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Many think of the steel business as a mature industry that cranks out a commodity and has been doing things basically the same way since the 19th century.

But at a dune and swale-lined campus in East Chicago, 200 scientists and technicians develop new products to keep people buying the steel ArcelorMittal makes at the mills that ring Lake Michigan. In five buildings, including one designed by the same architectural firm that did the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Center, researchers at the R&D center come up with innovations like bridges that won’t corrode for 125 years and tougher grades of steel to make cars lighter.

“We do a lot with automotive, but it’s not just automotive,” Process Research Director David White said.

Ivy Tech Community College’s Society of Innovators shined a light on the fenced-off research facility near Cline Avenue and Columbus Drive in East Chicago, which is ArcelorMittal’s second largest research facility in the world.

The steelmaker, which employs 9,500 people in the Region, pumped $227 million into research and development last year.

It employs 1,300 researchers at a dozen facilities around the globe, many in Europe.

ArcelorMittal shared some of the products it’s working on with the public at the Society for Innovator’s 22nd Innovators Cafe on Wednesday, which was held at the R&D center.

“When we first started this, we didn’t know where we would go,” said John Davies, managing director of the Society of Innovators. “Some people said there was no innovation in Northwest Indiana.”

Even the Region’s stalwart manufacturers must innovate to ensure their products remain relevant in the marketplace.

“Two-hundred scientists and technicians here in East Chicago innovate to ensure our steel industry remains robust,” Davies said. “The steel industry is a foundational building block in Northwest Indiana, and they keep it robust.”

ArcelorMittal is developing advanced pipeline steels that would reduce the risk of tragedies like the one that killed eight people in a San Francisco suburb in 2010 when a Pacific Gas & Electric natural gas pipeline exploded into flames.

“There’s a lot of property damage and of course loss of life,” ArcelorMittal researcher Dmitri Sidorenko said.

The market is potentially huge since there are 2.5 million miles of pipeline in the United States, and another 78,000 miles planned. To put that in perspective, the interstate highway system only stretches for about 46,800 miles, Sidorenko said.

ArcelorMittal is also developing railroad oil tank cars that are resistant to punctures, such as can be inflicted by torn-up railroad tracks, so they won’t explode, researcher Amar De said.

The metal for the train cars is four times stronger, reducing the risk of an explosion in highly populated areas like Chicago that the trains pass through every day. Railroad companies need to replace 90,000 tank cars to meet new federal safety standards, which should benefit Northwest Indiana, since ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor is the only mill that makes metal for the hulls.

Researchers are also developing new advanced high strength steels to help automakers meet federal emissions goals by making cars lighter. The Honda Acura MDX door ring for instance is one piece instead of four, helping Honda cut 123 pounds off the weight of the car so it gets better mileage and releases fewer emissions.

ArcelorMittal is also hoping highway departments across the county will replace concrete barriers with newly developed steel safety barriers, which are safer because they absorb the impact and redirect the vehicle. They could be used in densely populated areas with a lot of semi-traffic in all 50 states, once the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration approves the design, researcher Richard Clausisus said.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.