Steel Times International's Future Steel Forum 2018 took place in Warsaw, Poland, 6-7 June, and was widely praised by delegates who rated the content ‘high’, ‘excellent’, ‘very good’. The event was rated with five stars by one very pleased attendee and others described it as ‘informed and engaging’, not to mention ‘thought provoking’ and ‘interesting’.

Future Steel Forum 2018 was the second outing for the event, which was developed by Steel Times International magazine and launched in 2017 in the Polish capital.

Future Steel Forum 2018 attracted some high calibre speakers, experts in the field of Industry 4.0 and steelmaking. The event kicked off with an opening keynote from Dr. Pinakin Chaubal, general manager, ArcelorMittal Global R&D who spoke of the ‘tornado of change’ sweeping across the world and warned that those who don’t innovate will die. The technological changes taking place in the world are mega: additive manufacturing, big data, autonomous cars, biotechnology, electric cars – these ‘disruptors’ are characteristic of the ‘era of change’ in which we all live, he said, highlighting developments in 3D printing, new concepts in construction and radically new technologies, such as accelerated cooling technology and jet vapour deposition. He referred to digitalisation as ‘an unstoppable trend’, citing the fact that in 2015 there were 25 billion connected devices and a global population of 7.2 billion. By 2020 the population will rise to 7.6 billion and the number of connected devices will double – to 50 billion. Disruptive technologies – the Internet of Things, Simulation, Autonomous Robots and Cloud Computing (to name but four) – are leading us to the rainbow, argued Dr. Chaubal, and Industry 4.0 is the basis for enterprise-wide innovation.

Dr. Chaubal set the tone for what proved to be a cutting edge event that dealt more than competently with all aspects of digital manufacturing and steel production. The event featured speakers from leading steelmakers ArcelorMittal, Tata Steel, Russian steelmaker NLMK and US Steel as well as highly respected figures from some of the most respected research and development and academic institutions from around the world.

While the ongoing theme of the conference was Industry 4.0 and how it can streamline the steelmaking process, Mick Steeper, former chair of the Iron & Steel Society (IoM3) turned the argument on its head, claiming that the steel industry was not a natural adopter of Industry 4.0 – a viewpoint he expanded upon in an article for the exclusive Future Steel Forum 2018 magazine, distributed to delegates only. Why is steel a slow adopter? Because capital intensity is high, product differentiation is low and overcapacity is persistent, and hence margins are low and ROI is weak. But that’s not to say there aren’t any ‘large technology shifts’ – there are, but they are infrequent. Most of the time, the steel industry ‘sweats’ its existing assets until a competitive advantage tempts a disruptor and then, if successful, rapid emulation follows and it is universally adopted. But will the steel industry bite the Industry 4.0 bullet? There are two corollaries: if steel wants to go the route of product customisation, it is directly relevant; but if it wants to remain a bulk commodity industry, Industry 4.0 might still apply, but it’s more likely to be demanded by the steel industry’s customers.

Steeper concluded that new steel technology is adopted on the ‘sea change model’ and that won’t change. Industry 4.0 embodies classic ‘sea change’ characteristics (meaning that if it takes hold, the entire industry will buy into it). Furthermore, Industry 4.0 is already influencing the steel industry’s value chain and, therefore, the changing practices of customers and suppliers ‘will enforce a response from steel’. According to Steeper, the steel industry would benefit from pursuing a strategy of increased customisation. He argued that Industry 4.0 is not a direct change driver, but a powerful change enabler, which may facilitate other sea changes.

Professor Dirk Schaefer from the University of Liverpool in the UK presented a paper on the subject of open innovation and social product development and later took part in a discussion panel on the subject of engineering education and qualifying the Industry 4.0 workforce. Other distinguished panel members included Dr. Chenn Qian Zhou, founding director, Steel Manufacturing, Simulation and Visualisation Consortium, Purdue University Northwest, Indiana, USA. Dr Zhou also presented a paper on the subject of Simulation, Visualisation and Data Analytics for Smart Steel Manufacturing.

There were many interesting presentations from management consultants and steel production equipment OEMs and there was a vibrant exhibition and networking area for delegates to swap stories and exchange ideas.

The Future Steel Forum proved to be a force to be reckoned with and something that Steel Times International will be taking forward. A venue for next year's European conference has yet to be decided upon, but rest assured, Future Steel Forum 2019 will take place and the plan is to offer all attendees another well-rounded programme focused entirely on what the Americans call 'smart manufacturing' – otherwise known as Industry 4.0.