Nacip Fayad
Industrial Market Business Unit Director
SKF Group
View from the Top

Automation Magnifies Productivity, Safety

By Alejandro Ehrenberg | Thu, 05/28/2020 - 17:06

Q: How will the COVID-19 outbreak influence automation?

A: If there is a silver lining to the extremely complex situation the health emergency has unleashed it is the acceleration of certain trends that can have a positive impact on the industry. One such trend is automation. Mines and other industrial operations around the world have been forced to halt their activities to minimize contagion. That begs the question of whether those operations would have been able to keep working with the help of automation technology. Digitalization is another trend that has gained prominence, as the remote management of machinery requires data collection and interconnectivity between all the different parts of the operation. SKF has participated in automating mines in Sweden and Chile that have not needed to curtail their operations as much as more traditional mines.

Particularly in Mexico, there is a good deal of reticence to embark on automation. As a result, miners in the country have had to lobby strongly so that the government allows them to keep working with fewer people. That would not be necessary if they had already implemented automation technology. The fact is that labor is inexpensive in Mexico, so companies are less prone to spend money to change something they think already works well. A weak peso makes labor for companies that sell in US dollars even cheaper. However, automation pays for itself, as productivity and safety are greatly boosted.

Mexico tends to be a follower in terms of technology. Latin American countries, such as Brazil and Chile, are more adventurous in this regard. However, there already are enough companies in Mexico forming an ecosystem that is conducive to automation. Automation projects have to be conducted by many players supporting each other. SKF is one of these players, but an ample collaborative environment is key. Amongst other efforts, we are continuously organizing webinars and online specialized trainings for anyone who is interested on improving their knowledge about automation. Strengthening this environment through collaboration between the private and public sectors and academic institutions is crucial.

Q: How can SKF help a company introduce automation?

A: Automation has to be implemented gradually, as it is a process that builds on a series of mutually-reinforcing steps. It is impossible to bring an operation to the maximum automation level overnight. For example, a small mining company with virtually no automation most likely has a program of preventive, corrective and predictive maintenance for their machinery. SKF can start working on that level and then build up from that data foundation. The company would first have to acquire the appropriate software for processing the available data and saving it in a database. Then it becomes possible to identify and analyze trends. At this point, SKF assesses the measures that must be taken. It could begin with a program to train and educate the company’s personnel, preparing them to handle the equipment that will be installed in due time. Portable monitoring equipment is usually a good piece of technology to install first. Then, we could move on to fixed and online monitoring equipment.

The technical team of a medium-sized mining company will likely run into a number of inaccessible points for gathering data. They tend to be critical equipment with massively-sized components. SKF offers solutions such as sensors that can transmit data to a cloud storage center where it can be analyzed. SKF has a strong methodology for bringing operations from zero to a considerable automation level.

Q: What is SKF’s solution for guiding a company along the path to automation?

A: SKF offers comprehensive automation packages; however, they are not ready-made. We need to work closely with each client to develop a tailored approach. Desired and achievable automation reach and personnel expertise need to be evaluated. Setting up a responsibility hierarchy is relevant. The first level is equipment maintenance and it corresponds to the client. The next level also corresponds to the client, and has to do with control over the processes involved in ore production. The third level is where SKF steps in. This level is related to identifying key variables about equipment behavior to make production more stable and reliable. SKF has remote diagnostic centers where we can monitor any process of a given company at this third level. By means of software, we automatically detect problems. We analyze over 70 percent of the mine’s equipment and pinpoint what machinery needs particular intervention and what machinery can continue working normally. Thus, all three levels are able to solve problems before they become serious.

SKF is a Swedish company that operates across different industries. In the mining sector, the company has several platforms, including sealing solutions, lubrication systems, mechatronics, power transmission and services.

Alejandro Ehrenberg Alejandro Ehrenberg Journalist and Industry Analyst