Anyone who builds or modernizes steel plants will quickly realize that machines are like people: the same yet somehow individually different.
Naturally, these machines are different ages and this also applies to the software that controls and automates these machines. But how do you master a multitude of different machines and software in a digitized and globalized world? Together with industry heavyweight Primetals Technologies, scientists at a Christian Doppler Laboratory (Linz Institute of Technology at the Johannes Kepler University Linz) are exploring this very issue.
The Austrian Federal Ministry for Digital and Economic Affairs (BMDW) has provided funding for the Christian Doppler Laboratories, enabling them to conduct a high level of application-oriented, base-knowledge research by bringing outstanding scientists and innovative companies together. Endowed with 2.37 million euros, the Christian Doppler Laboratory VaSiCS (Mastering Variability in Software-Intensive Cyber-Physical Production Systems) will run until 2028.
Margarete Schramböck, Minister of Economics and Digitalization, remarked: "Digitization is the key to creating value and work in the future. Industrial plants, machines and software have to constantly advance and our industry needs the methods to do this as automatically as possible. This new CD Lab means that science and industry will work together on exactly these kinds of methods, freeing up capacities to pursue innovation and strengthen Austria as a location for business and innovation."
BMDW Supports Cutting-Edge Research
Each year, Primetals Technologies manages over 100 plant construction projects around the world. They not only build new plants, they also modernize existing plants. When it comes to managing a large number of plants, control and automation software cannot be developed from scratch each time. Methods and approaches are needed that allow software components to be reused and adapted quickly to each individual plants’ requirements. This is precisely where Primetals Technologies relies on JKU expertise.
"Steel production is a process of superlatives; from the blast furnace to continuous casting and rolling mills, highly complex machines work on a wide variety of metal products at different speeds. During various processing stages at these plants, temperatures can reach up to 1,600°C.
Primetals Technologies is able to perfectly adapt software to fit its customers’ requirements to automate production processes and control the machines," explained Prof. Rick Rabiser, one of the two lab managers. The software engineering expert contributes his expertise in module management. The JKU expert added: "When developing control and automation software, the goal is to increase the degree of reuse and successfully manage the software variant diversity." One particular challenge in this area is that steel mills have a very long mechanical life cycle of up to 30 years and longer.
There is more happening at the VaSiCS CD Lab as well. Prof. Alois Zoitl, the second lab manager, is bringing his many years of expertise in the area of tool development for control software to the cyber-physical production system. Physical and software components, such as those found in steel mill machinery, are closely linked and interact with each other. As hardware and software must be in perfect synch, when developing tools., many factors must be taken into account.
Prof. Zoitl added: "The bottom line is that we want our research to provide Primetals Technologies with tools and methods that provide better support when developing control and automation software, regardless of the type of equipment on hand or how old the equipment is."
Progress Guarantees Prosperity
JKU Rector Meinhard Lukas remarked, "Christian Doppler Laboratories are a strong example of just what the JKU created the Linz Institute of Technology for. Close collaboration with companies, a combination of theory and real-world practices, and an interdisciplinary synergy of expertise are not only our university’s strength, but also the best and only opportunity for us to survive on the world market. We won't be able to undercut cheap wages, but with initiatives like this, we can establish ourselves at the international forefront as drivers of innovation."
Collaboration with Industry
The project is being conducted together with industrial partner Primetals Technologies, a company that offers its customers in the iron and steel industry modern, customized plant equipment and services.
Peter Juza, head of Electrics & Automation at Primetals Technologies in Linz added: "I am pleased that as part of the CD lab there will be scientific and industrial advancements in the field of basic automation in steelmaking. Key topics will include engineering methods, software structures, and system updating. On one hand, this collaboration will serve to improve securing our future and competitiveness in Linz. On the other hand, access to improved automation and control solutions will enable steel producers to increase quality, productivity and flexibility."
Christian Doppler Laboratories conduct high quality application-oriented, base-knowledge research together with outstanding scientists as part of collaboration efforts with innovative companies. The Christian Doppler Research Association is internationally regarded as a best-practice example to support these types of collaboration efforts. CD Labs are jointly funded by the public sector and participating companies. The most important public funding body is the Austrian Federal Ministry for Digital and Economic Affairs (BMDW).