The virtual factory – boost for steel innovation with £7 million to speed up new alloy development

  • A new quicker way to test alloys for industry use has been found in The Prosperity Partnership – including WMG at the University of Warwick
  • Rapid Alloy Prototyping is 100 times faster than current methods
  • It will unlock billions of pounds worth of new revenues for the UK Steel Industry

A new method of testing alloys – Rapid Alloy Prototyping, is 100 times faster than current methods, allowing new products to reach the market more quickly, thanks to £7 million of funding announced today for a new “virtual factory” designed by the Prosperity Partnership, including WMG at the University of Warwick.

This Prosperity Partnership – led by Swansea University and involving WMG at the University of Warwick, will implement a Rapid Alloy Prototyping (RAP) process, thanks to £7 million of funding announced today from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

Rapid Alloy Prototyping effectively 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.

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.

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 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.”

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 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.”