Some of you, like me, will be old enough to remember the TV adverts for a well-known communications company. They featured Bob Hoskins and focused on the tag line ‘it’s good to talk’. Essentially, they were saying keep in touch!

Why is this relevant to open innovation? Well, the 9th August this year, was something of a milestone in our open innovation programme in that technology developed by one of our SME partners, TBG Solutions, was installed and commissioned on one of our lines in South Wales. It’s a laser-based system for continuously measuring strip shape and the information will allow us to improve further our process and product capability. The commissioning made me reflect on how we had started work with TBG Solutions – through just talking.

Understanding capabilities

Our initial conversations with TBG Solutions had absolutely nothing to do with laser or strip shape measurement, it was about ‘fuel bunkering’, the illegal tapping of pipelines to steal crude oil or petrol. I had listened to TBG Solutions talk about some innovative approaches they had developed to detect when pipelines were being tapped and, as Tata Steel is a major supplier of pipes for oil and gas applications, thought it was worth a discussion. Turned out it was a very useful discussion indeed. We came away with a much better idea of TBG Solutions’ wider capabilities, including some very innovative work they had done to measure and record the shape of car windscreens by laser to make sure they were within the specified supply tolerance. So when the challenge came to identify some essentially off-the-shelf method to measure continuously strip shape. TBG’s laser capabilities were an obvious starting point and within three months we had a demonstration of a system that convinced us it could work on-line. A contract was put in place which culminated in the installation of a system on one of our lines in South Wales - and we think it has application on other lines as well. All from an initial conversation about illegal fuel bunkering! And that’s not the only example of the benefits of talking.

Technology transfer opportunities from other industries

Wessex Technology are an SME that have developed a unique anti-counterfeit technology. We explored this together, including making some demonstration samples,  but , as with TBG Solutions, we also discussed Wessex Technology’s other capabilities and  Tata Steel’s wider interests. Turns out that Wessex Technology are a supplier of high speed, high resolution camera technology to the postal industry capable of identifying and imaging postmarks, for example, at up to 400m/min. At the time we were looking for a system that could detect small dents in the surface of our strip at up to 60 m/min, quite a challenge! Wessex Technology asked for some samples and within days had demonstrated on a mini pilot-line that they could detect the dents (and other features we hadn’t even asked them to identify!) at realistic line speeds.

So, from an initial discussion about anti-counterfeit technologies, we have identified a low cost capability to further improve our inspection capability. It’s also a great example of a technology or capability developed for one industry (postal) being transferred to a completely different industrial application.

It is good to talk

So I think the advert got it right! It’s obvious when you see successful examples but I suspect that there are lots of other examples where initial contact is made, it doesn’t work out and that’s the end of the relationship. Whereas, with a little more effort to keep in touch and discover each other’s wider capabilities and needs, I'm quite certain there are new opportunities to be found. I'm guilty of this myself and I've given myself a mental kick-up-the-backside to make sure I don’t just dismiss future opportunities, just because the first discussion doesn’t work out!

So, let’s test this out. Get in touch via this portal, and let’s talk!

About the author

Pete Longdon has a PhD in Chemistry and MSc in Ferrous Metallurgy. He joined the steel industry as a researcher in 1990. He’s since led several R&D teams and managed a number of European collaborative projects for Tata Steel. Since 2010 Pete has been tasked with seeking out new technologies and encouraging collaboration.