Technology and innovation

Technology leadership and speed is a core strategy of Bekaert. 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. We listen to our customers so we understand their innovation and processing needs. Knowing 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.

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. Through the combination of these competencies, we influence the properties of steel such as strength, ductility, fatigue, shape, adhesion, and corrosion resistance. Even after more than 135 years of expertise, there is still much to be discovered in our search for the optimal bulk and surface properties of steel wire. By maximizing the synergies between the competencies of our technologists and those of our research and business partners, we can make a real difference and draw infinite possibilities.   

Innovation in a nutshell

  • In 2016 we invested € 64 million in R&D.
  • An international team of more than 450 R&D specialists develops new products and process innovations.
  • Bekaert operates two main technology centers, one in Belgium and one in China, and various development centers worldwide. The establishment of the Bridon-Bekaert Ropes Group in 2016 added Bridon’s UK-based technology center for steel and synthetic rope development and testing.
  • Bekaert revised its intellectual property (IP) protection strategy and rolled it out in the course of 2016. IP protection at Bekaert consists of patent and design protection, trade secrets, non-disclosure agreements and more. It covers products and brands, processes and equipment, as well as exclusive development and test programs in collaboration with customers, suppliers and research partners. Successful IP protection makes Bekaert a trusted partner of its customers around the world.
  • At the end of 2016 Bekaert had close to 1500 patents and patent applications in its portfolio, including 300 patent rights of Bridon-Bekaert Ropes Group.

R&D as a driver for value creation

We continuously strive to renew our product portfolio with innovative products and solutions that add value to our customers by enhancing the quality performance or ease of installation; and by lowering the total cost and/or the environmental impact of our customers’ products and production processes.  

Some examples:
  • In 2016 Bekaert successfully launched Murfor® Compact, a new type of high-performance masonry reinforcement. 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 the 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.
  • Also for the construction market, Bekaert developed Fortifix®, an interlayer steel cord structure for non-structural road renovations. Fortifix® enables a quick and correct installation. The interlayer can be easily rolled out, either by hand or machine, on both rough and smooth surfaces. This solution not only provides a high service-life, it is also 100% recyclable. Fortifix® benefits the sustainability of road repair projects. The interlayer can be ground with the asphalt and removed by using magnets. As a result, Fortifix® offers savings in both transport and disposal costs. It also results in major environmental benefits, as it reduces the use of energy and resources.
  • Murfor® Compact and Fortifix® are excellent proof of Bekaert’s competence to use developments and technologies from one sector as a basis for innovations in another sector. These product developments build on our experience to integrate our steel cord and steel wire into 2D or 3D structures that can be designed according to the requirements.
  • Further progress has been made in the development of our new generation guardrail. Through a unique combination of Bekaert wire products embedded in a thermoplastic matrix, guardrail systems with optimal energy dissipation will be protecting us on the road in the near future.  
    Together with a selected external partner, the potential of the Bekaert solution was further validated in a number of specific guardrail designs, focusing on minimizing the injury severity level during a crash, but also offering a more controlled containment of heavier vehicles like buses and trucks. Based on the promising results of these simulations, certified crash tests have been scheduled in 2017. 
  • 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 finishing performance. In 2016, Bekaert continued its investments and efforts in maturing the modeling capabilities.
  • 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 2016, Bekaert successfully continued the market penetration of these higher value-adding steel cord types in China. Tire manufacturers recognize the value as it allows them to design high-end quality tires at a lower total cost.
  • For tire manufacturers, the fatigue level of steel cord that reinforces the tire is paramount. Therefore, Bekaert aligns its fatigue test methods with tire manufacturers on a continuous basis. In 2016, Bekaert extended its expertise on fatigue. Thanks to a very strong cooperation between the teams from our tire cord producing plants and the Bekaert Technology Centers, processes have been adjusted to increase the fatigue levels and stringent standards have been defined with our customers for the approval of samples and mass production.

  • Bridon-Bekaert Ropes Group introduced a new range of polymer core ropes and extreme pressure-resistant lubricants NXG (next generation) ropes and Brilube® Extreme for deep water applications. In deep waters, lubricant components may break down due to high pressures, especially when the core of the steel ropes loosens. This all may lead to accelerated corrosion, a shorter rope life, environmental impact and increased operating costs. Bridon-Bekaert Ropes Group developed high pressure resistant low friction polymer grades that give improved support within the rope construction, limit water ingress into the rope core, and act as a medium to carry other property enhancers. This is in conjunction with Brilube® Extreme, a next generation lubricant. This lubricant was developed by Bridon-Bekaert Ropes Group and selected lubricant manufacturers to meet extreme deep water conditions, wider operating temperature range and ever increasing environmental regulations. The Brilube® lubricants are used both in rope manufacture, custom rope assembly and service dressing.

Awards & Recognition

  • The Bekaert Dramix® 5D steel fiber range received an Italian Concrete Technology Award (ICTA) within the category ‘Product Innovation for Materials and Admixtures for Concrete‘. The jury – composed of journalists and technical specialists – praised the technical ingenuity of the product.
  • The London Lee Tunnel project won the prestigious Concrete Society Award – and Dramix® shared in the honor. The deepest tunnel ever built in the UK was completed and opened in 2016 after 5 years of boring and construction works.
  • Bekaert was honored by Bridgestone with the first ‘Development Contribution Award’. This award praises the development partner who has achieved major technical developments that create value for Bridgestone’s product portfolio. It is a clear illustration of the power of customer-centric developments and it exemplifies strong customer relations.

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.

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.

In 2016, Bekaert evaluated options to develop superconductor wires and decided to invest in a start-up company so we could benefit from complementary strengths and realize progress faster in a true better-together spirit. The partnership aims to develop innovative wire solutions for existing large scale applications, such as superconductor wires for MRI scanners, or upcoming new applications in the energy sector.

Bekaert seeks international partnerships with universities and research institutes. In 2016, we continued to cooperate with academic institutions, technology clusters and research partners from different countries in order to have long and short term access to external expert capacity, to integrate external innovation and accelerate development projects.

Bekaert partnerships

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 will always combine performance improvements in various areas including product quality, production excellence and flexibility, and cost efficiency. Our main focus areas are machine safety, ergonomics and the environmental impact. 

Building the factory of the future

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 ensuring maximum automation and robotics. Spool handling logistic pilot projects are running in plants in the US, Slovakia and China. Strong efforts are taken to automate equipment, allowing machine operators to optimally use their expertise on tasks with added value. The new machines are intelligent and human centered, alerting operators on performance and product quality.
Factory automation and manufacturing execution system are enablers to optimize productivity. The interconnection and digitalization show in the increased use of sensors and robotics. 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.

Bekaert Engineering is systematically exploring new techniques such as additive manufacturing (e.g. 3D Printing), micro-EDM (electrical discharge machining) and modeling and simulation technologies.
Modeling and simulation technology enables us to shorten the development time of our equipment drastically. Compared to systematic trial and error, it brings us much closer to a ‘first time right’ design and execution. 

Engineering in a nutshell

  • Bekaert’s in-house engineering department employs an international team of 550 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.
  • As Bekaert is expanding worldwide, Bekaert Engineering is aligning its satellite engineering facilities closer to these plants to ensure optimal and speedy support for the production facilities.
  • Bekaert’s engineering team is constantly looking for opportunities for total cost reduction 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 the global spare parts management.