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Decarbonization: Change in Thermal Process Engineering

CREMER is a medium-sized, internationally operating family-run company that supplies thermal processing equipment for powder metallurgy and technical ceramics. It can draw on broad expertise in plant engineering covering all temperature ranges up to and even over 2000 °C (e.g. for the production of tungsten carbide powders). Besides complex special systems with a high engineering input, standard systems are also developed and produced in Düren/DE. The company’s Managing Partner, Dr Ingo Cremer (IC), was happy to share with us his views on current developments and the challenges in industrial furnace engineering.

cfi: Industrial furnace engineering in our sector has been working steadily for decades on the design of energy-efficient drying and firing processes. In this respect, how do you find the new regulations prescribed by policy makers for energy-intensive processes? 

IC: In a nutshell, constant improvement of the energy consumption per kg fired ware is part of the core expertise in industrial furnace engineering. That applies to different measures such as burner optimization, enhancing the efficiency of heat transfer, improving insulation, reduction of firing times, and much more. The current problem is that the decisions to introduce such regulations are no longer based on knowledge but ideologically driven. For our business, this has fatal consequences because our customers are totally unsure about which direction they should take. There is talk about moving to different locations. Many have already opted for this course of action. Planned investments have been put on the back burner, which, of course, has an impact on the orders we receive. We are happy and available to give advice to our customers, but we also have to utilise our production capacity. In addition, we are all struggling with rises in the prices of supplied components – and in some cases still with their availability. As we have to draw up complex tenders in our business, we generally do this several months before any final negotiations. Unplanned price increases can quickly lead to liquidity problems, especially in the case of large-scale plants requiring relatively long engineering and construction times. There is an increased need for investment at our customers‘ operations, also with regard to improving energy efficiency. However, our business has become much more difficult. 

cfi: What technical improvements have been introduced in recent years with regard to sustainable low-emission thermal processing systems? 

IC: In terms of technology, we are making more and more great strides. The combination of contemporary heat transfer calculation methods and the use of improved materials are leading to initially foreseeable, but ultimately substantially reduced heat losses. The application of modified control systems and energy recovery technologies is supporting the optimization of process efficiency.

cfi: What relevance for you does the introduction of climate-friendly hydrogen have for furnaces in our industry? After all, the quantities available are planned primarily for buyer industries such as chemicals, refineries and the steel industry. 

IC: Everyone is talking about using hydrogen. The only thing stopping it is the availability for our customers. Insofar, it is still a very minor aspect and limited to a few reference projects. 

cfi: How is industrial furnace engineering preparing for the introduction of hydrogen? 

IC: Very many projects are already under way in respect of burner development for hydrogen-rich firing gases (>20 % H2), but also studies that are investigating the influence of the hydrogen atmosphere on fired ware. In metallurgy, an inert gas atmosphere consisting of forming gas (N2/H2 with a low content of carburizing gas) can substitute to an extent endogas consisting of natural gas. Some production routes, however, must be overridden. Generally, we are currently seeing increasing requests for electric furnaces, wherever this is technically feasible with regard to process control. Even just a few years ago, the trend was towards the use of primary energy, i.e. natural gas. 

cfi: Besides sustainability in the sense of “green production“, digitalization and simulation are key tasks. How can you contribute to a more sustainable production? 

IC: The digitalization of processes and plants is already well advanced. This includes designing interfaces (IE, Ethernet, Profinet), protocols (OPC-UA, MQTT, Modbus) and devices (telemetry) for data processing with higher-level systems, like production data acquisition and energy monitoring (smart meters). The use of networked PLC, HMI and SCADA solutions is state of the art. Data for visualisation is released based on cloud solutions (IoT). In this way, process optimization can be selectively influenced and energy efficiency steadily and iteratively improved. Behind this is the vision of the smart factory and the introduction of the Internet of Things and the omnipresent internet technologies in production as well as a comprehensive digitalization of all business processes (not only those in production). The smart factory organises itself. Smart workpieces actively support self-organisation, that is every piece being manufactured knows it status, knows what work has to be done and what work has already been done to it. Every machine or plant knows it functions, its capacity utilisation and can proactively connect with its environment. Together with suitable transport logistics, automatic organisation of production possibilities is realised. The traditionally hierarchical company organization is resolved into a network spanning different locations. Plants, transportation, products, digitalized tools and people communicate via the internet. 

cfi: In the enquiries you receive regarding new plants, are there any new requirements in respect of plant design? 

IC: I would say that the trend is for even more flexible production plants. That can be in a number of respects. As I touched upon earlier, flexibility is more important than ever with regard to operation with variable process gases. In the creation of concepts, we must pay increasing attention to the versatility of the plants (MPF = Multi-Purpose Furnace). One increasing requirement is for basic batch carriers for individual product loading. 

cfi: Besides energy efficiency, material efficiency is also becoming increasingly important with regard to protecting resources. What contribution can industrial furnace engineering make? 

IC: In this area, we have exciting new projects in which rotary tube furnaces are implemented. Moreover for the recycling of sintered reject material (e.g. SiC), we are building specially developed plants sometimes with very high process temperatures over 2000 °C. That is material- and energy-efficient because pre-reacted material is processed and material-induced emissions are no longer generated during reactions in the production process of the starting materials. The substances can be processed with high purity and recirculated. In addition, we supply speciality furnaces for pyrolysis or torrefaction. Wood can, for example, can replace coal for steel processing or generating raw materials for fuels from plastic waste: “Plastic to Fuel”. Recycling or re-use will certainly continue to grow as in the design of components or the developing of materials, improved provision will be made for efficient recycling aspects. 

cfi: In what respect, would you like some alleviation of the situation for your industry? 

IC: Certainly, not only in industrial furnace engineering is there concern with regard to the shortage of skilled labour. Here political conditions could support us in order to gradually alleviate the problem. As explained at the beginning, uncertainty in respect of energy costs and availability is a very unsettling factor. Here, of course, the selection of primary energy sources and their decentralised availability play a part. The supply and supply chain problems have not yet been eliminated. Development of alternatives remains inadequate. With regard to the huge area of AI (smart factory), the requirements are increasing for management systems (quality assurance, circular economy, data protection, data security, etc.). For these tasks, specialists are needed, who have to work closely with our process engineers. The crises at this time are certainly not helping to promote international trade again. I have observed a clear relocation of projects into the so-called western world. Within Germany and Europe, I would wish for more reliability from policy makers. 

cfi: Thank you for talking to us