In business year 2012/13, the voestalpine Group’s expenditures on research and development reached a new record level of EUR 125.6 million, surpassing the previous year (EUR 116.7 million) by 7.6%. The research ratio (proportion of R&D expenditures in relation to revenue) rose from 1.0% to 1.1% compared to the previous year.
For the current business year, the budget for research and development funds will further increase to EUR 137 million, thereby reaching a new R&D budget record.
This reflects the fundamental significance of this area to the strategic direction of the voestalpine Group, which envisions the long-term expansion of the Group’s leadership in technology and quality, specifically in the now dominating and confirmed long-range growth industries of mobility and energy. Beside these product-related innovations, another important focus of R&D activities is the continuing process optimization with respect to energy and raw materials efficiency as well as further emissions reduction. In this respect, voestalpine not only uses its intra-Group know-how, but also calls upon the collective expertise of a network of approximately 150 renowned scientific institutions throughout the world, and upon the Company’s intensive, long-term development partnerships with selected customers.
In addition to the research projects described in thorough detail in previous letters to shareholders of the business year 2012/13—including key areas such as electrical steel strip, the development of special sections, maintenance-free lattice towers for wind energy, and the Group’s leading role in the ALIVE project for lightweight automobile construction, a part of the EU Green Car Initiative—the following other innovation activities of the Steel Division should be highlighted as exemplary:
- Accelerated development of multiphase steels for the next generations of automotive car bodies: using the AHSS HD steels (Advanced High-Strength Steels High Ductility), automotive engineers achieve up to 60% better forming properties with the highest strength. The goal is to deploy these types of higher-strength steels in safety-related areas (such as doors and hatches) and in exterior skin components (such as side walls). Indeed, at one renowned automobile manufacturer, the approval process for the innovative material is already underway.
- Advanced development of the zinc-magnesium coating for automotive steel and first production deliveries of an auto body panel to a premium brand automaker.
- The addition and expansion of further expertise with phs-ultraform, the hot-dipped galvanized hot-stamping steel developed by voestalpine Research & Development as a world innovation. This steel enables automakers to manufacture safety-related components in the auto body that achieve a substantial weight reduction without compromising strength. phs-ultraform components represent a pioneering solution in the automotive industry for safety-specific yet corrosion-prone auto parts. To a great extent they are already in use by premium brand carmakers: for longitudinal chassis beams, A and B columns, side walls and front walls, rocker panels, and for doors and hatches as well. This technology helps substantially reduce fuel consumption and at the same time, significantly boosts passenger safety. Through corresponding local investments, they will also become available soon to customers in the USA, South Africa, and China.
The focus of rail technology lies on the development and optimization of new materials for local transit, mixed traffic, and heavy haul sectors, and on research into the damage phenomena that affects wheel-to-rail contact. At the same time, track tests with the new fatigue-resistant bainitic rail steel have thus far run very well. A new, wear-resistant grooved rail steel grade, optimized in terms of welding technology, was specially developed for the tram segment and will come into market in the near future.
In turnout technology, the division engineered a new type of heavy haul turnout (that also takes into account innovative special rail sections), which was successfully installed in Australia. This new generation of turnouts can even tolerate a load per axle in excess of 40 tons (European standard: 22.5 tons). This new kind of turnout design goes hand-in-hand with the development of an innovative integrated turnout point setting system solution, on a hytronics basis, that is specially geared to the requirements of the heavy haul sector and that further enhances operational efficiency.
For welding consumables—primarily in accordance with a customer requirement from the petrochemicals industry—the division developed a special bismuth-free, high-grade alloy manufacturing process for cored wire. The process stands out for markedly improved product features in the processing stage (such as heat treatment).
In the high-quality stainless steel segment, the accelerated materials development primarily made it possible to raise the degree of efficiency in energy generation—for example, through the production and use of larger and yet lighter-weight low-pressure steam turbine blades. In addition, the Special Steel Division recently engineered new materials that take two essential and yet frequently conflicting material properties—namely good workability under tempered conditions and optimized abrasive wear resistance—and combines them in the best possible manner. As a result, tool manufacturers can use these materials to produce geometrically sophisticated tool holders without any diminution in the material properties—and in a considerably more feasible way then before.
Last but not least, another development in this segment being jointly pursued with industrial partners warrants special note: a corrosion-proof stainless steel for use in offshore, deep-hole drilling under extreme corrosion, pressure, and temperature conditions.
To a great extent, this kind of research success involves an intensive exchange of knowledge both within the Group and with external partners. Therefore, the sixth annual “Synergy Platform” was held in October 2012; what had initially started as a “researcher conference” has since evolved into a professional conference for a broad spectrum of Group employees. Under the slogan “From Idea to Innovation,” the event featured lectures by external experts and a profile of developments and examples of best practices from the innovation management of the voestalpine Group.
The voestalpine Group makes a substantial contribution to K1-MET, the Austrian competence center for metallurgical and environmental technology processes, and supports the technology network, founded in 2008, with a project volume of EUR 7.5 million. Within this framework, Scientific Exchange Day, a symposium at the Graz University of Technology, took place in March 2012. The latest research data—such as those on energy and raw materials efficiency in metallurgy and industrial recycling processes—took center stage. The insights gained at the competence center are continuously applied to practical innovations, such as the optimizing of MEROS technology for the offgas treatment of the sintering plants at the Linz site, or the pilot system for the recycling of zinc-rich dust particles installed at the Leoben University of Mining and Metallurgy.