thyssenkrupp Steel Europe AG
47166 Duisburg, Germany
The chemical laboratories are vital to operations at thyssenkrupp Steel. As an accredited in-house testing facility, among other things they monitor the chemical processes in production, conduct material tests and ensure compliance with environmental and safety standards. In addition the laboratory provides chemical analyses to support the entire value chain from ore delivery to the finished coil – all with the aim of further improving the performance of our equipment and products.
Dr. Thomas Lostak really doesn’t match the typical cliché of the ambitious chemist in a white lab coat. The eloquent 37-year-old not only gives an impression of youthful agility, he’s also bursting with enthusiasm about his job. “It’s what I always wanted to do: working in a scientific field, developing, researching. And all in an environment where you can really make a difference. Where what you do really counts.” Lostak couldn’t have put it better. As team leader for Inorganic Analytics he is part of the leadership team at the thyssenkrupp Steel chemical laboratories. Accredited in accordance with DIN ISO/IEC 17025, the laboratories with their 164 employees across the sites in Duisburg, Dortmund and Bochum are a kind of company customs authority. “Roughly speaking, we check everything that enters and leaves our plant and facilities,” says Lostak.
One important aspect is checking compliance with statutory environmental and safety standards. This includes for example limits for waste gas and dust emissions or waste water quality in connection with steel production. The chemical laboratories also test all bought-in and delivered materials and supplies. This is extremely important as even minimal material defects can result in exorbitant financial costs – for example if the iron concentration in the supplied ore does not meet the original requirements. “As little as 0.1% poorer quality can quickly cost us millions,” says lab manager Dr. Eckhard Pappert. He has been in overall charge of the testing facility for a year and bears responsibility for the entire chemical, research and development area.
Just as business-critical as monitoring suppliers is the monitoring of internal product quality in the steel mill. The chemical laboratories use automated, technical analysis processes to ensure production runs as intended from the start of the value creation process. For example the control stations are notified within a maximum of 270 seconds as to whether a heat can be used or whether refinements still need to be made. Automated process analytics also have a positive effect elsewhere, for example on the hot-dip coating line where among other things cold-rolled steel strip is coated. Eckhard Pappert: “If a zinc-aluminum-magnesium coating is requested, the coating bath must be tailored precisely to the requirements of the customer. Our system provides colleagues in the control station with all the chemical information they need in real time.” The impression of urgency is not misleading. The motto here is “speed is key!” The faster the checks work, the better the line capacity is utilized – and the greater the tonnage and sales the steel mills can deliver.
The vast dimensions of the task facing the chemical laboratories result from the many and varied requirements involved. On the one hand because thyssenkrupp Steel receives tons and tons of materials for a wide range of production processes every day, and on the other hand because the company ships large volumes of products to customers on a daily basis. In addition, technical components, lubricants, greases and oils are also constantly tested as part of preventive checks on equipment. The same applies to process media and waste water. This all adds up to an impressive number of analyses that need to be carried out: Every year the chemical laboratories analyze around 720,000 samples.
This would not be possible without a sophisticated acceptance and information system. The sample acceptance area at the laboratory control station in Duisburg resembles the baggage pick up area at an airport, but with the difference that plant transport service employees place samples labeled with QR codes on the conveyor belts rather than bags and suitcases. Thanks to the QR code the containers find their way to the responsible laboratory automatically. And that’s not the only thing the code does: it also tells the chemists what material the sample is made of, what exactly needs to be tested and other important order details. Due to the volume of materials moved around the company, the testers usually deal with composite samples, i.e. one sample, which may only comprise one gram of the material, can be used to test the quality and suitability of several tons of it.
Digital technology doesn’t only play an important role in the submission and allocation of samples. The chemical laboratories also work digitally when it comes to creating analyses and communicating status information or results. Of central importance here is the highly user-friendly “isiLab” app – an in-house development. It connects testers with internal and external customers, enabling the senders of samples to obtain all the information about an order in real time. The renowned specialist publication “GIT” is full of praise for the app: “The lab app used at thyssenkrupp Steel Europe offers customers the opportunity to select the desired testing plan for their sample, select and deselect individual parameters and ultimately submit an order via their smartphones. A sample label in the form of a QR code and all information for sample collection are provided directly. They can obtain status information about their order and the results via the same medium or via a web portal.”
This great inventiveness is characteristic of the interdisciplinary lab team, in which chemists and chemical technicians work alongside physicists, engineers and IT specialists. Based on the principle “the sky’s the limit”, the inventiveness of the team knows virtually no bounds. Another example of this is the drone used to transport samples at Lostak’s instigation which has now been in test operation for over a year. Among other things, the almost two-meter-long drone transports iron ore samples from the port to the control center, covering distances of up to five kilometers in just a few minutes – a distance which would take significantly longer by car.
This spirit of innovation is evident not only up in the air, but also down on the ground. The chemical laboratories have been leading the way in the use of robotics for years, both in applications isolated from humans and in collaboration models. The use of an automated assistant that can “record” and mimic human movements via sensors is currently being tested. In the long term this could lead to the automation of some routine, day-to-day activities in the laboratory. The robot model was even awarded the German Future Prize in 2017 and is just another example how the chemical laboratories have successfully developed their operations by taking a high-tech approach.
As part of targeted attempts to raise its profile, the testing facility is also aiming to attract more external customers. As an internal service provider, the chemical laboratories already work for virtually every area of thyssenkrupp. However, Pappert and Lostak want to increase the number of customers from outside their own organization. “We are fully accredited as a laboratory and offer our customers a broad portfolio of analysis services,” says Lostak.
And when it comes to winning new customers, national borders are no obstacle. A good example of this is the Dutch company Nederlandse Onttinningsfabriek (NOF) in Leeuwarden. NOF specializes in removing the tin from packaging steel and has been an important partner to the “Deutsche Gesellschaft für Weißblechrecycling” (DWR) – a German tinplate recycling company – in Düsseldorf for many years. The goal of DWR, a wholly-owned subsidiary of thyssenkrupp Rasselstein, is to recycle tinplate responsibly. In concrete terms DWR organizes the procurement and processing of tinplate packaging which thyssenkrupp Steel then uses as steel scrap in its production process. When Dr. Johannes Emundts from DWR learned that NOF was considering setting up its own laboratory to test its internal process technology, he put them in touch with the chemical laboratories. Their management team won over NOF Managing Director Arti Klaasen, resulting in a collaboration that has saved the customer both costs and time from the outset. On the one hand they have been able to optimize their processes on the basis of the analyses without needing to operate their own testing facility at the company, and on the other hand they now have a user-friendly and reliable digital solution for registering samples and analyses in the form of the “isiLab” app.
These aspects also contribute to achieving the mutual goal of thyssenkrupp Steel, DWR and NOF – to make an active contribution to closing the materials cycle. “In the interests of the circular economy, it is important for companies in the steel sector to establish more sustainable business models and develop more eco-friendly processes,” says NOF Managing Director Arti Klaasen. “By collaborating with the chemical laboratories at thyssenkrupp Steel we have reached an important milestone.”
It’s a similar situation at the processing center of Wilhelm Bötzel GmbH & Co. KG. in Herne. The company has been collaborating successfully with DWR on closed material cycles for some time, shredding and cleaning various tinplate waste for subsequent use in the mills of thyssenkrupp Steel. To allow continuous monitoring of production quality at Bötzel the chemical laboratories have developed an efficient testing procedure which is now the standardized in-house method. Successes like these drive the lab team on. “We want to empower our customers more and more to come up with new ideas and help shape markets,” says Dr. Pappert looking forward. This confident view of the role he and his colleagues play is clear when he says with conviction: “At the chemical laboratories we no longer just monitor what other people do. We are the ones who are developing new ways forward.”