Metals Gathering Momentum For Recovery?

A slight glimmer of recovery for the U.S. metals industry has appeared.

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“The primary metals leading index increased modestly in Sept. 2009, pushing its six-month smoothed growth rate farther above the threshold that signals an increase in industry activity,” says the Reston, Va.-based Minerals Information Team of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in its Oct. 2009 “Metals Industry Indicator” report (MII, minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/mii/0910/miioct09.pdf).

The October 2009 MII report offered encouragement. “The primary metals leading index growth rate suggests that the decline in primary metals activity has bottomed out and the tentative recovery in the metals industry could gather momentum. Global economic conditions, particularly in emerging economies, appear hearty enough to support an increase in metals demand.” But the USGS muted that enthusiasm, by noting that “a slow economic recovery in the United States may weaken domestic metals demand.”

The Brussels-based World Steel Association (WorldSteel, www.worldsteel.org) noted in late October the impact of the current recession. For the 66 countries reporting, WorldSteel said that total steel production decreased 0.6 percent from September 2008 to September 2009. And month-to-month growth of crude steel production continues to show “steady increase” since April 2009. But the U.S September 2009 production was 31.4 percent less than that reported in 2008.

Accounting may improve

Interestingly, though, accurate metals accounting may be an issue. To fill that gap, a new international accounting standard has been created. Who motivated this? “Initial discussions took place in 2001 during a metal accounting workshop held in Cape Town,” says Michael Dunglison, consultant with Cape Town, South Africa-based integrated-software-and-services supplier Mincom Pty Ltd. (www.mincom.com).

“Following the workshop, Dr. Rob Morrison, of the University of Queensland [Australia], drafted the proposal which provided for both research into current industry challenges as well as the development of the code,” Dunglison recalls. This started the AMIRA International (www.amira.com.au) P754 Metal Accounting and Reconciliation research project. AMIRA is an independent association of mineral companies—for example, Anglo American, Anglo Platinum, BHP Billiton, Namakwa Sands, Rio Tinto and Zincor—that sponsors collaborative research projects.

The project recently produced the Metals Accounting Textbook. “This is the first textbook to define how the principles articulated by the AMIRA P754 Metal Accounting and Reconciliation code can be implemented in practice,” claims Will Jansen, an intelligent-mining-solution consultant with Mincom Inc., Denver.

How will iron-and-steel producers use the textbook?  “A common issue across the global mining industry relates to how much trust can be placed on the data being used to make operational and strategic decisions,” Jansen states. “Few operations have metal-accounting standard measurements. Most rely on lower-quality process-control measurements, which increases the level of risk associated with using the data.” The protocols outlined in the textbook raise data fidelity, allowing engineers and managers to “better understand performance and identify losses, while the company also benefits through increased trust in the data, enabling it to more confidently forecast production,” adds Dunglison.
 
Even so, at the basic control level, broader change in more than accounting may be needed to ensure trustworthy data. For example, advanced process control (APC) software has achieved some success through fuzzy logic and expert systems, observes Gustaf Gous, chief engineer with BluESP (www.bluesp.co.za), Randburg, South Africa, a process industries software and services supplier. “But other technologies, such as dynamic matrix control [DMC], struggle to be accepted.”

The struggle’s root appears cultural. “Due to DMC, also known as multi-variable control (MVC) or internal model control (IMC), being viewed as a petroleum-industry solution—and the metals industry's normal resistance to change—adoption of DMC was a challenge,” remarks Gous’ colleague Retief de Villers.  “There were also some failed attempts at implementing MVC in metals that aggravated the situation.” But after successful implementation of several DMC controllers in South Africa, “the tide on implementing this innovative technology is slowly changing,” he adds.

C. Kenna Amos, ckamosjr@earthlink.net, is an Automation World Contributing Editor.

World Steel Association
www.worldsteel.org

Mincom Pty Ltd.
www.mincom.com

AMIRA International
www.amira.com.au

BluESP
www.bluesp.co.za

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