From research to practical application
New steels are manufactured and tested for the first time in the Steel pilot systems at Westfalenhütte near Dortmund. This is how the fruits of research go into series production.
She drives a forklift, takes an active approach, and is a skilled craftswoman. She doesn’t mind extreme heat, has an affinity for technology, and can analyze and evaluate test results on the computer. Lisa Ellebracht’s passion for research is absolutely crucial to further development and creating groundbreaking innovations. Equipped with a helmet and a silver protective suit, the 27-year-old stands in front of the oven, picks up the glowing red, 1,100°C steel sample with tongs, and places it on the rolling mill. It’s time to see how this material behaves. Have the ingredients been properly mixed? Do new samples need to be made? “After all, not every test is a success. For example, sometimes the material crumbles apart during rolling,” says Ellebracht.
The mechanical engineering technician is part of the twelve-member pilot production team, along with Danika Görisch, a budding metal technician, and Vanessa Wolske, who’s currently in night school to earn her master’s in mechanical engineering. They produce and test new steels in one of the pilot systems at the facilities in Westfalenhütte near Dortmund, under the supervision of Rüdiger Mempel. The female trio is highly qualified, having mastered smelting and annealing as well as both hot and cold rolling. “Everyone needs to be able to stand in for everyone else in order to keep things efficient,” Mempel says. When everything goes well, the fruits of research projects go into series production. “That was the case with TRIBOND steel, for example, which we helped develop in our pilot system,” says Ellebracht. This multilayer steel is hard and tough – perfectly suited for vehicle parts such as B-pillars.
What was challenging about making TRIBOND? “Good cars need to be very strong in order to protect passengers. The steel also needs to be able to absorb energy, or be ductile, so that it doesn’t shatter in the event of an accident,” explains Görisch, 24. “But that’s the problem,” says Wolske. “The stronger the steel, the more brittle it becomes.” To address this issue, the test system employees worked closely with customers: experimenting, testing, and rejecting failures until the new composite material could be produced on a large industrial scale. That meant going from the small steel plant with miniature slabs to large-scale facilities – where B-pillars are now made on hot strips in slabs that weigh several tons.
“That’s the really exciting thing about the work that we do: The results of our research go into industrial production. And we’re taking part in shaping the future of Steel and of thyssenkrupp – and securing so many jobs,” say the young women with visible pride.
Michael Strack and Christian Schwerdt see themselves as innovators, closing the gaps between theory and practice, science and commerce. These two physicists manage the LITECOR® system as well as the pilot strip system. Everything they do revolves around streamlining; after all, lightweight construction strategies are a hot topic in the automotive sector as well as in the electronics, shipbuilding, and residential construction industries. Heating boilers, drawer rails, cabins for the booming cruise ship industry, and interior automotive parts such as handles and strike plates could all stand to lose weight. “That requires new steel qualities that enable lighter solutions than those involving conventional steel plate,” says Schwerdt.
Schwerdt and his team are determined to find out how new technologies can be implemented for large series production; the pilot systems are the perfect test platform. “They help us see what’s working on the strip and what isn’t before we proceed to operation,” says Schwerdt. “Anyone can make simple products – we want to create custom solutions for our customers,” explains Michael Strack. “That’s why we’re laying the foundation for new developments. Our pilot systems are the cherry on top. They make it possible to push through new technologies in the first place.”
In the end, only one thing matters. “Our innovations need to do well on the market. That’s our top priority,” says 24-year-old Dennis Krawczyk from the Joining Technology department. He recently completed a night school program to become a certified industrial technician. His colleague Marc Nölkenbockhoff from the Forming Technology department tests the formability of the materials. Both young men are proud of the fact that the materials they tested are in cars out on the streets. That makes the sometimes long and difficult process of experimentation – and the inevitable failures that go with it – worthwhile. In the pilot systems, often referred to as the Group’s “backbone,” ideas transform into something tangible. Lisa Ellebracht sums up the benefits of the backbone: “The best thing is when our products make it to our customers.”