Forging collaboration: McMaster's academic-industry partnershipWritten by André Voshart Tuesday, 19 January 2010 11:52
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Keeping tight control over steel production at ArcelorMittal Dofasco’s industrial slab casters requires precise and resilient control. Established in 1912 (but currently a standalone subsidiary of ArcelorMittal), the Hamilton, Ont.-based steel-producing mainstay has maintained its longevity by constantly finding new, innovative ways to boost efficiency.
“Our product is steel,” is the first half of the company’s slogan, followed by, “Our strength is people,” which is reflected by its urge to use local knowledge to find ways to keep making what it has always made, but better. Since 1991, the steelmaker has harnessed the strength of the students and faculty at McMaster University (also in Hamilton), collaborating on several innovative process control applications, and for the past 16 years has been a member of the awarding-winning McMaster Advanced Control Consortium (MACC).
For more than two decades, this consortium has been working with industry to advance process automation and control in a variety of industries, spanning chemical, petroleum, pharmaceutical, steel, pulp and paper, and food. Established in 1988 to promote industrial-academic research, its goal is to educate engineers and scientists through formal degree programs (Masters and Ph.D) and training programs, such as short courses and workshops; develop and demonstrate cutting-edge, advanced technologies in process control; and promote two-way communication between industrial and academic partners, leading to technology transfer.
The research is currently directed by six faculty members (with a combined total of 48 years of industrial and 86 years of academic experience), complimented by 15 to 20 graduate students, a research engineer, post-doctoral fellows at various points in time, and three to five undergraduate research students. Current MACC director Christopher Swartz, a professor of chemical engineering, was among several consortium participants who accompanied Manufacturing AUTOMATION on a tour of Dofasco’s continuous casting facility. This is where the MACC and the steelmaker have implemented an automation system using multivariate statistical (MVS) technologies, which monitor the process under start-up, steady-state and transitional operating conditions and alert operators to deviation outside of typical conditions.
Michael Dudzic, general manager of the process automation group at ArcelorMittal Dofasco and a pre-consortium McMaster graduate, says the MACC has helped the steelmaker improve quality and efficiency by managing its large volumes of process and product data. From this data, he says, “useful information and better process knowledge can be gained and shared in a timely fashion. The key challenge becomes how to readily and simply be able to exploit all the useful information content from a large amount of process and product data in a timely fashion.
“The problem in achieving the above … is that often a significant number of the process variables are highly correlated to each other. Compounding the problem is the fact that a typical data set includes a large number of noisy and possibly missing measurements. Under these circumstances, the use of traditional analysis and modeling technologies can be both time-consuming and produce results that do not capture all the useful information contained in the data.”
ArcelorMittal Dofasco has implemented many projects using MVS technologies, saving millions through detection of errors in a production process as soon as they occur or by providing the capacity to monitor and predict a process to ensure a desired outcome. It has innovated several highly marketable steel-making process control technologies, which has gained the company the reputation of being a world-class innovator in automated process control technology.
Swartz agrees that the introduction of these technologies can be directly attributed to their membership in MACC.
The MACC began with five member companies, and membership has grown to an average of 15 per year and has included Air Products and Chemicals, Alcoa, Algoma Steel, DuPont, ExxonMobil/Imperial Oil, Frito-Lay, Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Petro-Canada, Praxair, Shell Global Solutions and Suncor … to name only a few.
And even through several economic downturns, the MACC has continued to thrive.