Positive energy

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Dr Aidan O’Sullivan, Carbon Re, considers the challenge of digitalisation in the cement industry and highlights the lessons to be learned from the energy sector.

Digitalisation is one of the key technology trends of this century. The intelligent use of data derived from operations has transformed major industries, driving efficiency improvements and increased profitability in sectors as diverse as retail, transport, supply chain logistics and energy. This data resource has also enabled the emergence of completely new companies and business models, for example, Uber and Revolut in transport and finance respectively.

The importance of digitalisation in manufacturing has been highlighted by the World Economic Forum, which established the Global Lighthouse Network to recognise companies that are incorporating 4th Industrial Revolution technologies – such as artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) – into daily manufacturing and supply chain operations. These ‘lighthouses’, or factories that have implemented these technologies, are the most advanced factories across the globe. It is significant to note that, of the 100 manufacturing plants identified as lighthouses in the latest whitepaper (World Economic Forum, 2023), not one is a cement producer. This speaks to the current state of digitalisation in the cement industry, a fragmented landscape lacking consensus on best practices or minimum standards for adopting the latest digital technology. Even plants within the same group may operate in completely different ways.

A considerable amount of literature has already been produced on the benefits of digitalisation to the cement industry. It is a necessary enabling technology for further advanced technologies such as predictive maintenance or AI for process control and automation. It can also contribute significantly to the industry’s decarbonisation ambitions, with digitalisation accounting for an estimated 10% of emissions reduction in the roadmap produced in the 2021 article Decarbonising Cement Production. This article will not re-tread those arguments, rather, it will discuss how the cement industry can ‘get digitalisation right’ by learning from the UK energy industry.

The cement industry shares a number of commonalities with the energy sector. Both industries are dominated by engineering companies that operate expensive critical infrastructure that is expected to deliver reliable continuous operation with significant costs associated with any unscheduled interruption. Over the last five years, the UK regulator for gas and electricity markets, OFGEM, has been driving a digital transformation of the energy sector. The objective behind this strategy is stated as a sector-wide goal to build a resilient digital energy system that accelerates and enables the decarbonisation of the power grid.

Equally, the goal of digitalisation in the cement industry should be to deliver a digital transformation of the industrial process that accelerates and amplifies decarbonisation efforts, rather than business operations. There are key learnings that can be taken from the work done by OFGEM and applied to the cement sector.

Among the many recommendations made by OFGEM, Carbon Re has identified three key initiatives that are particularly relevant and potentially transformational for the cement industry:

This article will explore these recommendations and how they may be implemented or driven through strong leadership from organisations such as the World Cement Association (WCA), Global Cement and Concrete Association (GCCA), and Cembureau.

Digitalisation is the transformation of a business or industry by using digital technologies to improve its processes. As part of a strategy to accelerate the digitalisation of the energy sector, the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) launched the Energy Data Taskforce to develop guidelines to improve data availability and transparency in the energy sector. This has led to the publication of a groundbreaking report which proposes a strategy and list of recommendations.

Chief among the recommendations is the requirement for energy companies (particularly network operators) to publish a digitalisation strategy. This document outlines the steps they would take to modernise their data collection and infrastructure for sharing data. This requirement has been implemented with some initial success, with energy companies submitting strategies that allow for comparisons and benchmarking of where different companies are along the digitalisation journey. They have also allowed for the sharing of best practices and creating open dialogue, rather than each company solving the same problem in different ways. This is particularly useful in an industry that historically lacks experience in digital technology, and has unique challenges as an operator of critical infrastructure that commercial tech companies such as Amazon or Google have not had to handle.

Currently, a number of major cement producers and associations have published decarbonisation strategies outlining their roadmap for reducing carbon emissions. This has been fundamental in highlighting the industry’s commitment to a strategic and coordinated effort to reduce emissions in a sector that is responsible for 7% of global carbon emissions. A similar approach to digitalisation would be transformational.

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