SSAB SmartSteel forms a basis for the circular economy
February 03, 2017 08:15 CET 6 min read
The idea behind SSAB SmartSteel is to make available information and instructions relating to any steel item wherever the item is processed. Each link in the production chain can utilize and accumulate information. This forms a basis for both the circular and platform economy. The result would be less waste than at present and improved productivity and flexibility. The amount of information accumulated throughout the manufacturing chain would enable the development of new services and accelerate and improve the efficiency of product development at each stage. On top of this, the information accumulated would enable end users ensure the quality, safety and durability of the product.
Material and manual go hand in hand
Products in the metal industry are typically processed in many different companies’ production facilities before dispatch to end users. Materials and items flow from one site and company to another.
Nowadays, however, the material and associated information take different routes. The material is transported by road or rail, whereas the information goes by email. They also end up in different places at the customer’s site and very often also remain separated. In the worst case, for example, someone might cycle around a component manufacturer’s site looking for a particular item. Certainly items are marked, but the information relating to them is in an office email or archive database. Let alone the instructions for use, which are in a thick manual or handbook on the designer’s shelf. When a machine or piece of equipment needs repairing, it takes quite a lot of time and effort to find out what material has been used and how it can be repaired.
SSAB SmartSteel is a concept designed to help solve this problem. Steel plate is marked with a unique identity code, which links the material and associated information, i.e. the exact history, composition, properties and instructions for use for that particular item. This is an idea that is currently being trialed and developed together with partners.
Material and machine in dialogue
SSAB SmartSteel enables dialogue between the material and machine.
In future, a machine that tools smart steel will be able to read the identity code of the steel plate to be processed and correctly adjust automatically. This will considerably reduce errors and material waste, and the benefits could be further highlighted when fine-tuned robots are used.
Transparent total optimization
One of the aims of the SSAB SmartSteel concept is to provide continuous lifecycle traceability from the mine throughout the manufacturing process to scrap and re-use. This can be done if all manufacturers involved in a product add information relating to the product and its use to a cloud-based repository. Sharing and combining information must be secure and security solutions are an important area for development in the SSAB SmartSteel concept.
The same idea can also be applied to control of the production chain. The entire chain could be tuned for optimal operation, which is not the same as the current goal to minimize costs in all stages. The costs or use of time in one stage might well increase if another stage can save or produce more.
Heading towards a platform economy and ecosystems
In future, companies will not necessarily compete with each other in quite the same way as they do today. Instead, competitiveness will be built on entire processing chains and networks. Smart steel could create a basis on which to build ecosystems in the metal industry. Looking ahead, information accumulated by different parties could be combined, thereby taking a great leap towards transparency and sustainability. Nor will excess quality or safety margins be required. In the same context, the basis for a digital platform economy will be built. The imagination is the only limit to all the new business that could be built on the information that can be shared.
The implications for productivity and reliability could be just as great as automation was in its day within the factory context. The information accompanying the material could revolutionize the entire manufacturing industry if we are bold enough to open up the borders and see the common interest as being bigger than our own.
Boost to the circular economy
In the circular economy, production and consumption generate minimum loss and waste. Steel is already fully recyclable. The new smart steel idea will enable better classification regarding steel composition, which will make it more efficient and attractive also to users to recycle steel.
When customers know the exact composition and properties of steel plate, they do not need to buy excess quality. This improves material efficiency throughout the manufacturing chain. Precision adjustment of machinery based on batch-specific information results in reduced waste and re-ordering. In addition, a common database will allow the development of new services without additional physical outlay.
More partners being sought for development work
The SSAB SmartSteel concept has been developed in collaboration with a number of universities and industrial actors in projects funded by Tekes - the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation and the Academy of Finland. International researcher networks have checked to make sure that no similar idea has been carried out earlier. The idea has been tested and piloted with a number of customers and equipment suppliers. Actual development work is starting up. Areas for development include the marking of metal components, information architecture, cloud systems, data security, ways of sharing information and business models. Common standards are also required.
Since no company can do this kind of work alone, we need to partner with different manufacturing chains, customers, subcontractors and logistics companies. The idea can be honed and clarified in small, quick trials. The same idea can be applied in principle to any material whatsoever. In this way we can speak about the internet of materials.
Experts in different fields working together
The best ideas are created when top people in different fields work together. Likewise, the SSAB SmartSteel idea was also created in a project where top researchers in user experience, industrial engineering, service development and materials science were working with challenges arising in a steel mill. It takes time to build a common language and mutual trust, but is well worth the effort involved.
Seija Junno, DSc (Tech), Director, business model development at SSAB
SSAB has recently completed the first stage in a research and development project to examine the smart steel (SSAB SmartSteel) concept, which is a digital platform that can be used to share information about steel. A unique identity code links steel plate and the information applying to it to provide customers and their machines with information about how to choose and use SSAB’s steel in different applications. The idea is to share SSAB’s steel knowledge with partners. The vision is a cloud-based platform that contains instructions for the use of SSAB’s steel for different stakeholders in the value chain and which can be linked to similar cloud systems of other actors in the manufacturing chain.