Case study – Alcoa
Alcoa is the world’s leading producer of primary and fabricated aluminium, operating in 41 countries and with an annual turnover in excess of $20 billion. Its products are used by industries including aerospace, automotive, beverage cans, and chemicals and within a vast range of other industrial and consumer applications and products.
The Kitts Green, Birmingham plant is a small-to-medium sized Alcoa operation, producing high quality flat rolled aluminium plate, particularly for the aerospace sector.
The business need
With a rapidly growing order book, Alcoa needed to introduce manufacturing process efficiencies that would boost throughput and therefore increase its capacity.
Specific operational areas for improvements were targeted in maximising the efficiency of the rolling mill (which rolls the aluminium plate) and optimising the soaking pits process (where the raw material is heated and maintained at the right temperature prior to rolling).
Research work undertaken by Leicester University had established a new methodology for scheduling the rolling process, designed to accurately predict the required rolling time heat up time and to give a better methodology of scheduling. However, turning this into an effective and very specific industrial application required effective knowledge transfer between the University and Alcoa.
A Knowledge Transfer Programme (KTP) was set up with Leicester, involving an ‘associate’ from Leicester working in-house at Alcoa to transfer this new thinking into the commercial environment.
Alcoa’s Steve Lowes said “Leicester’s research had provided us with a good foundation and methodology for scheduling our processes. We had a complex flexible process and we needed to implement this approach, taking into account the constraints of the site.”
The project entails distinct stages, firstly establishing clear and precise timings for plate rolling using Artificial Intelligence techniques. Similar scientific techniques are being used to establish more precise optimum heating times of material in the furnaces.
The final element will be to either purchase or develop new software that will enable dynamic scheduling of the process, interacting between the furnaces and rolling mill.
The project is set to bring significant cost and productivity benefits to Alcoa.
“We need the ability to keep the rolling mill in constant use to maximise productivity. Without this efficiency, either the rolling mill or the soaking pits can become a bottleneck," added Steve Lowes.
“This new process will increase productivity and reduce downtime. By implementing an accurate scheduling system, we will also increase efficiency of the furnaces, reducing energy use and costs and improving throughput.”
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