Industry 4.0: the connected factory at Vallourec

24/04/2019 - Innovation and R&D
Marc Brémont, Group Industrial Masterplan Director, explains the different technologies in which Vallourec is involved.

The new industrial revolution of the digital age allows us to work more efficiently thanks to innovative products at a reasonable cost, with an excellent return on investment.

How would you define Industry 4.0 at Vallourec?

Industry 4.0 is a new generation of digital tools and technologies that will usher in the era of connected, robotic, and smart factories. With the digital revolution, the lines between the physical and digital world are blurring and giving way to an interconnected work environment in which employees, machines and products interact. Industry 4.0 is both a challenge and a real opportunity for Vallourec. It's a booming area in which everything moves very fast but the Group has kept up with the pace.  For the sake of efficiency, however, we have decided to focus on three areas: Big Data and Simulation, Augmented Workers and Additive Manufacturing.

How can Big Data revolutionize our tube production?

We are a fairly process-heavy industry and the use of Big Data and data science allows us to quickly solve complex problems while using significantly fewer resources compared to traditional techniques. The numerous simulations that we can conduct thanks to advanced algorithms, using machine learning* or neural networks** techniques, represent a huge source of improvement in manufacturing processes performances.

We have launched pilot projects in each of our regions:

  • two projects in the United States on the consumption of the electric furnace and the prediction of thread defects based on the measured characteristics of the tube after it has come out of heat treatment
  • one in Brazil on the optimization of production sequencing
  • the last one one in Germany, on tube wall thickness control. An advanced algorithm prototype has just been deployed on the Rath plug to predict, in real time, the tube's wall thickness when it is measured by our CND equipment, from data recorded on the mill and manufacturing parameters. This algorithm allows significant gains in terms of quality but also cost control.

What do you mean by "augmented" workers?

"Augmented worker" is a reference to how these innovations will transform our ways of working. It covers a range of advanced technologies, such as augmented or virtual reality, connected captor or smart algorithms in the field of capitalization as well as all the knowledge that we can make available to our employees/ operators/technicians to improve their performances. This will increase their physical and/or cognitive abilities (visual quality control, preventive maintenance, availability of knowledge, time alerts, etc.).

We have just deployed a mobile application which helps handle maintenance activity. The application offers information, operating modes, photos... as well as a news feed that allows them to share information within the team – even company-wide – and to stay up to day with what has been or remains to be done. All this can be done with a simple smartphone. This is an example of how we want to help our operators in their daily activities and push connected tools to foster collaborative work.

And what does the concept of additive manufacturing cover?

In our factories, additive manufacturing or 3D printing is mainly used to substitute the traditional supply chain for spare parts and tooling. With nothing but a blueprint and a 3D printer, in a few hours it is possible to create a new part (even if it is a temporary one) without stopping the machines, whereas before we would sometimes wait several weeks for a spare part.

This technique also has significant potential for innovating products intended for our customers. This is why it is the subject of a specific initiative under the responsibility of Bertrand Maillon, Additive Manufacturing Business Development Manager for the Vallourec Group.

3D-printed polymer NDT nozzle (Aulnoye-Aymeries forge)

Plug threading lathe (VAM USA Youngstown): the light gray part is 3D-printed. The goal of the plug is to avoid waste inside the tube after threading.

3D-printed shot blasting spare part

Mock-up design of welding part at Serimax

Guide shoe part used for the Rath piercer. It is a costly steel part with high lead time: making a 3D-printed prototype to have the right proportions allows to save time and money.

* Scientific study of algorithms and statistical models that computer systems use to perform a specific task without explicit instructions but relying on models and deductions. It is considered a subset of artificial intelligence.

**Specific sets of algorithms on which machine learning relies