Developing and testing new steel alloys will be up to 100 times faster, allowing new products to reach the market more quickly, thanks to £7 million of funding announced today for a new “virtual factory” being developed by Swansea University, in partnership with Tata Steel and WMG, at the University of Warwick.
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.
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.
The process is called Rapid Alloy Prototyping. 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.
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