Trends, challenges and ideas: What moves our industry

A lot will change in the cement industry in the coming years: increasing digitalization, more use of alternative fuels, and the growing need for automation. Added to this is the changeover from 50- to 25-kilogram bags in some countries. This will pose a major challenge in the market.

Digitalization on the rise

Digitalization on the rise - Trends Cement Industry

Personal contact is particularly important in our rather conservative industry, and perhaps that is what sets us apart. We often conclude deals not only with a signature, but usually with a firm handshake. Yes, and then the COVID-19 pandemic came in 2020 and changed a few things – for example, our travel behavior. We could no longer simply travel to our customers’ sites – for meetings, but also for maintenance, repairs and commissioning. Communication became more and more digital as time went by.

COVID-19 is hardly an issue anymore. Digitalization, on the other hand, is even more so – as it accelerates and simplifies so many processes. Just imagine, a packaging plant in Indonesia or Peru breaks down. We can certainly support our customers on site with our worldwide branches and representatives and send one of our globally stationed technicians there if required. But this also consumes time. Alternatively, we can be reached around the clock via our hotline. However, there are problems that are difficult to describe over the phone. This is where smart glasses can help. The customer’s service technician can put on these data glasses and get all the important information superimposed on the live image from the device camera. This enables him to immediately repair the machine himself – just as if an experienced technician were standing by his side. The data glasses also help with remote commissioning and provide an overview of the entire system: Customer Support sees the same thing as the person wearing the glasses on site and can directly specify the correct actions. In this way, the user is guided step by step through commissioning. Remote maintenance is also possible, in which an expert can connect to the plant – regardless of the time or day.

With increasing digitalization, more and more sensors are also being used. These collect information at critical points and evaluate it. Among other things, these can be non-contact proximity switches that reliably send signals without making mechanical contact. High-quality photoelectric sensors ensure signal transmission even in difficult environmental conditions, and the sensors used increase machine performance. As a user, you can significantly reduce your maintenance costs and make spare parts handling easier. Are you reacting rather timidly to the increasing digitalization or do you see the advantages?

Direct emissions intensity of cement production in the Net Zero Scenario, 2015-2030
Direct emissions intensity of cement production in the Net Zero Scenario, 2015-2030. Source:  || IEA. Licence: CC BY 4.0

Climate killer cement – how CO2 can be reduced

More than 4.6 billion metric tons of cement are used worldwide every year. However, its production generates 2.8 billion metric tons of CO2. That is almost eight percent of global emissions. Cement production thus blows four times as much CO2 into the air as all international air traffic. And with demand rising in emerging economies such as India, Asia and Africa, this figure is likely to increase in the coming years. The cement industry thus represents a central adjusting screw for achieving climate neutrality. As a material, however, cement clinker is indispensable. So how can its production be made climate neutral? One possibility is to capture carbon primarily from combustion exhaust gases and then to use and store it in further chemical processes – so-called Carbon Capture Use and Storage or CCUS for short.

Alternative fuels – economically efficient and ecological

Global thermal energy intensity and fuel consumption of clinker production in the Net Zero Scenario, 2015-2030
Global thermal energy intensity and fuel consumption of clinker production in the Net Zero Scenario, 2015-2030 Source: || IEA. Licence: CC BY 4.0

Another approach to sustainably reducing greenhouse gas emissions and also production costs is the increased use of alternative fuels. This means liquid materials such as waste oil or solvents instead of coal and gas. The bulk of solid alternative fuels consists of municipal as well as industrial waste such as mixtures of plastics, paper, composite materials or textiles.

However, we cannot simply throw all household waste into the furnace. This is because different materials also have different calorific values. This is a major challenge, especially in countries where waste separation is not yet as developed as in Europe. Whole or shredded tires, on the other hand, are a popular choice. Their rubber has a calorific value comparable to that of hard coal, and the iron from the reinforcement can be mineralogically integrated into the cement. This reduces the need for the addition of iron-containing corrective substances.

Cement Industry 2023 - Knowledge Hub BEUMER

Low-CO2 transport

Carbon dioxide can be reduced even further, however. A major issue is the transport of extracted raw materials from the quarry to the plant or port. The routes often take them over rough terrain or even through populated areas. This is a task that companies often handle with trucks, and these emit plenty of carbon dioxide. An alternative for this is troughed belt conveyors and closed pipe conveyors. Not only are conveyors more ecological, they can also be significantly more economical. After all, whether an investment is worthwhile depends on various factors. Feasibility studies and cost comparisons help with the decision.

Diet with consequences

What we have been implementing here in Europe for decades in some cases will be coming to a number of other countries around the world in the years ahead – the switch from 50- to 25-kilogram bags. This has been triggered by new legal requirements for the health protection of the workers who have to lift and haul these bags. For you as a cement plant operator, this means that you will have to gradually convert the equipment in the packaging lines. This will be an enormous effort, because the packing lines in the plants will of course have to fill and pack just as much cement as before – and thus handle twice the number of bags in the same amount of time.

But even if the bags are only half as heavy, manual loading onto the truck beds remains a back-breaking job. And fewer and fewer people are willing to do it, even in emerging countries like India, China or Africa. What’s more, labor costs are rising steadily there. Manual truck loading is not only strenuous, it usually requires two people who take turns with their coworkers for each loading operation because of the heavy physical work involved. Added to this is the high level of dust generated, which is harmful to health. With manual loading, the loading performance often fluctuates, as does the quality of the bag stacks. Automation can solve this challenge.

Investing despite uncertainty

Significantly fewer cement lines are being built. Of course, this is partly due to the enormous overcapacities in China in particular. For a long time, the government pushed ahead with large construction projects and thus produced enormous quantities of cement – which were also exported en masse, among other things.

These times are now over. In today’s cement plants, for example, operators are having three lines converted into one large one. But this also requires know-how and technology. Worldwide, “Made in Europe” still counts as a seal of quality, especially for process-critical equipment. And the demand for cement is still high, even if this is not reflected in the sale of new plants. Many operators are still holding off on major investments and are considering very carefully whether it will really pay off. But although the industry is currently cautious, operators are again increasingly starting projects.

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