The virtual factory: £7 million to make steel tests 100 times faster

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Credit: Nathan Cooze/Swansea University

Developing and testing new steel alloys will be up to 100 times faster, allowing new products to reach the market more quickly, thanks to £7 million of funding announced today for a new "virtual factory" being developed by Swansea University, in partnership with Tata Steel and WMG, at the University of Warwick.

Steel is the most widely used structural material in the world. It is at the heart of major manufacturing sectors such as the car industry, construction, packaging and defence. It is indispensable for national infrastructure such as transport, communications and energy, and for high-tech 21st century industries, from energy-positive buildings to wind turbines and electric vehicles.

In the modern steel industry innovation is crucial to keep pace with changing technologies and customer requirements.

The problem, however, is that developing new steel alloys can currently be a very slow process, with lots of different stages. It requires expensive trials on hundreds of tonnes of material, much of which has to be remade into new steel products.

Swansea University, Tata Steel and WMG, at the University of Warwick, which have a long history of collaboration on steel research, have won funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), through the Prosperity Partnership initiative, to tackle this problem

Their solution is to combine physical testing and computational modelling to rapidly assess hundreds of small-scale samples, covering areas such as strength, electrical and mechanical properties, as well as durability and resistance to corrosion.

Test data can be fed into computational models, further refining their accuracy allowing for better and better predictions on the final material properties. Alloys which show promise can then be investigated at a larger scale and in more detail.

The process is called Rapid Alloy Prototyping. Effectively, it means that much of the testing can be carried out in research labs and imaging suites – a virtual factory – rather than in an actual steel plant.

The difference this new approach will make is enormous:

  • 100 samples can be tested in the time it currently takes to test one
  • Samples can be tiny – only a few grams – whereas current testing can require up to 900 tonnes of material, up to 98% of which has to be remade into new steel products at a cost to the business
  • In overall terms, it means newer and better steel products can be made ready for customers far more quickly

New steels are needed for more fuel efficient cars, plastic free packaging, energy positive buildings and many other applications. This will allow users of steel to drive innovation with market need.

This new approach is only possible because of the involvement of all three organisations in the project, and support from the EPSRC through their Prosperity Partnership initiative. Working together they can offer the combination of expertise, equipment and knowledge of the market which can make the project a success.

Professor Steve Brown of Swansea University College of Engineering said:

"Innovation is at the heart of the 21st century steel industry. This project is a huge boost for innovation as it massively speeds up the development of new alloys. It means steel producers can deliver new and better products to their customers far more quickly.

We have world-class facilities and research expertise here at Swansea, and strong links with Tata Steel and WMG at the University of Warwick. So I am confident this partnership will help ensure our steel industry remains at the cutting edge of innovation."

Martin Brunnock, Tata Steel's UK Technical Director, said:

"This innovative project will help us to accelerate the process of developing exciting new steels for our customers which give them a competitive edge.

"Steel is playing an essential role in helping to solve major societal challenges such as the transition to sustainable energy and mobility, and it's vital we can keep pace through the faster development of innovative steel products."

Professor Claire Davis, of WMG at Warwick University, said:

"This project provides an exciting opportunity to accelerate the translation of innovative steel chemistry and process improvements into the steel industry. We'll be able to explore the opportunities for increasing steel scrap levels in new steel production, contributing to the circular economy in the UK.

It is an exciting time for researchers in steel as the rapid alloy processing facilities will allow us to trial new chemistries and process routes quickly to make recommendations for industrial take up."

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Pictures:

Steel seen at the nano scale: new steels are being developed which are strengthened by tiny nano-level structures that are the same length as a human fingernail grows in 1 second.

These are being used to make a new generation of lighter and more efficient cars.

(Credit: Advanced Imaging of Materials/Swansea University)

Zinc Magnesium Aluminium alloy, magnified 70 times. ZMA coatings are used in the automotive and construction industries to protect steel structures from corrosion. (Credit: Nathan Cooze/Swansea University)

21st century steel in use: the Active Office and Classroom at Swansea University are energy-positive buildings that generate, store and release their own power, clad in a Tata Steel product that draws in air for heating (Credit: SPECIFIC/Swansea University)

Chemical analysis of steel surface – Dr James McGettrick of the SPECIFIC project, led by Swansea University, with an X-ray Photoelectron Spectrometer. This analyses the chemical composition of the top 10 nanometres of steel, to test the extra nanolayers added to improve adhesion or resistance to corrosion, important for steel used in buildings or tin cans for instance. (Credit: Swansea University)

Notes to editors:

The £7 million of funding for the project comes from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Tata Steel, Swansea University and Warwick University.

Swansea University and steel:

Swansea University was founded to meet the needs of the metal industries. Today, its work on steel is more important than ever. Swansea is in the UK's steel heartland. The University's Bay campus is within sight of the Port Talbot steelworks. This is the foundation for a strong and enduring partnership.

Researchers in the University and the steel industry work hand in hand on tomorrow's technologies, including:

  • New steel-based products which turn buildings into power stations that store and release their own energy
  • Using nano-level technology to develop lighter steel for more energy-efficient cars
  • Improving the way blast furnaces are loaded and stirred, saving the industry millions

The University also offers brand-new research and testing facilities, including the Steels and Metals Research Institute. Our work with steel is also about people. We prepare people to work in the high-tech world of the 21st century steel industry. We offer programmes to PhD level. We also offer training in areas from metallurgy and corrosion to managing the environmental impact of steelmaking.

When reporting this story, please use Swansea University hyperlinks.

Tata Steel is one of Europe's leading steel producers, with steelmaking in the Netherlands and the UK, and manufacturing plants across Europe. The company supplies high-quality steel products to the most demanding markets, including construction and infrastructure, automotive, packaging and engineering.

Tata Steel works with customers to develop new steel products which give them a competitive edge. The combined Tata Steel group is one of the top global steel companies, with an annual crude steel capacity of 27.5 million tonnes and more than 65,000 employees across five continents. The group's turnover in the year ending March 2018 was US $20.4 billion.

Swansea University is a world-class, research-led, dual campus university offering a first class student experience and has one of the best employability rates of graduates in the UK. The University has the highest possible rating for teaching – the Gold rating in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in 2018 and was commended for its high proportions of students achieving consistently outstanding outcomes.

Swansea climbed 14 places to 31st in the Guardian University Guide 2019, making us Wales' top ranked university, with one of the best success rates of graduates gaining employment in the UK and the same overall satisfaction level as the Number 1 ranked university.

The 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014 results saw Swansea make the 'biggest leap among research-intensive institutions' in the UK (Times Higher Education, December 2014) and achieved its ambition to be a top 30 research University, soaring up the league table to 26th in the UK.

The University is in the top 300 best universities in the world, ranked in the 251-300 group in The Times Higher Education World University rankings 2018. Swansea University now has 23 main partners, awarding joint degrees and post-graduate qualifications.

The University was established in 1920 and was the first campus university in the UK. It currently offers around 350 undergraduate courses and 350 postgraduate courses to circa 20,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students.

The University has ambitious expansion plans as it moves towards its centenary in 2020 and aims to continue to extend its global reach and realise its domestic and international potential.

Swansea University is a registered charity. No.1138342. Visit http://www.swansea.ac.uk

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