Technology Upgradation Management in Re-rolling Mills


Technology Upgradation Management in Re-rolling Mills

Re-rolling mills in small and medium enterprise (SME) sector play an important role in meeting the demand of the finished steel in the country. These mills are crucial to the national steel economy since they are making available a large amount of finished steel in the market.  The technology adoption level of these mills is rather low and many of these mills operate with technologies which are 50 years to 60 years old. These mills operate at low level of productivities and high level of energy consumptions. The operations of these mills are mostly manual and most of the mill parameters as well as the quality of the product depend largely on the skill of the operators. Mill owners have the complete control over the management of the mill.

The re-rolling mills are presently facing many problems and challenges. These include (i) shortage of skilled workers, (ii) shrinking market because of increasing competition, (iii) higher operating costs, (iv) low productivities, and (v) high energy consumption etc. The mill owners are presently not serious to solve the problems, since they are able to run the mills for at least a shift. The mill owners’ attitude towards finding solutions to the challenges being faced indicates that they are not aware of what is stored for them in the near future. The mill owners are not realizing that ignoring the major issues at this stage, can lead them, after certain period, to such a situation which will be out of their control.

With the capacity expansions being implemented by integrated steel plants in India, the availability of finished steel is improving and the competition is becoming tougher as each day is passing by. The finished steel available from the integrated steel plants is made in automated, high speed, high productive, continuous rolling mills which are equipped with the modern technologies. Further the products from these mills pass through close quality control procedures and are certified by the certifying agencies.  Re-rolling mills challenge for tomorrow is going to have added completion due to the increased product availability from the integrated steel plants.

If one studies the reasons for the different problems of the re-rolling mills, one will come to the conclusion that most of the problems originate from the old and outdated technology of the mill as well as on the overdependence on the manual work. However, the mill owners are not presently in that state of mind which will accept this conclusion. Due to this fact, the process of the technological upgradation of the re-rolling mills is not taking place. There are several reasons for this state of affairs. These reasons include (i) lack of knowledge of new technologies and the benefits these technologies can bring with them, (ii) non availability of funds for any fresh investment, (iii) presence of several constraints, (iv) mill owners have become habitual in the present way of working and there are strong forces of inertia are there to obstruct the upgradation of the technology, and (v) there is a fear element amongst the owner because of certain amount of risks involved.

There is a stiff resistance to adopt technological upgradation in spite of several attempts by authorities and various agencies in this direction. The resistance towards technological upgradation is because of the following.

  • Limited technical knowledge is available with the owner. This is mainly because in most of the cases, the owner has no formal education in the technical field. Further he is very little time available with him for enhancing his technical knowledge base since for the running of the mill he is always under time constraint.
  • The mill owner is always under doubt about the benefits that are being projected with the implementation of technological upgradation and hence he considers it a risky affair.
  • The work force though highly experienced in the running of their mill has limited knowledge of the available technologies. The workforce has fears of losing the job with the implementation of technological upgradation in the mill.

Overt resistance to technological upgradation is due to the limited information and because of inability to look into future. Tacit resistance does not disappear but ferments, grows into sabotage, or surfaces later when resources are depleted. Because the advocates of technological upgradation have such a clear view of its benefits, resistance often catches them by surprise. The worst thing a mill owner can do is to show indifference by clinging to the status quo. However by clinging to the status quo, the mill owner is endangering not only the future of the mill but his own future also.

The main concern of the owners of re-rolling mills today should be how to close the technological gaps which exist today between their mills and the mills of the integrated steel plants. This can be done only if the mill owners take positive views towards technological upgradation. This matter is full of challenges which are required to be surmounted by the owners of the re-rolling mills for the future survival of the mills. Mill owners are to realize that there is no escape from this.

If the present way of working continues in the re-rolling mills then there is a danger that mills may lose their present importance in the steel economy of the country. The challenges confronting the mills are to be faced and are to be surmounted since the re-rolling mills cannot afford to lose their market. The owners have to overcome the resistance to change and must overcome the forces of the inertia so that the mills can survive in an environment of paradigm shift which is prevailing presently. The owners have to take responsibility and lead in this regards.

Technological upgradation of the re-rolling mills is not going to be an easy task since it presents a different set of the challenges to the mill owner. The mill owner will be better equipped to face these challenges if education and technological knowledge is available to him for guidance. For this, the first requirement needed from the owner is to change his mindset. Once this is done, he has to make strategies to address the difficulties which are coming in the way of technological upgradation.

The knowledge of the mill owner generally centres on his mill. He knows best the environment under which the mill is operating. He is quite knowledgeable and skilled about the technologies he is using in his mill. In fact, his knowledge in his area of operation is much more than the education and training can provide him since it is backed by many years of experience. At the same time his knowledge of the technological developments which have taken place outside the influence of his operating environment is very limited because of lack of time he can devote on this aspect. This time constraint is because he is carrying out the multi tasks functions.

Because of lack of knowledge of the new technological developments, the mill owner has a fear element in his mind towards the adoption of these new technological developments. His fears are towards the disturbance which this adoption is going to make on his present working systems. He is afraid that whether these disturbances can be handled by him under the prevailing circumstances around him.

Perhaps the only way to remove the fear element from the mill owner mind set is through education and training. This education and training must include in addition to the technical details of the new developments, the influences (both positive and negative) the adoption is going to have on the present working environment. It is very essential that the mind of the mill owner is first prepared so that he not only adopts the technological upgradation in his mill, but also he gets involved in the process of technological change. Once he gets involved, he becomes also an agent for the change.

The technological upgradations in the re-rolling mills cannot be done in one step. In fact, these upgradations are to be carried out in several steps in series. Since the knowledge of the mill owner is limited to the rolling mills of the type he is operating, he must take the help of an experienced professional engineer in this field. For the selection of appropriate step for the technological upgradation to be taken up, the mill owner must develop an iterative, almost accordion-like framework to guide the decisions which he has to make with regards to technological upgradation both with respect to the time and the amount of the upgradation he has to carry out in each step. Accordion-like framework is built on precision. The process necessarily involves a thorough knowledge of the available technologies available, and the different information connected with the technology which also includes the cost and the time needed for its implementation. In this, a close co-ordination with the professional with whose association the work of technological upgradation is carried out. is needed.

The selection of technology in each step of upgradation (Fig 1) is to be done based on several criteria such as (i) technical superiority over present technology, (ii) its applicability in the owners re-rolling mill, (iii) expected benefits after implementation both with respect to operating parameters and the product quality, (iv) implementation cost and time, (v) expected benefits it will bring to mill productivity, product yield, energy consumption and product cost, and (vi) impact on the environment. Further, involvement of the workforce is essential for the success of the implementation of the technological upgradation. They are to be convinced how they will be benefitted with respect to reduction in the physical work and improvement in their working environment. For successful implementation of the technological upgradation not only investment is needed but there is also a need for close planning and sustained level of persistence which is required from the mill owner.

Fig 1 Criteria for technology selection

For each step of the technological upgradation to succeed, it is essential that the technological solutions selected to be implemented in each of the step have capability to address the present problems being faced by the mill. The probability of success improves, if the solutions are solving the immediate problems of the mill.

Though the improvement in the bottom line is important, but it should not be the criteria of immediate concern as well as for the decision making. This is so, since the technological upgradation of the re-rolling mills is essential for their survival in the environment which is developing around them in the near future. The mills which have adopted the upgradation of technologies are going to be better equipped to face the challenges which the environment of near future is going to bring along with it.

The mill owner of some of the mills may be swayed by the fact that his mill is performing well presently and making sustained respectable profit year after year and hence, there is no need for technological upgradation for his mill. Due to this reason, he is not convinced regarding the need of technological upgradation in his mill. He does not want to disturb well set present systems of his mill. But this thinking can remain for a short while since these mill owners are not up-to-date and are not aware what is happening around them. History is the witness that many industries were wiped off around the world when they refused to upgrade. Paradigm shift when it takes place leaves no one in its path. Presently the re-rolling mills are facing a situation of paradigm shift and hence they should not ignore it for the sake of their future.

It is necessary to overcome the resistance from some mill owners for technological upgradation. One of the ways to convince such mill owner is by providing them the example of the mills which have implemented the technological upgradations and received several benefits out of it. Successful implementation of technological upgradation in a mill is going to force other mills to follow the practice.

Perhaps it is equally important is to plan for the transfer of knowledge from the old operation, in which the workforce is well experienced with respect to the materials, the product, and the operations, to the new process which comes into existence after technological upgradation. For this, knowledge management and extensive training exercises are to be carried out for the work force so that they not only develop the knowledge of the new technologies but also gains confidence in operating them. However, it needs to be understood that some time and resources are required for the transfer of the knowledge to the workforce and for its absorption bt the workforce. Further, in order to overcome the forces of inertia, some sort of initial motivation may also be needed.

Critical to the success of the technology upgradation projects is that they are to be owned both by the mill owner and the workforce. The involvement of the workforce is an essential element of the technological upgradation.

The technology upgradation of the mills can succeed only when the workforce is open to change. The professional whose help is taken for the technological upgradation is to facilitate the process of change of mind set of the owner as well as the workforce. Professional is to ensure that the owner takes correct decisions and is not carried away by the opinion leaders of the industry. This can happen only when the owner and professional work as team which also take along with it the workforce.

In short, the upgradation of technologies in re-rolling mills need (i) a belief that it is needed, (ii) support and commitment of owner, (iii) allocation of resources, (iv) help from professionals, (v) overlooking of the observations of the opinion leaders in the industry, and  (vi) enhancement of knowledge of the mill owner and the workforce through training and workshops. The fear in the mind of the workforce is to be removed by carrying out all those activities connected with their skill enhancement. The workforce is also to be explained that the technology upgradation has the potential of reducing their physical labour.

Further technological upgradation must offer an obvious advantage over whatever it replaces. Obvious advantages can be (i) higher productivities, (ii) higher yields, (iii) lower specific consumption of utilities, (iv) improvement in working environment, (v) better job satisfaction, (vi) improved life of consumable parts, (vii) improvement in the product quality, (viii) improvement in the customer satisfaction level, (ix) saving in resources, (x) reduction in waste generation, (xi) improvement in equipment and workers’ safety, and (xii) lower emission levels etc. The mill owner must feel highly satisfied after implementation of technological upgradations since he is going to enjoy not only the benefits but also because he has secured the future of his mill.