Mills could automate their electric-arc furnaces (EAFs) and converters, deploying smart sensors and collecting big data to improve processes, Zhai Yuyou, director of sales at technology provider Primetals Technologies said at the Shanghai conference organized by SMR Events.

Data mining may also allow steelmakers to control their steel quality and improve their yield, even across production sites, Zhai added.

“Carbon and stainless steel mills in China and Europe are currently the fastest adopters of modern steelmaking technologies, compared to other countries’ producers,” a China-based industry source told Metal Bulletin at the event.

An example of a producer “going strong in digitization” is Chinese producer Fuxin Special Steel, according to Yuan Jihua, metallurgist at German engineering firm SMS Group.

Fuxin Special Steel’s new stainless steel plant, set up by SMS, is able to synchronize data from all equipment parts as well as metallurgical and maintenance processes, Yuan said.

Going digital can also reduce suppliers' costs.

For instance, eddy-current testing uses electromagnetic signals to detect surface flaws such as cracks and grooves on stainless long steel products without contaminating the surface of the metal, according to Rainer Sailer, head of sales at testing systems maker Foerster.

Identifying such defects before the products are shipped can help sellers avoid dissatisfied customers, panelists said at the event.

Technologies can also boost plant productivity, energy efficiency and safety, Harald Holzgruber, chief executive officer of steel equipment supplier INTECO said.

INTECO’s technological revamp of the 35,000-tonne EAF at Taiwanese speciality steel manufacturer Gloria Material Technology Corporation resulted in cost savings of €2.55 million per year, Holzgruber said.

But mills should not jump on the digitization bandwagon without understanding the technologies that might be complicated, Holzgruber warned.

“There’s no doubt that digitization brings results, but we need to be careful not to overdo it because it should be a continuous process of improvement,” he said.

Steelmakers ought to understand their requirements and then limit their digital investments to what they really need, Holzgruber said.

“You might see a tremendous amount of features being advertised [for certain technologies], but if you would only use three to five of those features and if it only helps 5% of your processes, then skip it,” he added.