voestalpine’s corporate strategy focuses on leadership in innovation, technology, and quality. In the Group’s view, the continual development of new products and production processes is indispensable to its ability to distinguish itself from the competition and to defend its technology leadership. Research and Development (R&D) thus are a key to voestalpine’s business model, because R&D-driven innovation ensures the company’s success in the long term. Our vision that absolutely all R&D projects concerning products and processes must make a positive contribution to sustainability is critical to our readiness for the future.
Research expenditures of the voestalpine Group
After declining in the crisis year 2020/21, both R&D expenditures in the business year 2021/22 and the R&D budget for the business year 2022/23 shot up to new highs. This continues previous years’ overall trend and reflects the importance that the Group attaches to research and development.
Organization of research and development in the voestalpine Group
The Research and Development unit is decentralized and spread out over more than 75 voestalpine Group companies worldwide. Proximity to the respective operations and markets thus enables the unit to focus first and foremost on the development of products and technology. In addition, voestalpine carries out comprehensive implementation projects as well as intensive basic research in collaboration with many national and international partners.
Global megatrends related to technology and the environment provide the basis for the divisions’ long-term R&D projects that help to define the Group’s strategy. Regularly updated R&D roadmaps contain detailed descriptions of the medium-term planning.
Step-by-Step plan to achieve Climate-Neutral Steel production
Carbon neutrality in 2050: This is the European Green Deal’s envisioned climate target. Regulatory pressure on the European steel industry, which currently accounts for more than 6% of EU-wide carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuels, thus is correspondingly high. Markets, too, especially the automotive industry, have become increasingly vocal in recent years as to the need for steel products that are produced with the smallest possible carbon footprint.
voestalpine’s greentec steel program serves to pursue an ambitious step-by-step plan for the decarbonization of steelmaking in the long term. In a first step, the Group now also offers all flat steel products that are manufactured by its Linz-based Steel Division in a CO2-reduced version. Compared with the conventional production route, this approach achieves a direct reduction in CO2 emissions by some 10% thanks to adjustments in both the reducing agents and the raw materials mix as well as the complete shift to green electricity. This does not in any way affect the excellent quality that our customers expect from us in terms of both materials and processing. Over and above the orders we have already received, demand for sophisticated steel products in the greentec steel edition—such as hot-rolled steel strip, isovac® electrical steel strip, or phs-ultraform®—will remain high.
The next step in voestalpine’s step-by-step plan provides for cutting CO2 emissions by one third up until 2030. This will require replacing the existing blast furnace route in part with a hybrid electric furnace route. Scrap, liquid pig iron, and hot briquetted iron (HBI) are the three most important pre-materials for the electric furnace route, which will be used for carbon-neutral production of high quality steel.
This approach goes hand in hand with a focus in R&D on materials science, which ensures that we can continue producing the required, high-quality steel grades in the future even when the raw materials mix has changed.
The long steel solutions of the Metal Engineering Division are oriented toward sustainability as well. To this end, voestalpine Stahl Donawitz GmbH is conducting intensive research as part of a so-called “Green Frontrunner4longsteel” project on simulation methods and processes that prepare the ground for the green transformation and support it. The digital transformation is pivotal in this connection. For example, in the future smart scrap sorting methods will enable the upcycling of low-quality scrap, and dynamic alloying methods will ensure high product quality despite potential changes in the raw materials mix.
At the same time, the voestalpine Group is carrying out intensive research on breakthrough technologies with the aim of gradually increasing the use of green hydrogen in steelmaking. The goal is to achieve climate-neutral steel production overall by 2050.
All planned tests on the hydrogen electrolyzer facility have been successfully completed. The generation of hydrogen in an electrolyzer facility using electricity is a typical example of so-called “sector coupling.” This electrolyzer facility is being operated at the Group’s Linz plant as a standby for the purpose of stabilizing the power grid.
Various follow-up projects related to the management of hydrogen and CO2 have already been launched. Among other things, they examine the separation and subsequent storage (i.e., carbon capture and storage (CCS)) or use (i.e., carbon capture and utilization (CCU)) of CO2 as well as the use of hydrogen as a reducing agent in metallurgical processes. A pilot plant was commissioned at the Group’s Donawitz, Austria, facility as part of the Sustainable Steelmaking (SuSteel) project—a groundbreaking initiative serving to research the direct production of steel using hydrogen plasma. Batch operations have been launched at Primetals’ hydrogen-based fine ore reduction (Hyfor) pilot plant in Donawitz, where iron ore fines are reduced to hot briquetted iron using hydrogen.
Optimizing production processes
To maintain operational excellence, voestalpine continually analyzes and further refines production and processing cycles along the value chains in order to intensify production efficiency and resource conservation. The digital transformation is key to success in this respect.
For example, related development work includes model-based rules for relevant process steps that enable significant quality improvements in strip steel while reducing the resources required to produce it.
Processes are also optimized via measurement systems equipped with machine learning algorithms so that measurements can be taken directly at the production line and analyzed. Systems of this nature have already been implemented, for instance, to determine the grain sizes of input materials in the blast furnaces at the Group’s Linz and Donawitz plants as well as at its direct reduction plant in Corpus Christi, Texas, USA. Strip steel quality assurance or the production of wire are based on self-learning systems too.
The metallurgical process and forming technologies used for high-alloy special steel are continually optimized in order to satisfy the demand for premium quality while ensuring efficient production.
Europe’s most advanced 3D sand printing facility for steel castings was commissioned at the voestalpine Foundry in Traisen, Austria. It serves primarily the energy sector as well as the automotive and railway industries. The sand molds are manufactured directly from CAD data using 3D printers and have replaced the previously used wooden patterns. In particular, this makes it possible to produce molds for complex castings more quickly and seamlessly which, in turn, also results in much shorter final processing or even eliminates it entirely. The elimination of the wooden pattern, for one, and the integrated sand recycling and reduced logistics expenditure, for another, make 3D sand printing much more sustainable and environmentally friendly than its predecessor process.
Research in Metal Additive Manufacturing focuses chiefly on powder development and processing in addition to services such as engineering as well as tool and component production.
The efficient use and management of rail resources in the future will require fully networked railway systems. As part of the Rail4Future project, voestalpine Railway Systems GmbH is working to accomplish this highly complex research task in close collaboration with Austrian Railways (ÖBB) and other partners. In the future, simulations and digital twins will serve to substantially shorten the innovation cycles of new products and digital solutions.
At voestalpine BÖHLER Aerospace GmbH, work on developing large forgings for the aerospace industry is now fully based on simulations and will achieve significant efficiency gains going forward.
The voestalpine Böhler Welding Group conducts research on environmentally friendly solutions in welding technology. ECOspark® served to develop copper-free solid wire used in joint welding. Over and above its excellent efficiency in both manual and automated welding processes, solid wire also conserves resources.
The Metal Forming Division is working to further refine processing technologies such as roll forming, press hardening, and welding, and uses simulation methods to optimize them. The aim is to create fully networked processes. To this end, work is being done to develop closed loop systems in which neural algorithms design self-optimizing production lines. Roll forming processes are used to manufacture complex and dimensionally accurate components for vehicle cabins, aircraft components, or high-bay warehouses.
voestalpine’s innovation strategy does not serve to increase quantities; instead, it focuses on achieving value-added growth and, increasingly, sustainability. The company works to develop innovative product solutions for customers and, simultaneously, to ensure sustainable qualities of both product and process development. Visibility and transparency ensure that defined sustainability criteria are applied to all R&D projects.
The Steel Division’s New Business Incubator was established for the purpose of subjecting ideas to exacting tests beyond the confines of the division’s day-to-day business. Conceived as a workshop, this program provides a framework for exploring ideas in terms of their feasibility and market potential as well as for developing suitable business models for them. Tailormade functional steel (tfs), which comprises coated steel with integrated sensor technology for a range of functionalities, is one of the products that has come out of the incubator. This product was introduced at Blechexpo21 in Stuttgart, Germany, an international trade fair for sheet metal working.
The Steel Division’s highest tensile steels are some of the products that offer customers sustainability gains. They reduce the weight of autobody parts, thus helping to lower vehicles’ fuel consumption and emissions.
To turn these highest tensile steels into products, the High Performance Metals Division continually refines tool steel that is manufactured using powder metallurgy. Coatings highly resistant to wear and tear ensure that the tools have long useful lives. The division also develops both new coatings and suitable facilities for them.
Work to integrate sensors in components and tools is becoming ever more important because it makes it possible to directly observe and monitor their condition as well as to prevent losses through early and targeted maintenance. Intelligent sensors also ensure continuous monitoring of the smart turnout systems that are manufactured by voestalpine Railway Systems. This development serves to identify looming failures in due time and thus to enhance track safety and availability.
The Tubulars business unit conducts intensive research on solutions for storing and transporting hydrogen. The unit’s in-depth competence with respect to materials and threads provides an excellent basis for developing high-grade products for a sustainable future.