UK: Testing Steel Alloys "Virtual Factory" Will Speed up Alloy Development

Editor: Alexander Stark

A new virtual factory being developed by Swansea University, in partnership with Tata Steel and WMG, at the University of Warwick will make the development and testing of new steel alloys up to 100 times faster, allowing new products to reach the market more quickly..

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Chemical analysis of steel - Dr James McGettrick of Swansea University, with an X-ray Photoelectron Spectrometer.
Chemical analysis of steel - Dr James McGettrick of Swansea University, with an X-ray Photoelectron Spectrometer.
(Source: Swansea University)

Swansea/UK — 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. Steel 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.

Alloys Tested 100 Times Faster

The process is called Rapid Alloy Prototyping. It has been under development at the Mach1 labs at Swansea University and the ASRC at Warwick. 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.

With this new approach 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 that this project was 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, she added. The scientist is confident the partnership with Tata Steel and WMG will help ensure that the UK steel industry remains at the cutting edge of innovation.

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