Shaping the future of steel

Posted on 21.11.12 by

ArcelorMittal

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ArcelorMittal ‘s vision is to become a successful and sustainable company for generations to come, to provide a nurturing environment for its employees, an above-average return to its stakeholders and to be recognised as a reliable, responsible member of the community. R&D has a key role to play in achieving this.

ArcelorMittal ‘s vision is to become a successful and sustainable company for generations to come, to provide a nurturing environment for its employees, an above-average return to its stakeholders and to be recognised as a reliable, responsible member of the community. R&D has a key role to play in achieving this.

I believe R&D is one of the cornerstones of the sustainability and success of ArcelorMittal. We’re focused on improving both the top line of the company, which is the revenues side of our business, and the bottom line, which is largely cost. So our activities are intimately connected to both of these objectives.

Challenges

The requirements for quality, functionality and differentiation are steadily growing. The competition is growing as well because of a significant number of Asian competitors entering the marketplace. So the challenge for us is to maintain our market share through R&D and product development, and hopefully increase it.

Another major challenge is the fact that the raw material base is deteriorating in terms of its quality. So a significant amount of work is dedicated to being able to produce the same or better quality of steel using raw materials inferior to those that were previously available.

We have also made a significant commitment to reducing the amount of energy we produce per tonne of steel. So we have programmes in all these fields.

Making new products

A key executive of one of the largest global automotive companies said recently in one of our meetings that they no longer viewed ArcelorMittal as a steel supplier, but as an engineering solutions supplier to their industry. Part of our efforts continue to be in support of deployment, but another part is saying ‘OK, what else can we put in the marketplace that will further increase the gap between ourselves and the competition?’
S-in motion, our flagship programme for the automotive market, allowed a 20% reduction in the structural component of the vehicles and a 14% reduction in the ‘body in white’ weight (a vehicle’s welded steel weight before other parts are added). Our new programmes in product development alone will allow a further 7% reduction.

Some of the solutions offered in S-in motion are already as good as or better than anything that can be offered by aluminium. We are now getting into the trial phase of unique new materials, bringing in concepts that have never been tried before. More and more of these products fall in the nano products category. So this is one of the major directions we will be moving in.

Another component of critical importance to automotive manufacturers is time. If they can take time out of their product development cycle, that is worth billions of dollars. Reducing the cycle time is one of the major breakthroughs that our organisation will be focusing on.

Composite materials

We need to watch the composite materials in the market – and to understand them. But long-term performance, ageing and crash performance remain important and to some extent unresolved issues for these materials. So I do consider them part of our competition base and we will not lose track of them, but I think our first line of attack will be to make sure we don’t see a proliferation of aluminium.

Hybrid and electric cars

The weight reduction goals in vehicles of this nature are less than in traditional combustion-engine vehicles. This is because of energy recovery in braking, and also because electric vehicles change CO2 generation so dramatically that reduction targets will be met through engine technology, rather than weight. This does not mean that we will not be challenged in these areas. As a World Steel Association member we will be working on offering parallel solutions predominantly to electric vehicles, because the architecture of hybrid vehicles remains largely the same. So we are making sure that we have a full complement of material and design solutions to meet all the requirements of the evolution that vehicles are going through, both combustion-engine and electric vehicles.

Today’s challenges

If you look at the major driving forces affecting the direction of our research and our products, I would say that environmental issues are dominating the field. I would never disregard the cost issue, but certainly for automotive companies, compliance is paramount. Our Life Cycle Analysis tools for steel products make it possible for us to analyse and understand places in the life cycle where environmental impacts are most critical, enabling project teams to develop effective solutions or alternatives that help minimise negative effects. The World Steel Association awarded us the first prize for our innovative work in life-cycle analysis.

Internal customers

R&D is playing a big role in reducing manufacturing costs, such as energy, raw materials, and so on. For example, we have developed energy optimisation models that have already been deployed in three of our facilities, and now we have a plan to deploy them globally. In terms of energy reduction, we are working on technologies that will use significantly less energy to produce steel. We are supporting our business units in using energy-efficient technology; exploring the use of low-cost raw materials, such as iron ore that has some impurities but is cheaper; looking for a way to use a high proportion of non-coking coals to produce coke; and a series of other activities with a significant impact on cost.

Employee pride

I strongly believe in the importance of pride. I think every person working for our company wants to be proud of being part of this organisation. I would like people to be proud of being a part of R&D, and what makes people proud is accomplishments. We ensure success with a multi-disciplinary approach to research, giving equal emphasis to metallurgical, chemical, mechanical, thermal and construction engineering. We believe that true breakthroughs take place on the interface of different components of science.

Greg Ludkovsky is head of ArcelorMittal’s global research and development team.

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