Mecfor recently unveiled the first automated guided prototype vehicle for aluminium smelters on August 16 in Quebec. The AGV designed and manufactured in North America, will serve the global primary aluminium industry. Based in Saguenay, Quebec, Mecfor specializes in equipment design and manufacture for the global aluminium, mining and metals, and rail industries. AlCircle spoke to Ms Eloise Harvey, President, Mecfor and Mr Dario Tremblay, Eng., Product Advisor about the AGV, MMTP and Mecfor’s other specialized mobile and stationary equipment for aluminium smelters.
Here is an excerpt from the interview:
AlCircle: How has Mecfor revolutionized the specialized mobile and stationary equipment for aluminium smelters?
Eloïse Harvey: “Revolutionized” is a big word but let say that we thrive to seek improvement opportunities to our clients’ operations through migration of technologies from one industry to another. To that effect, Mecfor has been developing on average two new products per year over the past twenty years for its aluminium smelters’ clients. On the past, we were the first company to offer vehicles driven with a joystick, to use a hydrostatic drive, to utilise very precise strain gage weighting balance for bath equilibrium, to use a remote controlled underpot vehicle and to develop a slow speed anode grooving technology, etc. More recently, we have introduced a dross reduction siphon-out vehicle through pressurisation that is retrofittable to existing operations. Also, we have put on the market an autoguided anode and crucible hauler (AGV TEAM) and we will be launching the smart tools for casthouse operations (on the market on 2019), a technology that will change the way our clients manage their furnaces’ operations.
AlCircle: Tell us in brief about the Molten Metal Transfer by Pressurization vehicles (MMTP) developed by Mecfor.
Dario Tremblay: Mecfor Molten Metal Transfer by Pressurization (MMTP) vehicles aim to significantly reduce dross during the molten metal transfer into the furnace. Transfer is done by pressurizing the ladle under a controlled pressure during the complete cycle time. It automatically detects that the ladle is empty and purges it near instantly. Apart from reducing dross, the main advantage of this equipment is that it uses the plant ladle, so it can directly replace existing ladle transfer equipment while offering significant savings. The discharge cycle is fully automated and very quick (up to over 6 MT/min). An onboard weighing system allows to partial discharge the crucible and to automate the data transfer between the plant and the vehicle.
Compare to conventional siphoning transfer, Mecfor Technology doesn’t require any heel in the furnace and is way faster. It also eliminates the need to modify the furnace to accommodate an additional siphoning system.
To date, Mecfor has delivered 3 units in two different smelters. Together, they have emptied over 40,000 crucibles. Both plants have integrated the MMTP vehicle as full production units. Their level of satisfaction in regard to the performance of the MMTP is very high.
AlCircle: How do these vehicles help reducing dross during the molten metal transfer?
Dario Tremblay: During the furnace charging, dross is generated by the oxidation of the molten aluminium. This oxidation is strongly influence by the melt surface being in contact with atmosphere and by the turbulence constantly renewed on the surface.
Starting with an empty furnace, Mecfor technology pours molten aluminium at the very bottom of the furnace minimizing at its maximum extend the turbulence. Once the melt level reaches a minimal level, the discharge pipe becomes fully immerged and nearly no dross is generated from that point.
Mecfor MMTP technology is so effective in dross reduction that systematic furnace skimming must be eliminated in given cast types.
AlCircle: How does robotics and automation change the way operations are conducted inside aluminium plants?
Eloïse Harvey: About the effect of automation technologies in the workplace, some “techno-pessimists” are concerned about the mass destruction of jobs, while “techno-optimists” see considerable productivity gains for the economy that will in turn help create new work opportunities. We tend to lean on the techno-optimist side. We believe that our approach to adding more technologies and automation to equipment will help improve the cash cost curve of our clients by improving their productivity and reducing costs. With scarcity of available qualified resources in North America for example, robotics and automation will allow to move operators to other areas within the plant that absolutely require human intervention. Finally, robotics and automation will also “assist” operators in their various operations ensuring that tasks are done more safely, more effectively and with minimum breakage of infrastructure through the elimination of human error.
AlCircle: Mecfor has recently unveiled the first Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV) designed for the worldwide primary aluminium industry. Please brief us on the use and specialties of this vehicle.
Dario Tremblay: Mecfor AGV TEAM10 is a specialized molten metal hauler dedicated and designed to work inside the harsh environment of aluminium smelters or other heavy industry sectors. The AGV TEAM is the bridge between electrolysis and the casthouse; it supplies molten metal to the casthouse as our conventional Metal haulers do. The vehicle is equipped with a very precise navigation laser technology which allows it to evaluate its location in real time and move on programmed paths. To manage the AGV TEAM displacements, we use a background program called System Manager to execute orders, calculate optimal route, control traffic flow and eliminate the possibility of a collision with other AGVs, surrounding equipment and personnel. Also, our AGV TEAM can reduce its speed or stop if an object is detected on its path, thanks to the laser technology that prevents collision with pedestrians, vehicle or other objects. A powerful battery pack delivers the power to move a load up to 34T at the speed of 5 km/h and with the autonomy to meet the required duty cycle. Battery charging is done by opportunity charging through the use of a strong automatic battery charging system that can charge batteries in only 1 hour.
AlCircle: What are the basic technologies behind this high-tech vehicle?
Dario Tremblay: The main technology behind our AGV TEAM is the NDC8 platform NAV system from Kollmorgen. This system consists of three parts: navigation, hardware and software. The navigation system uses a 2-dimensional laser scanner equipped with pulse Ranging technology that enables reliable and extremely precise measurement with a great accuracy and short response time. A compact and rugged high-performance controller is the heart of Mecfor AGV TEAM. This controller and the software functions supervise everything from navigation of the vehicle to the communication with the AGV system controller and interfacing sensors, transmission, steering and all others functions of our AGV TEAM. When operating, Mecfor AVG TEAM is in continuous contact with the AGV system controller, receiving and transmitting information such as work orders and traffic information.
AlCircle: What are the other technical innovations that Mecfor is currently looking at?
Eloïse Harvey: The smart tools in the casthouse will allow our clients to rely heavily on technology to support operators in their activities thus reducing breakage, improving speed of operation and quality of work while providing constant feedback and information to help the plant make better decisions to continuously improve performance. We are ready to deliver this technology as part of our Casthouse Solutions and it will be utilised by some of our clients as early as 2019.
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