FLSmidth targets eight key research areas to strengthen the link between knowledge-creating research and subsequent development of breakthrough products.
FLSmidth has traditionally been an engineering powerhouse supported by a strongly product focused R&D programme. About five years ago it became clear that more purely knowledge-driven research was the key to maintaining leadership in the increasingly complex cement and minerals industries. “A deliberate decision was made in response to the realisation that we needed a better balance between research and product development,” says Ole Mogensen, General Manager of cement research and FLSmidth R&D Centre Dania. “To make big leaps forward, FLSmidth needed to establish a broader knowledge platform that would allow us to go beyond merely improving technology and equipment already on the market. We have always devoted a lot of resources to R&D, but we needed a review of the whole innovation value chain from knowledge and ideas to commercial products, in particular to clarify the concept of research within the company, particularly what our main focus areas should be.”
Looking into the future
The result was a list of eight Research Focus Areas (RFAs) defined to address the technical fields vital to FLSmidth’s future strategy, to meet the changing requirements of customers in the cement and minerals industries and where it was found that the knowledge platform was not sufficiently strong. Additional RFAs will be added in the future as technology advances and industry directions evolve. Each of the RFAs is augmented by a corresponding Research Focus Group (RFG) tasked – among other things – with the goals of generating and developing new ideas, formulating new research project proposals and disseminating specialist knowledge related to the focus area to the larger FLSmidth organisation. The RFGs are organised to connect people who take interest in the same research focus area in a group structure that crosses geographical barriers – connecting, for example, the research organisation’s four geographically separate locations, Valby and Dania, in Denmark, and Bethlehem and Salt Lake City in the US. The RFGs mainly consist of people from the research departments within the R&D organisation, but also include a community of key people from other parts of the company who can contribute to research and knowledge creation. The RFGs scout for new opportunities that may involve external cooperation with customers, partners in industry and universities. They evaluate, select and develop the best new ideas and concepts to stimulate future growth for FLSmidth and its customers. Actual research project work is carried out in project teams, usually composed of team members from the RFG’s as well as other R&D engineers.
“The RFGs have two major avenues, the cement industry and minerals processing,” says Frank Baczek, Director of Minerals Research for FLSmidth, Salt Lake City, Inc. “Some are slanted more heavily toward one or the other, but there’s also a good deal of crossover among the groups where certain RFA topics overlap both industries. The basic overall goal is the same for all the research focus groups: to look out into the future for new technologies or ways to improve existing technologies. In part they can be seen as think tanks dedicated to looking forward into the future, solving problems and facilitating the efforts of people who are experts in given areas. They have a lot of freedom to look at what is being discovered in the broader world, in academic research and in related industries. All this under strategic direction from the FLSmidth R&D Steering Committee based on company direction and customer needs.” On a practical level, the RFGs strengthen the company’s scientific and engineering platform, which allows FLSmidth to respond to market trends, develop and adopt new technologies and offer its customers improved equipment and process capabilities.
Energy and environmental challenges
Materials and Wear Processes is an example of a research area that addresses a prominent concern in both the cement and minerals processing industries. “Identifying materials that can withstand the often very severe wear exposure of the equipment that FLSmidth supplies is high on our list of priorities,” says Ole Mogensen.
“Reliability is very important to our customers. If we can provide superior materials technology that reduces maintenance downtime and allows equipment to stay online longer, that’s a big competitive advantage. Looking into new and different materials is a good example of research driven activity that at end of the day is still very much aiming at industrial applications.” Such materials would be especially valuable in minerals processing applications in which machines must crush and grind huge amounts of rock to allow separation of valuable metals enriched ore from gangue minerals. It requires immense energy to do this comminution, and another research area, Minerals Liberation, looks for ways to reduce rock size and liberate minerals without spending so much energy: for example through innovative pre-treatment methods and developing entirely different types of crushing and grinding equipment that would reduce energy use.
Energy efficiency and environmental concerns are increasingly important in both industries. In minerals processing, one challenge is to provide equipment that can process more tonnage – moving 25-100% more rock to achieve the same valuable mineral tonnage as in the past – while lowering energy cost per ton and reducing the overall carbon footprint.
“All our customers need to consider environmental impact, use less water while recycling what they do use and reduce emissions coming from operations,” says Frank Baczek. “We’re already providing innovative conveyor systems that can move the same amount of rock as a fleet of trucks, and we’re exploring new minerals processing technologies to help eliminate excessive water usage and dramatically reduce power consumption.”
In the cement industry, harmful gaseous emissions has become a hot topic, particularly in the US where emissions legislation has recently been considerably strengthened. “Our researchers are working hard to help customers comply with emissions limits that become effective in 2013,” says Ole Mogensen. “We’re working on a number of topics, including HCl and VOC/THC emissions, and we expect to be deploying even more research resources to these areas in the next couple of years.”
Strong ties with outside partners
One element that unites all RFAs is strong cooperation with universities and industry partners. FLSmidth has always maintained close ties with university research departments, particularly with the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). Under the new research initiative these ties are growing even closer and expanding to include other institutions.
“Despite the depth of talent at our research centres, FLSmidth cannot possibly generate internally all the knowledge we need for future development,” says Ole Mogensen. “We need to be able to take up new subjects being worked on in universities, determine its potential for our industries and engage with the universities to make it applicable in practical ways.” As an example, he points to a large project undertaken recently by the Cement Products RFG involving supplementary cementitious materials (SCM) research. The purpose of the project is to develop advanced process technology for producing high-quality, environmentally friendly low-CO2 cement in the future.
The project is being carried out in cooperation between FLSmidth, which is developing and testing new process technology, and the interdisciplinary nano-science centre (iNANO) at Aarhus University, which has expertise in thermodynamics and nanoscale studies of cement. Other partners are Aalborg Portland, who, as a cement producer, will test the new cement types and the Department of Energy Technology at Aalborg University, which has expertise in model descriptions of process plants. “The SCM project is an excellent example of one of the guiding principles of our RFGs,” says Ole Mogensen.
“That is always to be open to research input from many sources and continuously investigate opportunities that may involve external cooperation with customers, partners in industry and universities. In this case, we’re aiming at an end result that is already of proven commercial interest to our customers in the cement industry. The core of the project is about the manufacturing process and product quality, but it also encompasses areas such as reduction of CO2 emissions, so that a number of interrelated developments important to the industry will evolve around this project.”
Research Focus Areas
Eight Research Focus Areas (RFAs) have been defined to address the technical fields vital to FLSmidth’s future strategy and meet the changing requirements of customers in the cement and minerals processing industries:
• Cement Products
• CO2 and Energy Efficiency
• Harmful Gaseous Emissions
• Fuels and Combustion
• Materials and Wear Processes
• Minerals Liberation
• Phase Separations
CONTACT: Ole Mogensen