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Northwest Indiana is known for making things: steel, gasoline, soap, turbine castings, lift trucks, robotic welding machines, car parts, cardboard boxes, lunch meat, you name it.

But the Region has been getting as brainy as it is brawny.

Long known as a center of heavy manufacturing, the Calumet Region is increasingly becoming an exporter of high-end knowledge. Advanced manufacturers such as Monosol, Fronius, Urschel Labs, Task Force Tips and Tri-State Industries focus more on innovation and intellectual property than just cranking out ton after ton of basic commodities.

The ArcelorMittal Global R&D laboratory in East Chicago is an international leader in metals research, while Purdue University Northwest’s Center for Visualization and Simulation is spearheading a national consortium aimed at bringing the steel industry into the 21st century. And Merrillville-based Cimcor has spread its computer security software around the globe.

International market lifts Cimcor

Founded nearly 20 years ago, Cimcor develops security and compliance software branded as CimTrak, which allows users to monitor file integrity in real-time to track any changes. Clients include Fortune 500 companies, NASA, the U.S. Air Force and Cornell University.

“Right now we are selling in 16 different countries,” Cimcor President and Chief Executive Officer Robert Johnson III said. “We are doing that through a network of resellers and putting time and effort to sell in each market most effectively. We’re partnering with key distributors in strategic markets.”

Cimcor first made the decision to expand internationally about six or seven years ago. Johnson, a member of the Purdue Calumet Alumni Association, wanted to diversify the client base.

“There wasn’t a real reason to stay in the United States,” he said. “Our software will protect servers anywhere. It’s just as effective in Europe or South America, and the need is there.”

Many of the companies Cimcor already did business with were international in scale, and already present in foreign markets the cybersecurity firm has since branched out into.

“The great thing about being a technology company is there aren’t the traditional boundaries,” he said. “There aren’t any boundaries other than artificial ones we set for ourselves. We approach the global market in a smart way, by leveraging partnerships and relationships.”

The company has local partners in each foreign country who know the native language and can work out any local problems. They cultivate long-term relationships in countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Denmark, Poland and Brazil.

Cimcor initially aimed to expand in China, but had trouble making the relationships needed to penetrate the market and has only a few customers there now. The firm has, however, seen its overall international business take off, to the point where foreign customers now account for about 40 percent of Cimcor's total revenue.

The company has business opportunities whenever foreign governments impose new regulations that must be complied with, such as when Japan rolled out new banking rules known as J-Sox a few years ago. But it’s also had growth driven by the private sector, including when Visa, Mastercard and American Express partnered to devise new standards for retailers storing customers’ information so it wouldn’t get hacked.

“If they’re not compliant with the PCI (payment card industry) security standards in an audit, they lose their ability to process credit card transactions,” Johnson said. “Globally, that’s driven a lot of business for us.”

Cimcor hopes to continue to grow internationally and eyes established marketplaces with sophisticated economic systems and a lot of credit card transactions.

“The ideal market has a sophisticated regulatory environment,” he said.

Driving global steel innovation

Over the last several years, ArcelorMittal Global R&D in East Chicago has labored to create new markets for the steel industry that built Northwest Indiana into what it is today.

"We combine our resources here in East Chicago with those at our centers throughout the world to develop new steel products and solutions for our customers," General Manager Pinakin Chaubal said.

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"Generally, all of the practical experience gained globally is then applied to the region where the innovation will originally launch. The first requirement of the global marketplace is steadily increasing in the United States. So, East Chicago not only plays an important role in initial research and development of those new products, but also on the trials and implementation before it is cascaded to other regions."

For example, changing consumer preferences and federal emissions mandates have led to a race to make motor vehicles lighter. By 2025, they have to be about twice as fuel-efficient as they are today. Automakers have looked at a number of ways to reduce weight, such as by incorporating more lighter metals like aluminum. The best-selling Ford F-150 for instance switched to an aluminum frame, making it about 700 pounds lighter.

ArcelorMittal and other steelmakers have sought to preserve their market share in the face of such challenges. The auto industry makes up a huge chunk of their overall business, more than 27 percent according to the American Iron and Steel Institute.

Researchers at the R&D center in East Chicago have been developing new grades of advanced high-strength steel, so structural crash protection can be provided but with less weight. They helped design a new high-strength steel door ring for the Honda Acura MDX that helps shave 123 pounds off the vehicle’s weight.

"There is global collaboration in the development of third-generation advanced high strength steels for the automotive industry," Chaubal said. 

"But the first commercial launch of these new products will take place in the United States, so the East Chicago R&D facility plays a critical role in the testing and trials that take place both in the lab and at our U.S. facilities where they will be produced. Those learnings are then shared with Europe and other regions for implementation outside of North America."

About 200 scientists and technicians in East Chicago test the durability, formability and other properties of new grades of steel. Buoyed by ArcelorMittal’s $227 million in annual spending on R&D, the researchers on the sprawling campus near Cline Avenue and Columbus Drive have come up with a steel bridge that won’t corrode in 125 years, pipeline steels designed to prevent explosions, railroad oil tank cars that don’t puncture, and highway safety barriers that would replace concrete with steel in densely populated areas.

"Another example is the development of advanced steel grades for the energy market, for which there have been contributions made from our labs all over the globe," Chaubal said. 

"However, the implementation is here, so the work is now being led by East Chicago. While product is what everyone is most enthusiastic about, there is important work being done in the East Chicago lab to improve the reliability and efficiency of our processes."

Simulating tomorrow's technology

ArcelorMittal is a huge global company, in fact the world’s largest steelmaker by volume. But the Luxembourg-based steel and mining giant, which made 92.5 million tons of steel in 2015, doesn’t operate the only research facility for the steel industry in Northwest Indiana.

The Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation at Purdue University Northwest’s Hammond campus is leading a national steel consortium that seeks to devise manufacturing solutions for steelmakers across the country. A $480,000 federal grant seeded the initiative that seeks to make domestic steelmakers more efficient and thus more competitive in an increasingly cutthroat global marketplace.

ArcelorMittal USA, U.S. Steel, Nucor, Steel Dynamics, Praxair, NIPSCO, Cliff’s Natural Resources and other steel companies are backing the consortium. Researchers, who work in teams of three at PNW’s Hammond campus, are tackling problems like how to get blast furnaces to be more energy-efficient. They work on general solutions for an industry that foresees sweeping changes such as more continuous operating in finishing lines and replacing coke with cleaner-burning natural gas in steelmaking.

Initially, CIVS researchers have been studying ways to make improvements to blast furnaces, electric arc furnaces, reheating furnaces, ladles, casting and the primary coating process, Director Chenn Zhou said.

“We’re looking at processes that will have an effect on the bottom line, productivity and quality,” she said. “The consortium should have a big impact for its members.”

Steelmakers recently gathered at the Hammond campus for an annual steel consortium meeting, so they could get an update. The goal is to get old-fashioned businesses to modernize, such as by using virtual employee training programs and simulations that could lead to a more efficient use of the raw materials used to forge iron.

“It’s about innovative solutions,” Zhou said. “We’re looking to transform the industry with more technology and data-driven intelligence. Technology is needed to ensure competitiveness for U.S. steel manufacturing in the world.”

Individual steelmakers could go it alone, but a unified approach will help tackle some of their biggest problems at a lower R&D cost.

“There are global challenges,” Zhou said.

“If the industry works together on blast furnace performance, that will not only have application in Northwest Indiana but mean more productivity, more energy efficiency and fewer emissions everywhere. It will affect the bottom line, and save money.”

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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.