Whether cyclone screeners, vacuum weighing systems or automated dosing of micro quantities with the aid of robot technology, during the course of the last 70 years, Azo has written many key chapters in the annals of bulk materials handling. And this is set to continue into the future.
Automated production processes in the areas of food, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, chemicals and plastics are the world of Azo. This also includes systems for dispersing, mixing and homogenizing liquid and semisolid products. The portfolio is large and includes many individual components for storing, discharging, screening, conveying, dosing and weighing raw materials. All of these elements need to be perfectly coordinated with each other so that the processes keep flowing. Although Azo has already automated many of these processes, digitalization will present a number of new challenges in the future. In our interview, Azo CEO Rainer Zimmermann talks about the exciting areas that will shape the future.
PROCESS: Mr. Zimmermann, what are the challenges for raw materials handling?
Rainer Zimmermann: Well, first of all it is the product itself. The challenges are vast, for example if we are looking at potentially explosive or harmful products. Other products may prove impossible to convey, or they may flow too quickly. Even the very same product can behave completely differently if the ambient conditions change. But we have always managed to find a solution.
PROCESS: What is the key to a well-functioning plant?
Zimmermann: It is vital that you really understand the bulk materials being processed. In our database, around 10,000 raw materials are listed with their corresponding properties. But that does not mean that we can just sit back. In the future, there is no doubt that particle sizes will get even smaller, which will take the difficulty of processing up yet another notch. This means that we will need to understand particles even better in the future.
PROCESS: How do you really get to know and understand bulk materials?
Zimmermann: This may come as a bit of a surprise, but we really do have a lot to thank our cyclone screener from the 1950s for. This machine made an enormous contribution to ensuring that we really do understand a great deal about a wide range of different raw materials. In addition, we have a dedicated bulk materials laboratory, where we have been researching raw materials for many years and deepening our knowledge of the products.
PROCESS: Which industries currently present the biggest challenges?
Zimmermann: At the moment, the production of battery compounds, but also 3D printing are undoubtedly the most exciting areas we are working in. Here is just one example: With 3D printing, the components are much smaller than we have traditionally worked with, and as a result some of the pipes/tubes have a diameter of just three centimeters. From the point of view of conveying the raw materials, this is very difficult. In addition, the particles are harmful to health and the plants are run under an argon atmosphere — for plant builders, this is a completely new set of rules. There will undoubtedly be a range of new requirements for the construction materials as well.
PROCESS: What changes does the world of bulk materials need to prepare itself for?
Zimmermann: From the point of view of a plant builder, I am not expecting any major changes. Certainly surface treatment and surface finishing is going to become more demanding — for example due to finer weld seams. Some industries are working with ever smaller particles, which in some cases are even respirable. We need new concepts here. But the requirements in terms of quality, safety and traceability will also increase. Furthermore, processes are shifting towards batch sizes of just 1. Many of the original mechanical methods now need to be automated. Of course, this has consequences for our plants.
PROCESS: What role will automation and digitalization play in the future?
Zimmermann: Companies and markets change, but not from one day to the next. We know that a transformation is required in the future in order to drive digitalization ahead. This is why we have set up internal digitalization projects within the company. We want to reduce lead times and react more quickly and more individually to customer requirements. We have already implemented a number of things. We now have e.g. at least in part a digital twin for all of our plants, which contains all the main information including photographic documentation. But the digitalization of plants also raises issues of IT security. This is a responsibility we also have to face up to.
PROCESS: Did you already have ideas for digitalization previously?
Zimmermann:Generally speaking, the topic dates back to 1979 and our first PLC system, and our control system Kastor was launched just a few years later. And something else that is interesting: We already developed a tracking and trace system back in 1984, but our customers were not ready for this yet at the time. Next year we will be launching a system to ensure traceability of raw materials — based in part on the development work we did back then.
PROCESS: What are the biggest hurdles on the path to digitalization?
Zimmermann: The topic of digitalization doesn’t relate only to the technology itself, but also to the organization of a company. At the same time, we have fewer trained employees and feel the effects of global changes and the aging demographic. However, the complexity of all the systems and the technologies behind them remains the same. This is where we need to find solutions.
PROCESS: What role is played by the customer on the route to digital plants?
Zimmermann: Of course, it is vital that the customer is behind the process. However, sometimes it can be very simple considerations that slow down these processes. For example, In order to push ahead with digitalization, we need data — and the data is supplied by sensors. But the fact of the matter is that every sensor costs money. So it is up to the customer to assess whether or not digitalization really offers a benefit. By contrast, the topics of virtual reality and augmented reality are already very well received, because they allow customers to improve their planning, both in terms of quality and speed.
PROCESS: Have you got any further ideas on the topic of digitalization?
Zimmermann: In the future, we will be dealing increasingly with vertical and horizontal integration of data. Here, standardized interfaces or platforms between companies will help. And we already started a few years ago to address the subject of artificial intelligence more intensively in order to develop a plant that is capable of adjusting itself. However, there is one aspect we have to keep re-emphasizing: The process of conveying bulk materials is a chaotic state for which, first of all, algorithms need to be developed. We are working together with universities on this. So the digitalization process is definitely a marathon and not a sprint!
PROCESS: Mr. Zimmermann, thank you for taking the time to talk to us.