Keeping up with the latest trends over the past few business years, the voestalpine Group continues to remain the most research-intensive corporation in Austria, with a research and development outlay for the business year 2013/14 equaling EUR 130.0 million. This figure represents a rise in R&D expenditures of EUR 4.4 million, or 3.5%, in comparison to the previous business year (EUR 125.6 million); this new record figure once again underscores the significance of this division to the Group as a whole. In a year-over-year comparison, the research ratio (proportion of R&D expenditures in relation to revenue) increased from 1.1% to 1.2%; the R&D coefficient (funds measured in terms of value creation) moved up from 2.87% to 2.90%.
The primary focus of research activity, on the one hand, was placed on those industries with the greatest potential for growth—namely, mobility and energy. On the other hand, the Group also focused on sustainability and environmental compatibility. In the area of process developments, energy efficiency took center stage, together with resource efficiency, CO2 reduction, zero waste, and steady improvements to quality. All production processes were closely examined with regard to their potential for resource recovery of recyclable materials and energy. In collaboration with various university institutes, the Group is pursuing methods to develop and optimize recycling processes for metalliferous by-products (specifically zinc, lead, and copper). Additional projects are aimed at heat recovery from slag.
Research efforts on resource efficiency concentrate foremost on elevating the flexibility of input materials, such as those obtained from innovative mixtures of ores, and on the accelerating the substitution of coal with natural gas by using HBI/DRI technology; however, these efforts also focus intensely on the optimization of the entire process chain—in other words, improved compatibility and coordination of individual process steps based both on simulations of metallurgical process and forming technologies and on the development of model-based systems management.
Product development for the mobility and energy sectors is concentrated on the following areas: ultra-high strength steels—specifically HD (high ductility) steel; new qualities of electric steel strip for use in electric motors; tools and tool materials for high and ultra-high strength steels; forged aviation components from nickel-based alloys; head check and wear resistance-optimized rail steel; life-cycle optimized turnouts; high tensile cold extrusion wire materials; new kinds of sophisticated sections and tubes based on high-strength coated steels; welding consumables for ultra-high strength and highly heat-resistant applications; and parts and part components for the renewable energies sector.
In the field of aviation, Group companies in the Special Steel Division, working in collaboration with a jet engine manufacturer under the CleanSky Project, were able to apply the findings from computer-based forging and heat treatment simulations to the specific design and optimization of engine disks made from a nickel-based alloy. In doing so, they model the distribution of mechanical processes in the forged component—yield strength, for instance—in advance, and then make them available to the customer. Collectively, the forged component’s geometry and process management can be optimized in such a manner that ultimately—and in keeping with the principles of lightweight construction—a turbine disk with custom-tailored distribution of mechanical properties can be forged and delivered.
Following intensive research efforts in the materials development of high-tensile sour gas-resistant steels for oil field pipes, the Metal Engineering Division succeeded in completing its initial orders. With regard to thread development, the Connection Testing Center commenced operations in October 2013, so that the division can test gas-tight pipe thread connections under combined loads up to the most rigorous design and performance specifications. A highly innovative type of rail steel for the tram segment that exhibits superior welding and wear properties was engineered in record time and already placed in the market, while DOBAIN®, the tear-resistant bainitic brand of rail steel, is currently being tested on various test tracks throughout Europe, at customer request. The newly developed strip-powder combination for electroslag welding (Alloy 625) now makes it possible to execute contract welding jobs applying only one coat to protect system components from chemical and thermal stresses. Previously, at least two coats were necessary (Welding Consumables business segment).
As previously mentioned, voestalpine is also continuing to pursue the targeted expansion of its successful, long-term collaboration with a number of university institutes, research institutions, and competence centers.
For example, in the COMET research program, the Group is involved with ten different competence centers and projects on various priority issues. The main projects center on the fields of metallurgy (K1-MET for metallurgical and environmental process engineering), materials engineering (MPPE), and mechatronics (ACCM – Austrian Center of Competence in Mechatronics). In addition, there are several other important collaborative efforts in steel processing (AC2T – Austrian Competence Center in Tribology; Join4+; K2Mobility; FFT – Future Farm Technology), materials testing (ZPT – non-destructive test engineering), surface treatment (CEST – Center of Competence in Electrochemical Surface Technology), and in pioneering IT solutions (SCCH – Software Competence Center Hagenberg). These centers of competence serve as interfaces between science and business and industry; they direct their research efforts at the latest issues confronting industry today.
The core area of expertise and research focus of the Leoben University of Mining and Metallurgy-based K2 center, MPPE (Material, Process, and Product Engineering), is the integration and optimization of materials selection, manufacturing processes, and component geometry, with the aim of achieving the highest degree of functionality, process safety, and lightweight quality, while keeping costs as low as possible. The voestalpine Group is collaborating with MPPE on numerous R&D projects. After this center of competence received its positive international evaluation, joint cooperation agreements took effect for Phase Two of the K2-Center.
CEST GmbH, Austria’s center of competence for electrochemical surface technology, celebrated its 5th anniversary in June 2013. As co-owner of CEST, voestalpine Stahl GmbH has also been solidly anchored in the joint research program for years. Working together with experts from the Vienna University of Technology, the Graz University of Technology, the Johannes Kepler University Linz, and the Leoben University of Mining and Metallurgy, answers to burning questions about surface engineering—such as substitutes for chromium VI—were reached over the past few years through over 20 projects.
Under “Horizon 2020,” the new EU Framework Program for Innovation and Research, voestalpine is participating in the public-private partnership “SPIRE” (Sustainable Process Industry through Resource and Energy Efficiency), an initiative of energy-intensive industries—including the steel industry—with the aim of creating new, cross-sector energy- and resource-efficient solutions.