Research and development

      The sustainability strategy of the voestalpine Group focuses on the reduction of CO2 emissions, the conservation of resources, and the circular economy model—aiming, in particular, to bring about climate-neutral steel production by 2050. Steps taken at all levels serve to achieve the Group’s goals regarding the efficient use of resources and a circular economy. This includes analyzing products and investments over their life cycle, the digital transformation, sustainable products as well as expanded material and energy cycles. Intensive research and development (R&D) work is the prerequisite for these aims and constitutes the core of voestalpine’s corporate strategy, which is centered on its innovation, technology, and quality leadership. Continual increases in R&D expenditure to EUR 191.2 million in the business year 2022/23 and yet another record-setting research & development budget of EUR 219.1 million for the business year 2023/24 reflect R&D’s pivotal role.

      Research expenditure for the voestalpine Group

      In millions of euros, R&D gross expenditure (without R&D facility investments)

      Research expenditure for the voestalpine Group (bar chart)

      Climate-neutral steel production: On the way

      A key goal of voestalpine’s decarbonization strategy is to avoid generating carbon dioxide from technical processes. The voestalpine Group thus conducts intensive research on new processes and procedures for achieving sustainable steel production. A new process route for the climate-friendly production of pig iron based on the so-called “Hyfor” technology is being evaluated in cooperation with Primetals Technologies. Hyfor comprises a hydrogen-based process for the direct reduction of fine ores that does not require any agglomeration steps such as sintering or pelleting. Numerous test runs have been successfully carried out in batch operations at the Group’s pilot plant in Donawitz, Austria, since the process was launched at the end of calendar year 2021. The next step involves preparing the implementation of a pilot plant enabling continuous operations at the Group’s Linz, Austria, facility, which will include the existing hydrogen electrolyzer facility.

      As long as carbon is indispensable to the production of high-grade steel, research will also be working to develop solutions that prevent CO2 emissions or utilize the carbon dioxide.

      To achieve this goal, voestalpine Stahl GmbH is participating in the “Carbon Cycle Economy Demonstration” project of RAG Austria AG, which is being carried out in cooperation with energy producers and research institutes. Setting up an innovative carbon cycle is at the heart of this project, as follows: Carbon dioxide from waste gas generated in steelmaking is pumped into natural underground storage facilities together with green hydrogen generated by the Linz electrolyzer facility. The subsequent methanizing takes place in this storage facility. This sustainably produced methane gas can then be extracted as needed and returned to the processes. In so doing, the Carbon Cycle Economy Demonstration contributes to further reductions of environmentally hazardous emissions.

      Digital transformation: For optimized processes

      Algorithms, robots, model-based rules, and state-of-the-art sensor technology combined with artificial intelligence (AI) are already being used or implemented in the Group’s production plants worldwide. Consistent digital transformation enables the selective recording and analysis of all relevant data. Ultimately, this results in fully integrated process routes that can be managed much more efficiently. Downtimes are reduced, operating personnel is supported, and product quality is stable at a high level or even improves yet further on a case-by-case basis.

      Circular economy: The basis of sustainable production

      voestalpine has launched a Group-wide project pertaining to sustainable processes that serves to identify and harness existing potential. Roughly one half of the project volume is geared to a circular economy model. Numerous subprojects concern topics such as processing of the dust, sludge, and slag generated during steel production. The aim is to reclaim all recyclable material using all available technological means and to bring about the meaningful reuse of residual products; these processes also include other industries.

      Sustainability: Innovative products

      A broad range of products helps to achieve the Group’s sustainability targets as well as those of its customers. Group-wide research & development provides the basis for voestalpine products that can be recycled in ever more environmentally friendly, effective, long-lasting, safer, and unproblematic ways.

      The trend toward lightweight construction in automotive production continues unabated. Ultra-high tensile steels needed for autobody components and wire applications are being continually refined to this end. Customers have successfully licensed our high-tensile, hot-rolled steels of the brand “hot-rolled drive” brand, which were developed for the automotive industry’s individual component requirements. These steel grades are advantageous in that they make it possible to carry out even complex component geometries and forming processes in the subsequent cold forming process. Cam units are integral to state-of-the-art automotive production. They make it possible to efficiently transform forces during the production of complex components. A successful research & development project has increased their useful life yet further and has simplified any maintenance that may be required.

      Electrical steel strip of the isovac® brand has been refined in response to customer requirements; as a result, it now possesses improved electromagnetic properties and is thinner.

      Headcheck-free rails (i.e., maintenance-free rails) have turned out to be very successful. Following the completion of the material development stage, they have been incorporated into several test routes for observation purposes.

      Enormous demands ranging from low weight to high temperature resistance are placed on modern commercial aircraft engines. Highest quality standards in both the materials and the forming process are essential. The use of simulation and modeling technologies in development work enables highly stable forging processes and accurate predictions of both the microstructure and the mechanical properties of the materials. Concurrently with the ongoing refinement of the forging process, voestalpine is also engaged in intensive research aimed at producing particular parts and components for the aerospace industry using metal additive manufacturing.

      Tried and tested materials are adapted to the given requirements in connection with the generation of energy from renewable sources and developed into innovative components. This includes support structures for photovoltaic (PV) modules; high-tensile heavy plate for main tower sections; pre-materials for heavily used roller bearings and engines; as well as connecting elements for wind turbines both on land and at sea. As the welding systems must be adapted to these applications, new wire/powder combinations were developed and brought to market.

      The tool steels of the High Performance Metals Division are continually refined so as to improve their wear resistance, temperature resistance, tensile strength, and corrosion resistance.

      All divisions of the voestalpine Group conduct research on “digital products,” i.e., elements equipped with sensor technology that process information on their own condition and that of their environment and subsequently interact with each other. The “intelligent turnout” currently being used in test routes is emblematic of this work. Distributed sensors deliver data on the turnout’s condition and functionality, and the AI then computes forecasts on this basis. The aim is to identify irregularities, imminent turnout failures, or required maintenance in due time and thus to minimize route closures.

      Tailormade functional steel (tfs) is hot-dip galvanized, organically coated steel that is equipped with conductive paths embedded in the varnish. This is how steel is turned into an “intelligent input.” Additional functionalities can be integrated directly into the steel’s surface, thus enabling new application options. Initial prototypes and small series of tfs possessing heat and load identification functionalities have already been successfully implemented in cooperation with customers, proving their utility.

      The findings of several R&D projects were combined and then used to set up a so-called multi-cell that enables fully automated production of eight different components. These include intelligent object identification and bin picking as well as intelligent component identification and the fully automated welding process.