As a Process Optimization engineer, I can say that PRONTO has been the most challenging and exciting project that I have faced during my professional career. In particular, having the opportunity of developing and testing new ideas and methods of operation of high-temperature processes in a real full-scale functioning plant, it is amazing. In fact, carrying out doctoral work that leads to tangible and measurable practical results is extremely satisfying.
I do believe that PRONTO is a very good example of the real benefits that collaborative work between the industry and academia can have. For example, during the time that I have been in PRONTO, we managed to develop novel models that allowed us to understand the Electric Arc Furnace (EAF) process at an unprecedented level of detail. This new knowledge led to the discovery of completely new ways of operating the process, and we managed to make the process more energy efficient and cleaner.
Professionally, I have gained a deep knowledge of the specifics of the metallurgical process via EAFs and on the most recent developments and trends in advanced process control and optimisation. The best about this journey, it is not the fact of having gained this valuable knowledge itself, but having had the incredible opportunity of discussing, interacting and sharing with the people that are at the very front of all these technological developments, both in the academia and the industry.
Personally, I have gained a completely new vision about the importance of teamwork and about what I believe is the single most important value when dealing with others: thrust. As an example, I would like to talk a bit about my experience as the newbie, 0 years experienced guy that comes to a group of experienced operators, with non-sense ideas, and who argues that the process that they have been working for over 20 years can be improved by doing only minor modifications. I experienced that the best way to obtain their support was, first, by making a serious effort on learning from their experience. I expended many mornings just visiting the people and asking questions about the process and about their experience in specific production situations. I discovered that the empirical knowledge that the operators possess is as valuable as any scientific knowledge coded in books or journals. After some point, I started to exchange ideas with them and tried to explain some of the very basic underlying principles taking place in the process. Sometimes they agreed, sometimes not too much. But as in any social interaction, these discussions helped to build the thrust needed to obtain their help for the experiments required for my project.
Maybe, the main obstacle to overcome in an industrial PhD program is time. Building thrust, satisfying production demands, and accomplishing PhD deadlines, are all realities in constant conflict. I cannot say that there is a single solution to this, but with enough endurance and patience, it is possible to get the experiments done and to obtain the required data to validate the formulated hypothesis.
In my experience, if experiments are to be done in the real full-scale plant, exceptional care and attention to detail must be put when evaluating the risks of every intervention to the process. After the risk evaluation process, it is important to assume that something was forgotten and then plan for a set of experiments that start from a very conservative scenario and that, trial after trial, approaches the optimal scenario. Unfortunately, time and number of attempts are conflicting variables, and at some point, risks will have to be taken. Again, no hand-rule exists here, but a conscious engineering feeling will help a lot.
I would like to acknowledge the kind support of all the operators in Terni, as without their support, the experiments needed to validate my hypothesis would have been impossible.