What if …?
Dr. Thomas Pfatschbacher

In this special interview format, we ask an expert from Primetals Technologies to use their imagination.

This post is also available in: 简体中文 (Chinese (Simplified))

Dr. Thomas Pfatschbacher is Head of Technology and Innovation for Casting & ESP, Rolling, Mechatronics, and Through-Process Know-How at Primetals Technologies. He is regarded one of the company’s most ­experienced experts, and his vision for where the steel industry is ­going is valued by metals producers worldwide. We have asked him for his ­personal view on what if …

Dr. Thomas Pfatschbacher

… self-driving cars become the new standard for individual transport in the next ten years?

Dr. Thomas Pfatschbacher: I am convinced that autonomous driving will become a reality sooner than some people realize. The automotive industry has been one of the driving forces in terms of innovation for a long time—in fields such as base-material treatment and coatings, mechanical engineering, sensor technology, environmental and safety solutions, as well as financial business models. Enormous sums of money are now being pumped into self-driving car research. Also, the processing power of our computers has exploded, and we now use sensor technology that provides high-resolution data in real time. If you add artificial intelligence algorithms to this equation, what you get is autonomous vehicles that can react to their environment within milliseconds. This development will prevent accidents caused by human error or tiredness. It will increase road safety and make driving much more economical. It will revolutionize the “idea of driving” on the whole. Aside from that, I would like to point out that the steel industry is now undergoing a similar transition—that from the traditional to the “self-­driving steel plant.” At Primetals Technologies, we are promoting this development.

… the automotive industry is urged by governments to further reduce their cars’ fuel consumption?

Dr. Pfatschbacher: I believe that we owe it to future generations to protect our environment and to safeguard it for the future. Minimizing energy consumption will therefore be at the heart of many innovations, not just from the automotive industry but also from its suppliers, from the recycling industry, and from ourselves at Primetals Technologies. Together with our customers, we are working on new solutions for the production of high-end steels with excellent material properties for the construction of lighter cars that require less fuel. Manufacturing these steels is highly challenging, but once a producer has upgraded their equipment and implemented the necessary know-how, they will be able to differentiate themselves on the worldwide market and take a leadership role. Electrical steel is just one example of a product that places high demands on the producer’s capabilities. Generally speaking, it is factors like strength, low strip thickness, good formability and processibility, surface quality, and corrosion resistance that are important today. High-end steels will allow the automotive industry to build more lightweight and more energy-efficient vehicles that are at least as robust and safe as the ones made today.

The steel industry is undergoing a transition that is similar to that of the automotive industry: from the human-controlled steel mill to the ‘self-driving’ plant.”

… even more information Than is available today will be at our fingertips in the future?

Dr. Pfatschbacher: Never before has there been as much data available as today, and it is set to increase even further. This is true for many aspects of our lives, and it certainly extends to steel-production plants. But despite the effects of digitalization on metals production, only about 2% of all available data is currently used in the mill as a basis to make informed decisions. In the future, it will be even more relevant that the vast amount of information is preprocessed and a selection is made before it is presented to human operators. Otherwise it would just be overwhelming. Only with this preprocessing in place will it be possible for operators to interpret the data given to them and take the appropriate actions. This means that information needs to be intelligently customized and tailored to the actual needs of those who will be dealing with it. To give you an example, at Primetals Technologies, we have developed an IT system called “Through-­Process Quality Control” (TPQC), which unites a large variety of data sources and uses smart algorithms and customizable rule-­sets to determine what depth of information should be presented to whom —from plant operators to product-development managers.

… data analysis evolves into one of the most essential tools in steel production?

Dr. Pfatschbacher: In my personal opinion, data analysis and data mining are clear growth areas and will play a central role in the world of tomorrow. Data analysis can be particularly helpful when we are dealing with complex situations and scenarios that involve several dimensions. However, there is one crucial measure that needs to be taken before any results stemming from data ­analysis are considered usable: all findings have to be thoroughly checked and verified by domain experts. The reason for this step is that someone has to ensure that there is always a proper physical basis to the conclusions drawn by data analysis. The problem is often a lack of clarity in how these findings correlate to what’s actually going on in the physical world, and exactly where the events are happening. I am stressing this because I see a tangible risk that factors like insufficient data quality or an improper distribution of data points could lead to the creation of algorithms that only work correctly under very specific circumstances. Despite these reservations, I am convinced that data analysis will be used more broadly in the future, and that we will be able to derive smart and powerful algorithms from its results.

… AI-based technologies make many of today’s jobs redundant, both in the steel industry and beyond?

Dr. Pfatschbacher: I’m not a futurologist, but I would assume that we will be seeing a deep transformation on the labor market. I have little doubt that some jobs will disappear. However, at the same time, new competences will become essential and new opportunities will open up. Holistic and inter-disciplinary thinking will become more common in many fields, and programmers will effectively work as “intelligence designers” in many industries, including our own.

… ultra-thin steel strip will be in even higher demand in the decades ahead?

Dr. Pfatschbacher: The capability of producing strip at lower thicknesses is a target that more and more steel producers are setting for themselves, and for good reasons. Let me explain why by using the automotive industry as an example: Lower strip thicknesses enable car manufacturers to build vehicles with a much more lightweight design. The core idea is to produce better and more energy-­efficient cars with less yet higher-­quality steel as the base material. Advanced high-strength steels can be used for many applications—end products range from individual specialized car components to strip for the entire chassis of the vehicle. The trend toward lower strip thicknesses will have a positive impact on global CO2 emissions, both directly and indirectly. The direct benefit is quite obvious: A lighter car requires less fuel and will emit less CO2 over its lifetime—it’s as simple as that. Of course, electric cars will also require less energy as long as they are lightweight models. The indirect benefit is at the steel-production stage: Since less steel is required to build the car, less of it has to be produced in the first place, bringing overall emissions per car down further. In this respect, the total CO2 footprint of a lightweight car will be reduced simply by virtue of its base materials. I would like to mention the Arvedi ESP technology in this context. Arvedi ESP enables the production of very high-quality hot-rolled steel that can substitute cold-rolled steel and requires 40% less energy during production. This is due to the innovative, streamlined process at work with ESP. You can tell efficiency is higher just by comparing the length of an ESP line to traditional continuous casting lines: it is much shorter. And since no cold-rolling or annealing is involved with Arvedi ESP, you can achieve further energy savings. Primetals Technologies is the exclusive supplier of Arvedi ESP worldwide, and we have seen increased interest in the technology recently. Just last July, we were awarded a contract by a Chinese producer for an Arvedi ESP line.