Internet of materials

Will digital steel improve everything?

24 August, 2018

How eco-friendly is the steel in your car? With digital technology, steel will be given its own identity to increase knowledge and improve management of the material. “The consumer of the future may not only ask about a flight’s carbon offset or how fuel-efficient a car is, but may also request information about the material,” says researcher Bertrand Noharet. 

Already today, large quantities of steel are recycled and the industry often speaks of 100 percent recyclability.  However, with the ever-increasing development of multi-materials and complex products, recycling and reuse are becoming more challenging. And knowing the exact contents of all products is no mean feat. The Smart Steel project is bringing together researchers and industry to test and evaluate methods to digitally tag steel for better traceability and knowledge of the material. 

Smart steel and the Internet of Materials

The Smart Steel project is based in giving materials their own identity which can be completed with relevant information. Information which, in turn, can be accessed and utilised by people and machines for different purposes. For example, information about how the material was manufactured, used, and how it should be optimally processed can be communicated. 

“Traceability also leads to new business opportunities. In addition to being able to streamline processes and improve recycling, steel manufacturers may be able to offer more ancillary services. Internet of Materials has similar potential to the Internet of Things,” says Bertrand Noharet. 

Optimal use and reuse of materials

For the recycling industry, a unique ID on products could facilitate sorting. A vehicle with numerous materials could, for example, be dismantled more efficiently instead of being stripped to pieces. Some parts may even be able to be reused ‘as is’, without having to go through resource-hungry reprocessing. Research is underway at Swerea geared towards both improved recycling processes and manufacturing methods, in order to tag materials optimally. 

“We have tested casting, for example, but we’re also testing inserting RFID tags (digital chips) via additive manufacturing. It’s important to find different ways of giving materials an ID,” says Bertrand Noharet. 

Adapt to what works for your industry

For some companies, it may be more important to find a way that works with their existing manufacturing methods. While others may deem it acceptable to change manufacturing method to give their materials a digital ID.  

“The more information and data available for development, manufacturing and use, the more efficient material utilisation will become. With the ability to follow each individual unit and predict lifespan, we can prevent unnecessary breakdowns and use each product fully,” says Eva Petursson, Head of Research at SSAB. 

And who knows? Perhaps someday in the future there will be no steel manufacturers, only steel rental companies that reclaim their products for reuse or recycling into new products.