Metal processing refers to the production and processing of shaped workpieces made of metals according to specified geometric determinants and their assembly into functional products. A distinction is made according to the method of metal processing or according to the type of metal, for example heavy metal, light metal, non-ferrous metal and precious metal.
With a share of more than 90 percent, iron is by far the most commonly processed metal in the world. Being the main component of steel, it is ubiquitous in our everyday life. Thanks to its strength, toughness and versatility, steel is used, for instance, as reinforced concrete in the construction industry but also in mechanical engineering, vehicle construction and shipbuilding.
Apart from this, steel is also an indispensable material in the electrical industry, and the magnetic properties of iron make it possible to manufacture generators and electric motors, for example. Iron has thus conquered the top position among metals not only in the earth’s crust but also in the goods of modern industrial society.
Need for environmentally friendly solutions
Despite or even because of this high importance and demand, the metal processing industry is currently facing many challenges. While around 70 percent of the world’s steel is produced in Asia, particularly in China, followed by India, Japan and South Korea, the industry is responsible for around seven percent of global climate emissions. This also makes the steel industry the second largest emitter of CO2 emissions after the energy sector.
These figures are due, among other things, to the fact that nearly 70 percent of steel is still produced by blast furnace-basic oxygen furnace technology which primarily uses iron ore, coking coal and is very energy-intensive. Unfortunately, as the energy intensity of steelmaking has shown little change in the past few years, the steel sector is still highly reliant on coal, which meets 75 percent of its energy demand.
New production alternatives need to expand
Hence, scrap-based, hydrogen-based and production based on carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) need to expand by 2030 to align with the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario (NZE) pathway. As per the estimate from the International Energy Agency (IEA), in order to get on track with the NZE, the global market share of scrap-based production using electric arc furnaces (EAF) and induction furnaces combined needs to reach over 27 percent by 2030, even as total steel production increases. Meanwhile, scrap inputs should account for close to 40 percent of total crude steel production.
As many countries rely on steel imports, the negative effects of COVID-19 on global exports have proven to be another hurdle for the industry. European companies are additionally facing major structural and cyclical challenges which have been reflected in a decline in jobs for several years now.
Digitalization forces companies to embrace innovation
Apart from climate change, digitalization is another global trend affecting the metal processing industry. Modern IoT (Internet of Things) technology needs to be integrated here for a variety of reasons. On the one hand, it serves to improve products and services for customers who are getting used to speed, digital solutions and the IoT itself. Those who do not focus on digitalization themselves must be careful not to lose the race.
On the other hand, any company that hesitates must reckon with the fact that suppliers and competitors are also turning to smart technologies. Therefore, the conversion to a smart factory is not only necessary in order to operate close to the customer but also to survive in the competition.
Strong focus on more environmentally friendly production
What are the answers to these diverse challenges? In a nutshell: making metal processing more sustainable and profitable and improving climate protection throughout the entire industry.
The quest for more environmentally friendly steel production plays a central role here as it has long been anchored in global climate policy goals. According to the requirements of the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, the steel industry must reduce its emissions by around 30 percent by 2030 and achieve climate neutrality by 2050. The road to “green steel” is thus paved, among other aspects, by newly developed, cleaner iron production processes as well as by more efficient transport and process technologies.
Digitalization offers efficient and sustainable solutions
In this plan, digitalization also plays an important role, as it helps to reduce emissions and increase efficiency at the same time. Conveyor belts, used for bulk material handling at various application points within the steel processing unit, can today be equipped with intelligent software. By using continuous monitoring systems, companies are able to manage the entire system condition to ensure its availability and even track the performance of their processes. Given the high cost pressure in the industry environment, keeping the belt running is crucial for economic efficiency and success.
Apart from technology and service, the conveyor belt’s constitution and properties can also improve efficiency and profitability. From high abrasion resistance, to horizontal, steep inclined and vertical handling of all kinds of bulk materials – modern systems provide lots of advantages for the industry. In addition, the conveyor belts can also be supplied with heat- and oil-resistant or flame-retardant rubber which, in the end, contributes to extending a belt’s life.
Growing range of services improves customer experience
While conveyor architectures are becoming more digital, the range of services for the increasingly complex systems is also growing. For example, different inspection services can reduce time, cost and effort to a minimum. Same applies to web or mobile app service platforms that can provide a centralized database and a toolbox that help maximize the performance and profitability of a conveyor system operation. Moreover, new quick-connect coupling technology significantly reduces the outlay and time required for maintenance.
One of the largest industries already benefiting from such technologies and services is the automotive industry. Especially in China and Korea, where the degree of automation is highest in a global comparison, they help manufacturers to make their automated automotive assembly operations cost-effective and thus secure their competitive advantage. The offering ranges from individual product design through assembly and maintenance to consultancy services. In the end, comprehensive service improves customer experience and raises business success.
Continental paves the path to future success
Climate change, cost pressure, high demand: The metal processing industry is currently facing several challenges and will thus change in the coming years. On the one hand, the development of environmentally friendly production solutions involves high financial outlay, and the industry will also be dependent on government financial support.
However, on the other hand, digitalization will offer many opportunities and create new job fields. Already today, Continental paves the path to future success with innovative conveyor belts, a wide range of digital solutions and comprehensive services – and thus provides the basis for mastering the upcoming upheavals in the omnipresent metal processing industry.