The Steel Industry’s Tech Transformation

This is a guest post courtesy of Sean Donnelly, president and CEO of ArcelorMittal Dofasco, based in Hamilton, ON, and chairman of the Steel Market Development Institute’s (SMDI) CEO Group. He was the keynote speaker at Great Designs in Steel (GDIS) 2017.

SMDI invited the steel and automotive industries to Livonia, Michigan for GDIS 2017 to share knowledge, network with peers, tout the innovative work taking place in the industry, and to present the Automotive Excellence Award. Given the focus on materials in today’s automotive industry, collaboration is the key to advancing steel.

Humphrey points to Donnelly

I was proud to participate in a keynote conversation at this year’s event. Having worked at ArcelorMittal Dofasco for my entire 35-year career, I’ve experienced many changes in the automotive industry.

Vehicle design has been the most drastic improvement. From handling to power, styling to connectivity, automakers have implemented significant innovations. Today, strict automotive regulations are challenging automakers to squeeze every possible MPG out of vehicle engines while also improving vehicle safety. As vehicles becomes more fuel-efficient, it’s clear lightweighting is mandatory to stay competitive. The steel industry is working with automakers closer than ever before, but how can further improvements be made?

Automotive engineers are working with steel industry researchers earlier in the design process to ensure the use of varying steel grades is optimized for automakers’ needs. This process is featured prominently at GDIS and is an important part of our strategy in the steel industry. As we discussed during the event, when you put intelligent people with a common purpose together to collaborate, you will get successful results. The event is praised by automakers and steelmakers alike for facilitating inter-industry collaboration while balancing the proprietary information of all involved organizations. Communicating openly and working closely with each other at GDIS, and beyond, is enabling both industries to flourish.

Challenges Faced by the Steel Industry

We continue to search for new ways to make better products for automakers. However, there are two key categories I’d like to discuss.

First, we are constantly looking to reduce variability in the steels we produce in areas such as mechanical properties, surface quality and thickness. The steel industry has made incredible progress in this and improvements continue to be made. We are ensuring our products perform as they should every single time – from weld quality, to road performance, to recyclability at the end of its life.

Second, the need to increase the formability of steel products continues to be at a premium. The steel strength-ductility diagram below shows the multitude of steel grades currently available to automakers. Steel companies are working to increase how much their products can be shaped during production (indicated by elongation on the y-axis), while also increasing their strength (x-axis). As you can see in this chart, the variety of grades available to automakers (currently over 200) is constantly increasing and moving to high-strength and high elongation grades, far outpacing the innovation of other materials.

Steel Grade Innovation Today CUT

How will the industry achieve these goals? Through technology.

“Industry 4.0,” defined as the second stage of automation, is transforming the industry. Machines and robots are using people, sensors, algorithms and advanced software to gather data and communicate with each other to make decentralized decisions in real time. This technology helps humans solve problems using data never seen before – the new capabilities are boosting production efficiency and making product design more detailed.

New data capabilities give more insight into steel processing than ever before, allowing researchers around the world to make newer, consistent, stronger and more ductile steels faster than at any point in history. Additionally, processes enabled by these new technologies impact every facet of the steelmaking process.  For example, automated surface inspection applies technology to the quality control process, which has reduced non-conforming production four-fold. This directly helps the industry achieve its goal of reducing variability in its products. New technology is a key reason why the production of advanced high-strength steel has increased by 7000% during the past decade.

The Steel Industry of the Future

The future of the steel industry involves much more highly-trained, highly-skilled workers than in the past. One of ArcelorMittal’s 10 Sustainable Development Outcomes is to “ensure a pipeline of talented scientists and engineers.” We’re aiming to funnel young students into STEM programs, equipping them for the economy of the future and beyond. Coding, robotics and advanced manufacturing will all play key parts in ArcelorMittal’s future, with work under way to further develop these career paths. Other steel companies are also implementing similar processes to prepare the next era of steel.

The steel industry can never move too fast in its pursuit of improvement. Automakers and suppliers alike are cheering on the new developments introduced by the steel industry, and are applauding the adoption of new technologies and research collaboration on display at GDIS. The most valuable part of GDIS is in the exchange of ideas. The best and brightest in the automotive and steel industries are all gathered in one place to learn and collaborate with each other. No matter how steel affects your life, it’s an exciting time to be in one of the world’s most technologically advanced industries.

Donnelly talks to Humphrey

How else is technology changing the automotive industry? What sort of innovations do you think are on the horizon? Let us know in the comments below.

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