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 co-create with customers and suppliers around the globe to develop, implement, upgrade and protect both current and future technologies. Listening to our customers and understanding how our products function within their production processes 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.

Technological leadership

In 2015 the Bekaert Technology Center celebrated its 50 year anniversary.  Half a century of constant commitment to R&D has been a source of inspiration and encouragement for our customers, our suppliers and our operations to help us succeed in our non-stop search to improve and innovate. Throughout the years, strong alliances have also been established with universities and research institutes around the globe.

In early April 2015 Geert Van Haver was appointed Chief Technology Officer. Geert joined the Bekaert Group in 1982 and has taken up management positions in Belgium, Brazil, Turkey and China. Geert Van Haver is a member of the Bekaert Group Executive since early 2014. Bekaert’s technology centers pursue value creation by optimizing process technologies and by developing steel wire solutions that drive growth and leadership for our customers.

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.

Innovation in a nutshell: 

  • In 2015 we invested € 65 million in R&D.
  • An international team of 416 R&D specialists works on customer-driven research projects.
  • There are 2 main Technology Centers, one in Belgium and one in China, and various development centers worldwide. 
  • We acknowledge the importance of innovation: 39 first patent applications were filed in the course of 2015.  
  • IP protection applies mainly to products and brands, but also to processes and equipment. Bekaert successfully stopped several infringements to patents through litigation over the course of 2015.
  • We co-create specific products and solutions together with customers in exclusive development projects. Successful IP protection makes Bekaert a trusted partner of its customers around the world.

R&D as a driver for value creation

Through steel wire transformation and coating technologies, we influence the properties of steel such as strength, ductility, fatigue, shape, adhesion and corrosion resistance. Our aim is to provide our customers with solutions that offer high added value and promising perspectives.

Our approach is two-fold:

First, we continuously strive to renew our product portfolio with innovative products and solutions that add value to our customers by enhancing efficiency, ease of installation, and total cost reduction:
  • In 2015 Bekaert developed Murfor® Compact, a new type of high performance masonry reinforcement for the construction industry. It’s a sturdy mesh of high tensile strength steel cords, supplied on a roll for thin joint masonry and glued brickwork. The strong structure of the reinforcement controls cracks and strengthens masonry. This lightweight product is easy to handle and install. Long lengths also speed up installation and improve efficiency.  Moreover Murfor® Compact has environmental benefits too:  as the reinforcement can be cut to size, there is very little material loss. Its user-friendly design, light weight and low volume make it the ideal solution to reinforce masonry safely and efficiently. 
    Murfor® Compact is an excellent proof of Bekaert’s competence to use developments and technologies for one sector as a basis for innovations in another sector. This product development builds on our experience to integrate our steel cord and steel wire into 2D or 3D structures that can be designed according to the requirements.
  • As worldwide concerns for the environment increase, the automotive manufacturers are focusing their design and development on reducing the weight of vehicles to lower fuel consumption. Tires account for approximately 30% of the driving factors of a vehicle’s consumption. Consequently, they influence CO2 emissions and other exhaust.
    Bekaert’s super-tensile and ultra-tensile steel cord ranges for tire reinforcement allow tire makers to produce tires with a lower weight, thinner plies, and lower rolling resistance. Moreover, ultra-tensile steel cord is, when considering the total cost of ownership, less expensive than the conventional steel cord it replaces.  For the end user this results in reduced CO2 emission and lower fuel consumption. The highest tensile strength cords made by Bekaert currently enable a decrease of cord weight by over 30% compared to normal tensile strength cords.
  • In 2015, Bekaert’s super-tensile and ultra-tensile steel cord was key in the successful growth strategy designed to halt the commoditization trend in our markets in China. During the past year, Bekaert successfully accelerated the market penetration of these higher value-adding steel cord types. Tire manufacturers recognize the value as it allows them to design high-end quality tires at a lower total cost.
  • In 2015, we integrated the R&D activities of the steel cord business acquired from Pirelli within Bekaert’s global R&D organization. The integration approach ensures continuity of technological co-development with Pirelli Tyre while raising our global process technology knowledge, to serve our tire manufacturing customers even better.
  • In public infrastructure, progress was made in the development of our new generation guard rail with optimal energy dissipation. Three Bekaert wire products, embedded in a thermoplastic matrix, form Bekaert’s newest entry into guide rail systems for motorway barriers. The aim is to lower injury severity by offering better energy dissipation.  
    Promising simulation results were obtained regarding the performance of the unique combination of these different Bekaert products. Together with external partners, Bekaert is performing simulations for European highways.
  • 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.
Secondly, we pursue value creation for our customers by focusing our research 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 the automotive industry, international tire manufacturers are cooperating with us to further develop 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 the 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. In 2015 Bekaert designed prototype equipment to facilitate product and new tire design testing at customer sites.
  • In 2015 Bekaert enlarged the testing scope of its ternary Cu-Zn-Co coated tire cord (TAWI®), launched in 2014. Tire companies, including the majority of our top 10 customers around the world are currently in the process of lab scale, first pilot scale or large scaled field evaluation. TAWI® 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%.
    Bekaert’s Ternary Alloy Wire coating (TAWI®) was the winner of the 2015 Belgian Business Award for the Environment and was nominated for the European Business Award for the Environment, which will be held in April 2016.
  • In 2015 Bekaert enlarged the testing scope of its ternary Cu-Zn-Co coated tire cord (TAWI®), launched in 2014. Tire companies, including the majority of our top 10 customers around the world are currently in the process of lab scale, first pilot scale or large scaled field evaluation. TAWI® 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%.
    Bekaert’s Ternary Alloy Wire coating (TAWI®) was the winner of the 2015 Belgian Business Award for the Environment and was nominated for the European Business Award for the Environment, which will be held in April 2016.
  • Bekaert is the 2015 award winner of Wire Association International’s annual Allan B. Dove Memorial medal award in the ‘ferrous division’ category. Bekaert was selected for its technical paper ‘Heat-resistant color coatings for new generation spring wires’. The Wire Association International, Inc., is a worldwide technical society for wire and cable industry professionals dedicated to the promotion, collection, and dissemination of technical, manufacturing, and general business information and trends in the industry. WAI’s annual medal awards recognize and honor innovation and excellence in wire and cable developments, awarding the most meritorious papers on wire manufacture or fabrication during the year. Bekaert’s paper describes a technological innovation which creates value to spring manufacturers by offering heat-resistant, pre-coated spring wire, eliminating a less effective post-coating process on springs at the customer’s site.

Co-creation and open innovation

There is an increasing trend in co-development projects with our strategic customers, suppliers and a network of academic research institutes and universities. We also consider corporate venturing: we scout companies with emerging technologies to potentially partner with. These partnerships can include investments, license agreements or joint development agreements. Our related investments are minority interests in young start-up companies with innovative technologies that could benefit from and add to Bekaert’s core competencies. Additionally, we constantly search for new business opportunities.

Bekaert seeks international partnerships with universities and research institutes. In 2015, we continued to cooperate with academic institutions, technology clusters and research partners from different countries in order to bring an outside-in approach.
  • Bekaert continued its partnership with the University of Leuven (Belgium), the University of Ghent (Belgium), the University of Brussels (Belgium) and OCAS and is an active member of Flanders Make, the strategic research center for the manufacturing industry in Flanders.  Bekaert started collaboration with CRM Group, the Liège research center in metallurgy. 
  • Bekaert continued its partnership with the University of Lille (France) and collaborates with University College in Dublin, Imperial College Dublin, University of Zagreb, University of Cambridge and Cenim, the National Center for Metallurgical Research in Madrid.  In Slovakia, cooperation with the University of Trnava was intensified.
  • At the University College in Dublin, a Bekaert University Technology Centre was created. The new joint UCD-Bekaert Centre, located within the UCD School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, will focus on world-class research in characterization, design and optimization of materials, components and processes, ultimately leading to advanced next generation wire products. 
    Geert Van Haver, Chief Technology Officer: “The Bekaert University Technology Centre raises our research co-operation to a higher level. It supports a wider scope of fundamental research and ensures that the research outcome is rapidly and successfully applied in our process and products.”
  • In China, our R&D center cooperated with Nanjing University, Qingdao University of Science, Suzhou University and with the Institute of Metal Research (IMR) in Shenyang.
  • In the US, collaborative research efforts continue to be carried out at the Colorado School of Mines.

Acknowledgement

We are appreciative to the Flemish government agency for Innovation by Science and Technology (IWT) as well as the Belgian federal government. Their subsidies and incentives for R&D projects involving highly educated scientific personnel and researchers in Flanders, are pivotal in securing a foothold for our R&D activities in Belgium.

Equipped for excellence

Bekaert’s in-house engineering department plays a key role in the optimization and standardization of our production processes and machinery. This department designs, manufactures, installs and services the critical equipment for our production plants worldwide.

Newly designed equipment always combines performance improvements in various areas including product quality, production excellence and flexibility, cost efficiency, ergonomics, safety and environmental impact. This was in particular the case for the reconstruction of our plant in Rome (US) that was structurally damaged by a fire in November 2014. The engineering team cooperated with colleagues in the plant and in the Technology Center to successfully reconstruct and equip the Rome plant with state-of-the-art, high-performance bead wire production lines.

Experienced to build the factory of the future
In 2015 Bekaert Engineering celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Our engineers and technicians use their broad experience to create the “Bekaert factory of the future” by, working on high performing innovative equipment at a low operational cost, machines that require minimal change-over time and ensure maximum automation and robotization capabilities.

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.

Engineering in a nutshell

  • Bekaert’s in-house engineering department employs an international team of 500 engineers and technicians.
  • The engineering teams are located in Belgium, China, India, Slovakia and Brazil. The Belgian team focuses on the design of new equipment while the production of standard equipment is done in China. The teams in India, Slovakia and Brazil provide assembly and maintenance services to the Bekaert plants worldwide.
  • Bekaert’s engineering team is constantly looking for opportunities to lower the Total Cost of Ownership and come up with disruptive innovative engineering solutions for new products and processes. Bekaert Engineering also ensures excellent assembly, installation and maintenance services and coordinates Bekaert’s global spare parts management.