How Holcim US Is Using the Elios 2 to Create the Cement Plants of Tomorrow

Holcim Ltd. is the global leader in building materials, from cement, concrete, and aggregates, to roofing materials.With the global headquarters in Zug, Switzerland, Holcim employs over 70,000 people in 70 countries, producing 386 million tons of cement a year.

In 2019, Holcim Ltd. launched a four-year initiative called The Plants of Tomorrow, whose aim was to transform its manufacturing operations to incorporate the latest advances in technology. The initiative laid out a bold plan to leverage automation technology, artificial intelligence, digital twin technologies, predictive maintenance, and robotics to improve processes throughout its cement plants.

Holcim US, part of Holcim Ltd., has aggressively pursued The Plants of Tomorrow initiative since it was first announced. One of the ways it’s done so is by adopting Flyability’s Elios 2 for work in confined spaces, which has allowed it to improve safety and realize significant savings.

“The most important saving is the cost of saving lives by avoiding work in confined spaces. In Holcim US, the health and safety of our employees, contractors, and people who visit our sites is our primary focus. When you can find an alternate way to complete a task that at the same time decreases the risk to our employees, we’re going to take that path.”

- Nazareth Cuevas Diaz, Capex Manager, Manufacturing Support at Holcim US

At the time of the initiative’s announcement, Flyability was named a key robotics partner for improving safety and savings in its confined space inspections. 

“Partnering with Swiss start-up Flyability, [Holcim] is using drones that allow the frequency of inspections to increase while simultaneously reducing cost and increasing safety for employees by inspecting confined spaces.”

- Holcim Ltd. press release

Progress Made Since 2019

Since the launch of the Plants of Tomorrow initiative in July of 2019, Holcim US has rapidly grown its use of Flyability’s Elios 2 for inspecting confined spaces in its plants. 

These days, Holcim US regularly uses the Elios 2 to inspect a variety of assets used in its production of cement, including:

  • Preheater cyclones
  • TAD take-offs
  • Slurry tanks
  • Kiln inlets
  • Storage tanks
  • Cyclones

Cement plants throughout the world have acquired several Elios 2 units since 2019. In the U.S., Holcim plans to have one at every single plant it runs. 

According to Nazareth Cuevas Diaz, Capex Manager for Holcim’s U.S. operations, the company currently has four Elios 2 drones in use at its U.S. plants, and has plans to buy one for each of its 13 plants.

“Flyability’s drone technology is critical for us because it’s able to be operated in extreme conditions, such as high dust atmospheres, and provides good image resolution. This allows us to perform our necessary inspections in difficult-to-access places without exposing our personnel to a risk.”

- Nazareth Cuevas Diaz, Capex Manager, Manufacturing Support at Holcim US

Prior to adopting the Elios 2, whenever inspectors wanted to survey the conditions inside these assets they had to build scaffolding and send people in to do a visual inspection.

This process was expensive because the scaffolding is costly and requires prolonged downtime to erect and take down. It is also potentially dangerous, since it requires inspectors to physically enter confined spaces to collect visual data.

Using the Elios 2, inspectors at Holcim US plants can now fly into these assets, collect visual data, and fly out. Because the inspection process is so much less cost-intensive and more efficient, inspectors can now conduct inspections more frequently, allowing them to further improve maintenance processes at their plants.

What about Dust?

One of the biggest challenges inspectors face in using a drone inside cement plant assets is dust. 

But inspectors at Holcim US say they’ve been able to use the Elios 2 successfully despite this challenge, capturing high quality visual data that allows them to avoid the need to enter the assets themselves for inspections.

holcim-elios-2-dust

Inspectors clean dust off the Elios 2 after an inspection

Further, inspectors say they’re realizing significant savings.

At Holcim’s Ada plant, located in Ada, Oklahoma, the Elios 2 helped inspectors avoid about $50,000 in scaffolding costs for a single day of inspections. That day, they used the drone to collect visual data inside a slurry tank, a TAD take-off, a main baghouse clean air plenum, and a cyclone dip tube.

Downtime was also significantly reduced by avoiding the need for scaffolding, resulting in even more savings for the plant.

In addition to these savings, the Elios 2 has helped plants improve safety for their internal inspections by a considerable degree, since it helps eliminate the need for inspectors to work in hazardous locations.

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