT simulator to train new employees to operate heavy equipment. The simulator covers Caterpillar’s loaders, haul trucks, graders, and dozers, allowing new recruits to become familiar with the equipment before being let loose on the real thing.
What was perhaps most interesting, however, was Carmeuse’s plans to take the simulator to job fairs and high schools in an attempt to attract the next generation of heavy equipment operators into the profession. As Glen Williams, CAT Training Programme Manager at Carmeuse, noted, the simulator could be an important marketing tool to young employees. “The lack of young people going into the skilled trades has created a gap,” said Williams. “We are hoping that the right technology and programmes will close the gap within Carmeuse.”
There are dangers to the use of technology: the loss of valuable operating experience at the local plant level should not be underestimated – particularly in an industry where every plant has its own idiosyncrasies. The times are clearly changing, however, as is the talent cement companies must attract. CEMEX has shown the industry one potential future. We wait to see who follows.