Robotics Now Part of the Furnace Refurbishment Process

Pictured: Jean-Sébastien Simard, Finance Business Partner; Sébastien Ross, Managing Director at Quebec Operations; Jean-Benoît Pineault, CEO at Refraco; Sylvain Lemay, Procurement Manager; and Giovanni Pucella, Director of Innovation at Refraco.

Over the past three years, Refraco, a long-standing partner of Rio Tinto in furnace refurbishment, has developed a robotic cell prototype for safely building refractory brick walls for employees.

Over the years, technological advances have led to improved tools in many areas of construction. Bricklaying, however, has remained essentially the same over the past decade—something Refraco is looking to change.

“First and foremost, we wanted to make the tasks performed by our employees safer and reduce the number of musculoskeletal injuries,” said Jean-Benoît Pineault, CEO at Refraco. “Refractory bricklaying involves working in dangerous environments, and our invention, the Refraco Bricklayer Robot, will keep workers safe while meeting a growing labour need.”

These kinds of new technologies represent significant advances, which is why managers in several Rio Tinto departments have closely followed the development process. “We’re always interested in business partnerships like this,” said Sylvain Lemay, Procurement Manager. “Since presenting the concept at HUB Montreal in 2018, they’ve made giant strides and are already demonstrating how effective the Refraco Bricklayer Robot is by building part of Alma’s furnace partitions in their facility. Going forward, the tool can be used at most of our sites.”

For Refraco, this is a long-term project. They are in the third year of a ten-year development plan. “The concept of a robot may seem simple, but it’s quite the opposite,” explained Giovanni Pucella, Director of Innovation at Refraco.” Our system allows the robot, which has been loaded by an employee, to place bricks one by one in an optimal sequence that eliminates the risk of error and the main risks of injury.

As soon as he stepped into his role as Managing Director at Rio Tinto’s Quebec Operations, Sébastien Ross was contacted by Refraco to present the project. “I’ve worked a lot with automation and robotics in my career, and we saw significant added value in this project,” he explained. “We became involved in 2018, and this is a flagship project that is close to our heart. OPEX General Manger Alexandre Perron and I offered them a lot of support. The key to success in robotics is to take small steps but keep moving forward. We support other technologies of this kind too, such as Mecfor’s self-driving vehicle project. These technologies give us a lot of velocity and improve the agility of our operations.”

Besides the partitions for the furnace refurbishment project at Alma Works, the Refraco team is working on other technologies for ensuring employee and process safety, and these too are bound to have a transformative impact on the industry.