Which are, in your opinion, the main technological challenges confronting your sector?
The steel sector is mainly facing three big challenges: two in the area of process, circular economy and digitisation, and one in the product area, which consists in increasing the specific performance of materials in service, improving properties and decreasing the weight of components while meeting the same requirements.
The challenge in terms of circular economy consists in turning industrial waste from the industrial process into co-products which can be reused as raw material, at internal level, by ourselves, or at external level, by third parties. An example of our commitment to circular economy is reflected in our active collaboration in the European project launched within the framework of the LIFE 5RefrACT programme, whose objective is precisely this: the effective reuse of the by-products generated in our industrial activity.
As for the digitisation and connectivity challenge, Sidenor’s full involvement is demonstrated by our participation in the European project of the RFCS programme (Research Fund for Coal and Steel), Quality 4.0. In the age of Industry 4.0, where data capture and storage have significantly increased, this project applies advanced algorithms which make it possible to know the quality of this large amount of data. In addition, as an example of Sidenor’s intensive participation in this area, and with direct industrial application, we take part in the Bind4.0 (sponsored by the Basque government) and Bizkaia Open Future (an initiative of Telefónica S.A. and the Regional Government of Biscay) programmes.
Lastly, we need to meet the challenge of increasing the product’s specific performance. Sidenor is addressing this challenge as well; as an example, I would like to highlight the work carried out under the European project of the RFCS programme, Innofat, which aims at reducing the weight of automotive components by improving fatigue behaviour. For this purpose, we are performing research on steels with improved transversal properties and resistance.
Based on your experience, which aspects, in your opinion, should be improved by administrations in order to boost R&D action within the Basque companies?
It seems to me that the R&D policies are well governed at the local level by the Basque Government and Councils, I think we are on the right way although the budgetary issue, as usual, is crucial and the more resources there are, the more growth opportunities there will be, and the better our position in terms of profitability and competitiveness.
More precisely, electricity is a key point in our sector, the price of electricity should be reduced so that our companies may compete, so that we may compete, on a level playing field in the globalised market in which we operate.
In addition, as I said before, one of the main challenges which is currently ahead of us is the one regarding circular economy. The administrations should support more initiatives so that this principle may become a reality and the waste generated in the industrial production process may turn into “raw material” products which can be used effectively.
In this context, I think that the Basque Government has been able to address the issues related to companies and technology centres, by launching programmes aimed at supporting the R&D&i of companies as well as business R&D units.
One of the current deficits of the industrial activity lies in the difficulty in attracting work profiles that are in line with company needs. Do you think that this problem is lower in the area of R&D? Which areas are, in your opinion, more difficult to cover? Are technology centres good breeding grounds for the Basque industry?
The truth is that it is each time more difficult to find profiles for the industry. We are encountering difficulties in filling job positions and we need to act quickly, otherwise this situation will get worse in the coming years.
The industry in general and, as part of it, steel companies, needs to encourage the interest of youth in this sector. We need to bring them closer to the industry, we need them to know it first-hand. We need them to find us attractive so that they choose technical careers among the wide range of training options they have. All these people, who are now at school age, will be the professionals we will hire tomorrow; for this reason, at Sidenor, we actively participate in initiatives such as the Day of Industry, which precisely aims at this, at making the sector known among the youth. By means of this initiative, high schoolers may get to know Sidenor, see how the company is and discover the opportunities we can provide them with.
Which is, in your opinion, the star R&D&i project in which your company participates and which are its objectives?
At Sidenor, we have three star projects in place, thanks to which we can look to the future with strong optimism: 5RefrACT, Quality 4.0, and Innofat.
5RefRACT aims at re-educating the sector regarding the integral valorisation of the refractory materials we use. This project positions Sidenor as one of the reference companies within the sector for the promotion of circular economy, enabling the reuse of our waste and thus significantly reducing our carbon footprint. This commitment has always been in our DNA and, thanks to projects such as this one, we can further deepen our involvement.
The star project regarding Sidenor’s digitisation strategy, from the most essential point of view and with a focus on R&D, is Quality 4.0. As I said, the emergence of Industry 4.0 has meant a huge increase in the data capture and storage capacity. It is crucial to know the quality of all these data in order to ensure excellence in terms of process and this is precisely the objective of this project.
The third key project in which we are involved is Innofat, which aims at reducing the weight of automotive components by improving fatigue behaviour. The objective is therefore to increase the specific performance and, for this purpose, we are doing research on steels with improved transversal properties and resistance, which reduces the carbon footprint and also has implications for the customer as it improves service provision.