Innovating in Foundational Industries: Steel

November 21, 2016

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More than 200 years ago, the Industrial Revolution changed the way the world made things.  Previously products were made by hand, but the innovations in energy and power opened up capabilities and technologies that we use today. Many of the manufacturing sectors that are the foundation of our economy were born during the Industrial Revolution and are still alive today, like chemicals, textiles, and primary metals like steel. These industries are not only the backbone of our economy, but also essential to the rest of the products we use: from the structure of our skyscrapers to the parts in our hand held devices. These industries also use the most energy in manufacturing of any sector. Energy technology innovation in these foundational industries is good for both the economy and the world we live in. At first look, innovation may seem uncommon for them, but digging deeper there are tremendous opportunities for technology advancement. They are thinking beyond new ideas or products; instead they have to find innovative ways to change their processes and practices to increase energy productivity; the economic output per unit of energy. This technology advancement means innovating on innovation.

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) supports innovation in manufacturing through technology, research and development (R&D), and partnerships across all types of manufacturers, ranging from small tech start-ups to larger manufacturing firms that have been around for decades. Innovating in foundational industries is just as important as bringing emergent technologies to market. Continuous improvement in processes and practices helps American manufacturers stay competitive and create more, better paying jobs in the United States.  

AMO works with steel manufacturers through R&D projects to leverage innovation resources and implement best practices in steel manufacturing. This industry, which has been around for a century, has long played an important role in the U.S. economy.  Today, more than 142,000 people work in steel manufacturing in the U.S. and the industry directly or indirectly supports almost one million U.S. jobs that use steel to make other products for consumers. According to the American Iron and Steel Institute, since 1990, the steel industry has reduced energy intensity by 31 percent. Technologies for efficiency improvements are essential tools to compete in an ever expanding global market.

As an example, Purdue University Northwest leads a steel manufacturing consortium that is supported by the high performance for manufacturing (HPC4Mfg) program, to use high performance computing to research the optimization of blast furnace processes.  Through an HPC4Mfg program established at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), researchers can access world class supercomputing resources to model and simulate blast furnaces used in steel manufacturing. Optimization of steel production will reduce cost and carbon loads positively impacting both competitiveness and sustainability of steel making. The research utilizes Purdue-developed blast furnace modeling software to scale and accelerate the simulation. These new techniques help steel makers more rapidly adjust production to fluctuating market conditions which can potentially allow the factories to run more efficiently and save American jobs. Before being selected for the HPC4Mfg program, each of Purdue’s simulations took over a month to run and each blast furnace model had to be separated into three pieces due to the computational size and scope of the problem. These blast furnaces serve as the foundation for steelmaking in the U.S. and this research represents potential savings of up to $80 million per year across the steel industry.

Flash Bainite is a process developed by SFP Works, a small business in Michigan that is an AMO-funded participant in the DOE small business innovation research (SBIR) program. This is a completely new process for producing Advanced High Strength Steel (AHSS) for use in the automotive industry. This innovation has the potential to make cars that are safer, lighter, and more fuel efficient. Its process uses a compact and low-cost induction heat treatment that creates steel that is uniquely light, strong, and weldible and also reduces material cost. Flash Bainite is also a member of Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow (LIFT), which is part of Manufacturing USA – a nationwide network for manufacturing innovation. Through its partnership with the institute, Flash Bainite has worked with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and the U.S. Army to test its steel manufacturing technology for potential use in defense applications. Thus far, they have demonstrated the test fabrication of metal automotive components such as B-pillars, roof rails, floor reinforcements, and seating components that are 33% lighter and have 40% less material cost compared to methods currently used. Implementation of Flash Bainite steel across the automotive industry would potentially translate into a savings of up to 9 billion gallons of gasoline worth $27 billion annually to consumers. 

AMO also provides technical assistance to steel manufacturers through both the Industrial Assessment Center (IAC) and Better Plants programs. IACs have provided 103 energy assessments to manufacturers in the steel industry and recommended more than $27 million in energy savings opportunities. Better Plants has eight program partners from the steel industry who have set aggressive energy-savings goals. Partners have access to AMO tools, resources, and experts to help identify, implement, and replicate energy-savings projects.

Innovating in foundational industries like steel helps ensure that these established manufacturing sectors can remain competitive and sustainable in the global marketplace for years to come. Implementing improved processes and best practices help manufacturers optimize energy, resources, and workforce talent to reduce costs for consumers and boost competitiveness in the global marketplace, giving American manufacturers a strong economic foundation. 


To read the next blog in this series, click here.