Zinc was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans. These days, it’s in your sunscreen - helping reflect the sun’s rays as soon as you put it on your skin. Its unique properties also help stop corrosion, making it invaluable for building cars and planes. Zinc is also an important component in the manufacturing of many other products, such as: paints, rubber, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, soaps and batteries. It’s little wonder then, that zinc demand may continue to soar over the next few years.
And yet, metallurgical companies are facing a conundrum: a perfect storm of current challenges means it’s hard for production to keep up with unprecedented demand. They’re under huge pressure to compete with cost-efficient players, such as the Chinese, who are aggressively penetrating the European and American markets. Their electricity demand, and therefore costs, are astronomical, and raw material prices are extremely volatile. Put simply, it’s easy to burn through money given this state of play – and not make a profit. This, despite the Herculean efforts that go into making this sought-after metal. These efforts are nowhere more visible than on the shop floor.
Highly skilled technicians and engineers are grappling with gargantuan, critical pieces of equipment and machinery - like the giant, six to seven-meter ball mills that crush the ore. If there aren’t inspections that detect a fault before it may happen, the loss of the ball mills’ use has a catastrophic impact on the sequential production line – and of course, the bottom line.
“The ball mill on-site at a recent client of ours kept breaking down. It had to be repaired frequently at astronomical cost,” says T.A. Cook consultant Maximilian Tan. He adds: “And yet, if you look into the root causes of why these breakdowns happen – such as the motor overheating because too much material being added into the mill – you soon understand what tweaks you need to make to the standard processes, such as introducing inspections in cycles. This averts breakdowns by anticipating them.”
Then there are the smelter furnaces – pivotal pieces in the zinc production jigsaw. Their inner linings need to be replaced every 15 years, or so. But is anyone checking their condition? Are the bespoke refractory bricks in the dome secure? If they need to be changed, can they be sourced locally in an emergency so the show can go on? Similarly, a schedule of preventative maintenance activities and spare parts allocation is a savvy approach to take, rather than constantly being on the backfoot with corrective measures - after the horse has bolted.
“Leveraging the power of data can help mitigate the fall-out of machinery breaking down unexpectedly. Giant fans are used to cool down furnace-like factories. By collecting information from sensors to measure the vibrations of the fans, you can avoid the catastrophe of a fan suddenly being out of action,” says T.A. Cook’s Manager, Maximilian Tan. “Pre-empting a problem and maintaining equipment to high-levels of standards is crucial. If the Meantime Between Failure (MTBF) increases, you know your client is taking a positive step forward in addressing critical issues that have been hampering efficiency and profits. It’s all about creating realistic corporate expectations, then sticking to them rigidly to avoid any disasters,” he says.
Given the challenging landscape metallurgical companies find themselves in, the obvious mistake that’s often made to cut costs, is to streamline staff without improving processes and increasing workers’ efficiency. T.A. Cook recently partnered with a company who’d taken the advice of a big management consultancy to cut 30 per cent of its workforce, but had not made any changes to its existing processes. The reality was that a depleted workforce was then limping on with weakened manpower – meaning many of expensive overtime in an attempt to keep up with demand. It proved to be a short-term band aid fix, rather than a sustainable, long-term solution. On closer inspection, there were many time-saving measures that could be put into place. For instance, avoiding shutting equipment down completely for maintenance, or pre-empting machinery failure before it even happened.
It’s small, but vital tweaks like this, based on data and real insight, that can make huge changes to the business and its bottom line. If metallurgical companies adopt this mindset on, there should be an exciting few years ahead.