Tata Steel’s strapline is ‘together we make the difference’. Essentially we are saying that, by working together, we can achieve things not possible when working in isolation.

Is there really a difference when we work together?

Straplines come and go but I like this one because it resonates strongly I think with an open innovation approach. In November this year at Blechexpo 2017 in Stuttgart, the latest application of Tata Steel’s Coretinium© product was launched. We’ve worked with trailer manufacturer Cartwright which developed its new Streetwise® urban delivery trailer incorporating Coretinium. Thanks to Coretinium side walls, bulk heads and moving deck walls, the trailer is 0.5 tonnes lighter than trailers made with conventional materials. This is quite a weight saving – with significant sustainability benefits, particularly taken over the lifetime of the vehicle.

Coretinium is a combination of steel strip skins from Tata Steel and polymer honeycomb core produced using licensed technology developed by Econcore, a Belgium-based SME, allowing extremely stiff, light-weight panels to be produced. The steel skins give Coretinium strength and impact resistance whilst the lightweight polymer core enables the production of long, light-weight and exceptionally stiff, flat panels. Neither material alone could give this unique combination of properties and that, of course, is the beauty of combining materials with different properties – together they make the difference!

Working through challenges

I’d love to be able to say that the development of Coretinium was smooth and without problems but anyone involved in new product or process development knows this is never the case! Amongst other things we had challenges to identify the size of the potential market to justify the CAPEX investment, in part because it was such a unique product. Setting up the unique production line – involving the in-line production of first the polymer honeycomb and then combining this with the steel skins to produce perfectly flat panels – was also more challenging than we anticipated. Again, this was partly because of the uniqueness of what we were trying to do.

But we stuck at it. Tata Steel recognised that, with such a new product development, sometimes you have to have faith that the market is there. We invested and worked hard with our own internal R&D experts, equipment suppliers and Econcore to iron out the production difficulties and expand the product range capability. This allowed successful application developments with companies like Cartwright and others.

Why am I talking about this?

Well, in part, because it was one of my first open innovation projects and I like to talk about it! Together with the current Technical Product Manager at Coretinium, Ed Richards, I did the initial technical feasibility and business attractiveness study and subsequently developed the business case for the required CAPEX investment at Tata Steel’s plant in Shotton, North Wales. (As an aside, Cartwright were one of the first companies we visited to understand the potential of the product before investment, so it’s particularly good to see them become a major customer).

But mainly I'm talking about it because I think the development of Coretinium is a great advert for open innovation and the difference that working together can make. It’s a fantastic example of open innovation in the sense that it combines the technology and knowhow of two different companies to produce something unique, that neither company could do alone. Surely the raison d’être of open innovation?

So can we make the difference together through open innovation?

I'm convinced that, if you persevere, you really can make the difference. How else will you really have a shot at developing something unique unless you utilise the skills and experience of people outside of your own organisation? If you have an idea you think we can work on together, then drop us a line via this portal and let’s see if we can make that difference!

About the authors

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.

Edwin Richards has a degree in Economics and joined the steel industry in 1997 as a commercial graduate, before becoming involved in polymer coated steels. Since 2012 Ed has managed the design and build of the Coretinium production line and has worked closely with customers and suppliers to develop new application solutions around Coretinium.