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Steel R&D from the inside out

Nov 29, 2017 | 06:00 AM | Nat Rudarakanchana

Three industry insiders – top researchers at AK Steel, ArcelorMittal and TimkenSteel – step out of the lab to size up the priorities and state of play in steel research today.

In steel research and development (R&D), a lot can change in a little time. You need look no further than today’s steel R&D labs, where personnel are routinely asked to rapidly adapt to customer and regulatory demands and respond to forces ranging from high-priority requests from original equipment manufacturers (OEM’s) to internal initiatives that drive basic technologies forward.

Even so, steel producers as diverse as AK Steel Corp., TimkenSteel Corp., and ArcelorMittal S.A. share common research priorities, concerns and approaches. These include the aggressive pursuit of R&D efforts that target advances in high-strength, lightweight, and value-added steels.

Tasked with steering those efforts are a small army of steel R&D’ers ranging from highly specialized metallurgists to research executives, who are equally at home in the lab or a corporate boardroom. That dual role – a hybrid of researcher and executive – is growing increasingly common.

Even more common both within R&D circles and in wider industry are the hyphenated words “high-strength” followed by the word “steel.” The phrase finds daily use in both the long and flat products arenas as well as across end-use applications ranging from cars to buildings.

High-strength steel winds up in automotive components, in equipment for oil extraction, or in buildings in the form of high-strength rebar.

In interviews with top research executives at AK Steel, TimkenSteel, and ArcelorMittal, AMM found that the engine fueling the high-strength drive is powered by a common objective: enhancing value to customers. 

In late October, Canton, Ohio-based TimkenSteel rolled out three new grades within the company’s so-called “endurance steel” family. These latest entries emphasize high-strength as a renewed priority for TimkenSteel, alongside clean steels.

The three endurance steel grades, for which patents are pending, are said to withstand both repetitive shock and high loads, while avoiding the traditional compromise or trade-off between shock absorption, or toughness, and load-carrying capability, or strength.

“We’re moving out of that (old) bandwidth right now,” Ray Fryan, TimkenSteel vice president of technology and quality, and the company’s top research executive told AMM in an October interview. Fryan credits the intellectual breakthrough – which overcomes a typical tradeoff associated with alloy steels in the past hundred years – to some “scary smart folks at the helm” of TimkenSteel’s research center, which opened in June 2015.

That R&D project was driven, in part, by a single factor: customer requests. “As customers see the need to increase loads, it becomes a combination of needing the clean steels and the high-strength, high-toughness alloy design, to get the total performance package,” Fryan says. “And at a cost that they are comfortable with,” he adds.

Tailoring technology to customer requests can sometimes be “chaotic,” Fryan acknowledges, partly because steel buyers and component manufacturers don’t always know what they want – or aren’t quite at a point where they can fully express their needs in words. “Translating an unarticulated customer need is sometimes a heavy intellectual lift,” Fryan quips. “But we find that challenge very invigorating.”

It’s hardly a secret that advancements in research are often driven by commercial considerations. In the case of TimkenSteel’s “endurance steel” family, customers used to resort to “very expensive” super-alloys and exotic materials – including double- and triple-melted materials – for certain specialty applications.

Fryan, for one, expects these new-breed grades to displace part of that business. TimkenSteel’s lower-cost structure is seen as positioning the trio to claim a chunk of the market formerly dominated by exotic steels.

“It’s talking to our customers and understanding their problems,” Fryan, a metallurgical engineer and materials scientist by training, answers when asked what drives TimkenSteel’s research efforts. We’re looking at the body of engineering evidence we have and saying: ‘What more can we do? What can we do differently that helps our customers design better, manufacture better, or perform better?” he says. “Those three things encompass the ‘true north’ of our R&D function.

“Frankly, those three questions encompass the true north of our company’s business model,” Fryan, who is one of TimkenSteel’s nine-member leadership team, goes on to note.

Developing what Fryan describes as fresh “threads of value” to benefit customers, is a goal shared by AK Steel, representatives for the Westchester, Ohio-based steelmaker said in a separate interview.

Indeed, AK Steel’s $36-million research center, which officially opened its’ doors in April of this year, has targeted improved customer interaction and optimization as key objectives. “This is what we’re all about in continuing to drive innovation,” AK Steel spokeswoman Lisa Jester told AMM. “We’re not going to wait for the marketplace to change. We’re going to be steps ahead of it, to make sure we’re meeting the customer’s needs.”

Achieving and maintaining a delicate balance between “pull”-driven research, tailored to customer requests, and research that “pushes” out a new product or nudges customers forward, is a daily challenge and focus for research executives, Eric Petersen, AK Steel’s vice president of research and innovation, says. Each product development project at AK Steel undergoes a review examining the potential for customer pull vs. marketplace push, he notes.

With “pull” projects, it’s easy to compile return on investment (ROI) metrics, lay out the size of the market and potential customers, Petersen says. “In other cases, we are in front of the customer’s specification. We’re pushing a product in the marketplace.”

In either case, AK Steel promotes products “that we know our customers are going to end up needing or using, at some point in time,” Petersen says, citing regulatory standards such as the Corporate Average Fuel Emission (CAFE) rules, which demand long-term innovation. “We don’t expect to rest once the CAFE standards end (settle) in 2021 or 2025,” says Petersen, who is one of 12 executive officers tasked with taking a long-term view of AK Steel’s business.

AK Steel looks to the long-term, often up to a decade out, to ensure that steel remains the material of choice among automakers. For “push” projects, a steadfast conviction that lightweighting and safety will remain automotive priorities anchors AK Steel’s  confidence that it can recoup solid returns on investment, even on more ambitious projects, Petersen says.

Today, AK Steel is doing its’ utmost to advance the company’s technology drive. The steelmaker has largely exited the spot market for low-grade commodity carbon steel, focusing instead on value-added products.
More recently, it sealed a headline-grabbing acquisition in August of this year, paying $360-million for Ontario-based Precision Partners Holding Co. in a deal largely viewed as a technology play. Precision Partners employs some 300 engineers and tool makers.

Petersen, who spoke at length on the rationale behind the purchase in a July conference call, described the move as “an extreme area of excitement” for AK Steel, echoing the upbeat comments shared by AK Steel’s top executives in a July conference call. The acquisition will intensify AK Steel’s collaboration with steel customers to an unprecedented level, he told AMM.

With the addition of Precision Partners, AK Steel can now deliver actual, manufactured prototypes to their customers, rather than abstract computer-aided designs, Petersen points out. And we can demonstrate plainly how steel, tool design, and stamping can be utilized to mete out weight savings, he adds. AK Steel is already working with Precision Partners on some 20 prototype projects, although the steelmaker acquired the company less than five months ago.

Now, AK Steel can “actually go to our customer and show the value these projects bring . . . showcasing the full complement, not only of the tooling design, but also the stamping capability, whether cold or hot stamping,” Petersen says enthusiastically. The end-result: a full design process that specifies a component, where steel use is optimized, through a combination of alloy, tool design, and final stamping measures. “So that’s a big one for us,” he emphasizes.

The state of play
AK Steel has boosted its spend and project pipeline significantly, even amid the market slumps marking recent years. From 2013 to 2016, the steelmaker expanded its’ number of research-related personnel by 70 percent, according to Petersen. R&D spend jumped by more than 100 percent, while the Ohio-based steelmaker tripled the number of projects in its’ R&D pipeline.

AK Steel’s R&D investment has climbed from $17.5 million in 2014 to $28.3 million in 2016, not including capital spent on the research center, which houses some 100-plus researchers, according to the company’s latest annual report. Comparatively, TimkenSteel’s research budget totaled $8 million in 2016.

Financial budgets only tell part of the story, however. TimkenSteel has arguably the deepest bench of SBQ-specific expertise of any single U.S. producer, Fryan notes. That’s due, in large part, to the fact that TimkenSteel is one of a few dedicated SBQ producers devoted almost exclusively to SBQ. Most other steelmakers, such as Nucor Corp., Gerdau SA, and Steel Dynamics Inc. (SDI), include SBQ as part of a diversified, product portfolio.

“When you subset to SBQ steels, we absolutely have the deepest bench, the strongest team, and some of the best development assets,” within steel SBQ research, Fryan insists. About a third of TimkenSteel’s salaried workforce are degreed engineers. Atypically, the company’s sales force is comprised largely of engineers, backed by metallurgists and support staff, an unusual demographic within commercial steel sales circles. Given TimkenSteel’s nimble 2-million tons of annual steel capacity, its portfolio of more than 500 alloy and carbon grades is impressive.

Both AK Steel and TimkenSteel have derived major benefits from their research centers, executives for each told AMM. AK Steel’s Petersen described their center as the “capstone” of AK Steel’s R&D strategy of recent years.

Among many pluses, TimkenSteel has benefited from melting mini (100-pound) batches of steel at their center. There, they can experiment with unique chemistries and detailed testing, before going to market Fryan notes.

That’s a common feature replicated in AK Steel’s center, which hosts 17 prototype labs and 17 analytical labs.

Steel yourself 
Whether blue-sky or building bridges to tomorrow’s markets, what may excite today’s researchers most is the future. Although little is known, much can be achieved.

Researchers are sometimes challenged to dream in detail about the manufacturing landscape fifty years from now. Such exercises and the thought-provoking ideas derived from them can prove crucial to a company’s fortunes.

The big ideas of the modern age – from electric cars and autonomous, self-driving vehicles to widespread regulation tackling climate change – are clearly on the mind of the world’s top-tier steel researchers.

One theme that has caught Fryan’s imagination and that of his counterparts across the U.S. automotive steel industry is what the automobile of 2040 will look like. “There are important mega-trends out there, and we’re wrestling with issues like that,” the TimkenSteel researcher says. “What will the cost requirements be, what will the mechanical requirements be, what will even the size of components in those systems be, in the future?” he ponders.

Obviously, there are no detailed drawings or list of specifications profiling the prototype of model year 2057 out there yet. But companies, including TimkenSteel, need to “anticipate where the world is going,” Fryan says “TimkenSteel needs to stay close to the customer, and yet (also) back away and look at a broader trend of where the world is going,” he adds. “Our customers are also wrestling with issues like that.”

Priorities can vary between electric arc furnace (EAF) shops, such as TimkenSteel, and large, integrated producers, such as Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal SA., who rely heavily on blast furnace-based steelmaking.

A key priority and ongoing drive for ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steelmaker and a major blast furnace operator, is reducing energy use and carbon intensity. “We recognize that steelmaking is an energy and carbon-intensive business and we are continuously looking for ways to reduce our energy use and greenhouse gas emissions and minimize our costs,” Pinakin Chaubal, general manager of global R&D, tells AMM via e-mail.

Blast furnaces are generally more carbon-intensive than EAFs, due to their use of raw materials like coking coal, among other factors. Proper use and reuse of materials at massive blast furnace works, where capacity far outruns typical EAF sites, can be key.

ArcelorMittal, for instance, is working on new ways to capture and reuse by-product fuels generated during steelmaking at the blast furnace and coke ovens, both to cut emissions and costs, as well as to reduce reliance on natural gas, Chaubal says. ArcelorMittal is even scouting for ideas outside the steel industry, lately searching for smart ways to control heating processes as the company improves its controls over combustion, he adds.

No survey of steel or manufacturing technology can be complete, of course, without reference to the much-discussed Internet of Things (IoT), or what ArcelorMittal dubs “Industry 4.0.” In that vision of the future, “intelligent steelmaking” takes place at automated plants, run by fewer but smarter personnel, as interconnected equipment and sensors generate, capture and communicate data, that is later mined for analytical purposes.

Already up to speed on the IoT front, ArcelorMittal counts 12 global research centers, Chaubal noted in a June 2017 official company blogpost. The Industry 4.0 mega-trend is “vitally important” to both differentiate the steel industry and steel companies, and to keep the industry sustainable, Chaubal told AMM.

Combining data analytics with the Internet of Things is “an exciting area” where ArcelorMittal expects “significant value” in product and efficiency improvements, he notes.

AK Steel is equally keen to probe the future, but is cautious when it comes to differentiating the known from the unknown. “We all have that fascination of trying to see the future,” Petersen comments when asked about the big automotive themes of coming decades. “Short-term until 2025, there’s a pretty high degree of confidence,” on what might happen in the automotive sector, he allows. “But once you hit 2030, it really becomes very nebulous...The entire question associated with digitalization and autonomous vehicles, and connectivity, and ride sharing, and the way in which cars are even owned represents all sorts of new market dynamics,” he says,

Nonetheless, safety will be a concern, and steel will be around to deliver it, he says assuredly.