The age of Coronavirus has brought new keywords into the lexicon – contactless, social distancing, protective equipment. But they don’t merely relate to our current way of living. They have more precise implications for all levels of contact between plant and component manufacturers, plant operators and service providers in the powder and bulk solids industries.

Grandparents and grandchildren have been leading the way in recent times with video chats – the Internet serving as the key to information-sharing and maintaining contact.

But the current crisis is also helping to drive forward the much vaunted Internet of Things. Coronavirus made it clear: it is time for the digital transformation to take the final step toward becoming a reality.

How that can happen was to have been key factor in the theme of the exhibition; one set to focus on knowledge sharing, including the role played by digital transformation. “Until now, we have lacked awareness of the need, and of the transformation itself,” said Dr Uwe G. Seebacher, Global Director of Marketing, Communication and Strategy at Andritz AG plant engineering group in Graz, Austria.

“We’ve been overwhelmed by anxiety about what is facing us. But the monster that has everyone worried about losing control has been among us for ages, with buzzwords like IoT, Predictive Maintenance and Big Data.”

He was speaking last year, long before the arrival of Coronavirus. Gathering measured data, analysis, pattern recognition, remote diagnostics and remote process optimisation – all these fully contactless information flows were already in place.

But, as Seebacher warned: “False conclusions are being drawn in many places regarding IoT, Big Data and Predictive Maintenance. In other words, when data-sharing happens beyond the company walls. In this situation, suppliers and customers ultimately lack sufficient determination when making the necessary decisions and investments.” Because digitalisation penetrates every area of a process plant: from development using simulation to digital twins of assets and plant, from field level to ERP, predictive maintenance and process optimisation, it offers a whole raft of opportunities for migration and optimisation.

These information flows are also the key to new levels of contact between process operators and plant or component providers. Contactless information sharing is becoming a competitive advantage for everyone involved. The time is now right to accept the services and information streams available, and to be there for each other with data systems as a means of developing new strengths. Coronavirus is making us completely reassess digital transformation.

Tools driving a revolution

The tools involved are not new, but they need to be viewed differently. New relationship between suppliers and users – “Digital twins” and “cloud solutions” – are not the central elements in this digital transformation.

These are just tools that have made the path to the Fourth Industrial Revolution possible. What is at the heart of Industry 4.0 is a completely new and challenging relationship between suppliers and buyers.

Optimising this relationship will ultimately determine which companies win the competition for customers. As in the case of companies such as Amazon, when it comes to consumer goods the most important elements in the competition for customers are an extremely short response time to all buyer enquiries, more customised products
and services, and more careful use of available resources as an economic variable.

Digitalisation in all areas of industry provides businesses with more and more effective tools for this competition for market share. Rich experience with digitalisation in
sectors mainly involving discrete manufacturing has steadily flowed into the process industries. Despite a tightly woven data network in the form of process control systems, industries based on process engineering have had trouble, until recent time, in turning the benefits of digitalisation to good use in a competitive environment, and as a result, in adding value.

However, both powder and bulk solids processes, in particular, which normally run in batches, are ideally suited for implementing digital transformation in the process industries. Manufacturers of process plant and processing components are now going a step further in incorporating both process product customisation and the plant itself into data structures, and putting the products and services imposed by the digital transformation to good use.

The current state-of-the-art, for example, is represented by solutions for process-optimised operation of grinding systems with most focus on performance, throughput, product consistency and availability.

For example, to make further use of the expertise of Netzsch Vakumix, a regular participant in POWTECH, plant operators are already able to draw on globally available online monitoring and support for complete systems.

Simulation tools make operator training possible in this way, using a realistic functional copy of the plant and the process. Servicing, preventive maintenance, plant audits, general and simulation training, and migration and process optimisation are also all offered as online solutions.

Another prominent POWTECH exhibitor, Hosokawa Alpine, also offers a remote service, which can be used to analyse process settings and plant operation, and minimise or prevent potential breakdowns. On an optional basis, the
company offers support with process optimisation. This gives service specialists the opportunity to access all relevant measurement data online, incorporating a data logger in the machine controller. This enables process data from the plant to be continuously saved and transferred to Hosokawa’s remote service. In this way the plant operator alone is able to determine who has access to the data.

Digital comes of age

Entirely in line with the challenge represented by Industry 4.0, these service deployments take place quickly and at short notice; they are individually coordinated with the requirements of the operator and the plant; and they go easy on resources, since there is no need for time-consuming travel by a service specialist.

Meet the experts

Dr Uwe Seebacher has a PhD in Economics and Business Administration, and runs the global marketing and communications activities for the pumps global division segment of the ANDRITZ Group, which is headquartered in Graz, Austria.

He has spent more than 20 years in the manufacturing, energy and services industry and has an international track record in strategic and operational marketing as well as organisational development.

He lectures at many prestigious business schools and universities, and has authored articles in many leading management publications, such as Springer in New York and Harvard Business Manager.

He has received awards for his innovative marketing concepts and initiatives, such as those with Allianz, the European Union, the Austrian Chamber of Commerce, Bayer Leverkusen, and BASF.

Hosokawa Alpine, of Augsburg, Germany, is a leading international provider of particle processing products and systems for powder analysis. With 120 years of experience, innovation and improvement, they are widely credited as experts in size reduction technology. As well as the powder processing equipment, the company delivers high performance blown film lines for a variety of applications.

NETZSCH Vakumix GmbH is one of the leading and most innovative suppliers of mixing and homogenising technology for pharmaceutical and cosmetic industry. The company, which is headquartered in Weyhe-Dreye, Germany, is able to draw on many years of experience in the implementation of customer-specific systems, having developed them for everything from start-up companies to global players. They boast high performance standards based on an operational legacy that dates back to 1873.