2021 metals analysis outlook: Optimizing production through connectivity

There’s always an opportunity with a crisis. Whilst 2020 was a year of huge disruption, with industries having to cope with sudden changes in demand, issues with supply and restrictions on the ability to operate, it did accelerate change for many companies. Especially when it comes to big industry 4.0 trends including connectivity, big data, smart factories and sustainability.

Thanks to new technologies being deployed throughout companies, IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) is enabling the collection of more and more information every day, including from manufacturing equipment.

Today, many analyzers collect data on the instrument themselves. Our Hitachi handheld analyzers for example are able to store measurements remotely and more Hitachi models also have connectivity enabled, which is the real game-changer for enabling remote, real-time decision making. This we predict will be a key theme for 2021.

2021 metals analysis outlook: Optimizing production through connectivity


What do we mean by connectivity?

The vision is that analytical instruments will have either WIFI, ethernet, USB or in the future, 4G/5G functionality, depending on the industrial environment. The next step would be for analyzers to have the ability to share and integrate operational technology (OT) data. But today, most of the connectivity is around data sharing and automation.

Connectivity in the future could also mean that analyzers could integrate to process control systems and communicate with other machines and resources. Ultimately, the end goal is to speed up processes, optimize performance, reduce waste and ensure product quality.


Leveraging technologies to make manufacturing greener

Industry 4.0 has uncovered an opportunity for positive action when it comes to sustainability, by leveraging technologies to make processes more efficient and greener.

Foundries for example have for years championed the green movement by being the ultimate recyclers of raw material. However, many are also looking at what green technology can do to help reduce material waste. Each process step should have the right solution in place: incoming inspection, melt shop floor, central lab and outgoing inspection. Connected analytical instruments can feed data to a central point, where quality issues can be easily spotted and subsequently rectified to reduce wastage and save cost.

The same concept can be applied further down the supply chain within fabrication, but equally at OEM level. Ensuring each process step has a focused solution that enables data collection can help reduce wastage and deliver greener manufacturing.   


Big data is power

One reason information rules in the metals industry is through its ability to make manufacturing quality assurance and control processes simpler and faster. However, whilst the quantity of data available is colossal, the question is how manufacturers turn this into something of value – recognizing patterns and predicting behaviour to make informed decisions.

Even if thousands of measurements are taken each day, data from the analyzer can help manufacturers optimize production in a number of ways, including:

  • Increased product quality by identifying defects at the earliest stage in the process.
  • Machine failure predictions and diagnostics leading to well-timed preventative work, reduced downtime and less risk of sudden failures that are so damaging to business.
  • Reduced costs through the use of big data for predictive analytics, shortening the quality assurance process.


The ultimate goal: Smart factories

Whilst 2021 will see more and more connected analysis operations, at the advanced end of the Industry 4.0 spectrum is smart factories delivering optimized production processes. Whilst connectivity itself isn’t new within the manufacturing process, when it comes to elemental analyzers and integrating them into the smart factory, this is the future. 

We’re still probably a few years off from fully integrated, connected and flexible analyzers that feed smart factories with a constant stream of data; learning and adapting based on demands of the production process. But here’s what the new reality does extend to today and could look like:

Incoming inspection

 The metals industry is already operating on tight margins and after COVID-19, minimizing production scrap and rework is an easy win. Right material, right place will continue to be hugely important for reducing the cost of poor quality. This is where connectivity can and will play a key role. For example, if an issue is discovered in the melt process related to raw materials, this information can be passed up to the incoming inspection team, who can then take corrective action. And the great news is, with the right solutions in place, this can already be implemented.

In the future, it could be taken even further by extending it to the supply chain – incorporating data from the supply chain, if they are also using an analyzer, to confirm grade ID for example before it even reaches the production site, making incoming inspection a much faster process. This real-time data sharing will enable better collaboration.

Factory floor

We’re already seeing automation of metals analysis to support stringent QC programs and metals processing facilities taking advantage of automated sample analysis to measure batches of samples in a single measurement run. In-production analysis integration is also in demand with larger instruments being installed directly into conditioning lines for real-time analysis.

In the future, we’re likely to see existing production lines upgraded by adding inline sensors that act as control points for the flow of products from raw material to finished component. This integration of automated checks goes a long way towards capturing potential issues before any time or material is wasted. For example, analytical instruments can push information out to production equipment to start specific tasks such as running analyses or removing a test sample and flag up and halt production when an anomalous result is discovered. This real-time response reduces scrap and rework and helps production react quickly to any issues – essential when budgets are tight.

Another area where inline sensors will cut costs is increased asset uptime. Sudden downtime due to unexpected machine failure can be avoided, and scheduled maintenance intervals can be extended to match the actual wear and tear of the equipment, reducing costly downtime.

By bringing your analyzers to be part of the smart factory ecosystem, constant live-metrics and tools will support quick and consistent decision making to drive efficiencies to the production process.


ExTOPE Connect

Many of Hitachi’s instruments come with ExTOPE Connect, a cloud-based data management solution. ExTOPE Connect establishes a central location for all data from your entire fleet of analyzers, even across multiple locations, updated in real time and readily accessible, delivering a significant boost to operational efficiency and risk reduction.

Results including chemistry, images, spectra and measurement location (if applicable) will automatically upload when taken, or as soon as a network connection is established to the cloud. ExTOPE Connect allows users to create reports directly from the cloud, which can then be shared via email to all interested parties. Unlimited free data storage and automatic back-ups also mean that historical analyzer data will always be accessible. When the handheld instruments are connected to a mobile phone app, it’s also possible to attach photos to measurement results, including when sharing the results text message, email or WhatsApp.


Build your metals solution toolbox with Hitachi

We’ve always designed our industrial analyzers to cope with the challenges of not just today but the future too. As we move into a post-pandemic world, our instruments continue to help companies adapt to the demands of Industry 4.0.

We’re able to provide a solution for different process steps within your production process through our metals solution toolbox of handheld XRF, LIBS and OES analyzers, all which come with connectivity enabled, helping you take the next step towards becoming a smart factory.

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Date: 4 January 2021

Author: Mikko Järvikivi, Global Head of Product Management

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