Annual Report 2014 - Technology and Innovation

Technology and Innovation

Innovation is a key driver of Bekaert’s technological leadership. Our activities in this field are aimed at creating value for our customers in order for our business, and all our stakeholders, to prosper in the long term. We partner with customers and suppliers around the globe to develop, implement, upgrade and protect both current and future technologies. Listening closely to our customers and understanding how our products function within their production lines and products is key to developing value creating solutions.

Transforming steel wire and applying unique coating technologies form our core business. To strengthen our technological leadership in these competencies, Bekaert invests intensively in research and development, and sees innovation as a constant, driving factor in all our activities and processes.

Innovation in practice: continuously redeploying our core competencies

In order to sustain and strengthen our technological leadership, we continue to explore new possibilities in steel wire transformation and coating technologies. Even after 135 years of expertise, there is still much to be discovered in our search for the optimal bulk and surface properties of steel wire.

We transform

Through steel wire transformation, we influence the properties of steel such as strength, ductility, fatigue, and shape. In 2014, we have advanced our development efforts in applications that offer high added value and promising perspectives:

  • Bekaert’s super-tensile and ultra-tensile steel cord ranges allow tire makers to produce tires with a lower weight, thinner plies, and lower rolling resistance.
  • Our ropes platform made headway for new rope compositions such as: high performance ropes, hybrid ropes, compacted strands and ropes, and a new generation of plastic-enhanced dragline ropes for oil sands mining shovels.
  • We developed a new generation guard rail with optimal energy dissipation. Three Bekaert wire products, embedded in a thermoplastic matrix, form Bekaert’s newest entry into cable guide rail systems for motorway median barriers that prevent crossover accidents.
  • When it comes to precision profiling, our newest range of flat and shaped wires, widely used in automotive and oil and gas industries, are examples of micro-tolerance in modeling, quality and consistent finish performance.
  • In 2014 Bekaert’s R&D efforts also focused on disruptive technologies that aim at creating superior value for our customers: International tire manufacturers are participating in our newest generation of rubber reinforcement solutions which promises to create unmet value in tire innovation. This Bekaert tire reinforcement fabric represents a disruptive technology that eliminates the need for spool creels in the production of the tire ply on a calendar. Tire makers see great opportunities in this invention by Bekaert, especially in its development of new tire designs and when running non-continuous batches, since this solution eliminates production downtime due to set-up changes of spool creels and calendars.

We coat

With our unique coating technologies, we adjust the surface properties of steel wire to reduce friction, improve corrosion resistance, enhance adhesion, or improve aesthetics. Various development projects in 2014 spearheaded innovations in coating performance.

  • Bekaert’s water-based coating technology was refined and improved to substitute solvent-based coatings on low carbon wire.
  • In co-development projects with customers, industry partners and research institutes, we are raising the bar in exploring the capabilities and limits of revolutionary coating technologies. Examples thereof are self-healing coatings that guarantee a durable protection against scratches and other damage, atmospheric plasma coatings, and repelling coatings.
  • We pursue value creation for our customers, not only by delivering upon set specifications, but also by focusing our research on the continuous renewal of our product portfolio and on developing products that lower the complexity, the cost, and the environmental impact of our customers’ production processes. Our preferred approach is to do this in co-creation with our customers.
    • In 2014, we developed heat-resistant coatings that eliminate the coating step in customers’ manufacturing processes after transforming steel wire into springs. This coating technology also enables a perfect finish of compact springs.
    • We successfully launched our ternary Cu-Zn-Co coated tire cord that makes it possible for tire makers to create cobalt-free rubber compounds. As a result, the cobalt salt mixing step can be eliminated in the rubber compounding process and the amount of cobalt in the total supply chain of tire making can be reduced by 80%.

Stepping up technology leadership and speed

  • In 2014, we extended the use of numerical modeling to speed up our time to market. Using computer simulation, our developments are designed even faster thanks to extensive virtual testing. One of the domains where numerical modeling is the most successful is in the development of complex profiled wires which require extensive experience and testing. Using numerical modeling to obtain the required shape of the roll grooves and zero-tolerance product specifications significantly reduces the number of experiments on our production lines. It drives a reduction of the development lead time and costs, and creates unlimited possibilities in intermediate result analyses, together with customers.
  • Bekaert also engages a network of external partners in its innovation challenges. This approach aims at generating new ideas and solutions with external inputs, while speeding up the assessment process in terms of technological viability and market readiness.
  • Bekaert has challenged and engaged its employees in an innovation competition in 2014. After several jury rounds, this FastForward game brought about three winners out of eight nominations from an impressively longlist of new ideas. The winning ideas are being turned into reality by dedicated teams. One of the winners was the new generation of tire reinforcement fabric as referred-to above. The development process of this invention is a great example of Bekaert’s technological leadership and speed in co-creation with its customers.

Co-creation and open innovation

There is an increasing trend in co-development projects with our strategic customers and suppliers. We also consider corporate venturing by investing in companies and venture capital funds worldwide. Our related investments are minority interests in young start-up companies with innovative technologies that are in alignment with Bekaert’s core competencies. In this perspective, Bekaert joined the i3 connection platform of Cleantech Group.

Bekaert seeks international partnerships with universities and research institutes. In 2014, we continued to cooperate with academic institutions, technology clusters and research partners from different countries in order to bring an outside-in approach.

  • Bekaert is active in several Strategic Initiative Materials (SIM) programs. We have a research partnership with the University of Leuven (Belgium), the metal research activities cluster in Ghent (Belgium) and the ‘Université de Lille’ (France). Bekaert continued its partnership with the University of Brussels (Belgium) and is an active member of Flanders Make, the new strategic research center for the manufacturing industry in Flanders. Furthermore, we collaborate with the Dutch Polymer Institute (DPI) in Eindhoven (The Netherlands).
  • Bekaert participates in innovation networks like Creax, Innovia, OCAS, SIM, Flanders Inshape and more, to drive the innovation process forward in cooperation with industry partners and research institutes.
  • Bekaert collaborates with University College in Dublin, Imperial College London and University of Zagreb.  A new project is being launched with University of Cambridge and Cenim, the National Center for Metallurgical Research in Madrid.
  • In China, we have a partnership with the Institute of Metal Research (IMR) in Shenyang (Liaoning province) and with Tsinghua University in Beijing.
  • In Slovakia, we have renewed our research contract with the University of Trnava.
  • In the US, collaborative research efforts continue to be carried out at the Colorado School of Mines.

Equipped for excellence

Bekaert’s in-house engineering department plays a key role in the optimization of our production processes and machinery. This department designs, manufactures, installs and services the critical equipment for our production plants worldwide. Bekaert’s engineering activities are organized on a global scale with a network of 500 engineers and technicians in Belgium, China, India, Slovakia and Brazil. Newly designed equipment by Bekaert Engineering always combines performance improvements in various areas including: product quality, production excellence, cost efficiency, ergonomics, safety and environmental impact.

Bekaert Engineering works closely together with the company’s R&D centers, the production plants, and the global manufacturing excellence team, in order to develop machine and equipment concepts that address the current and future needs in terms of flexibility, efficiency and precision performance.

High-precision engineering

Driven by a pursuit for high performing equipment at a low operational cost, the Bekaert Engineering team has been developing machines that require minimal change-over time and ensure maximum automatization and robotization capabilities.
In addition, advanced sensors and measuring tools are increasingly being integrated into Bekaert’s manufacturing equipment, in order to control the specification tolerances during various production steps. This enhances Bekaert’s product quality testing capability in all critical process stages.