Hongliang Yang, at the molten edge of metallurgy

The die was cast when Hongliang Yang started studying process metallurgy at Northeastern University in China. Today, he applies two decades of experience and a curious mind to extending the possibilities for customers of ABB Metallurgy.

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ABB Metallurgy has long been renowned for its dedication to R&D. Hongliang Yang, has contributed to ABB innovation in metals since he completed his PhD in Electrical Physics in 2001. For the past seven years he’s led the metals R&D team, now comprising seven researchers, working across locations in Sweden and Poland.

Hongliang Yang, R&D Team Leader at ABB Metallurgy.

Their goals are to further the sustainability of metallurgy and enable efficient production of known and emerging alloys. Central to their research into new and improved metallurgical processes is the design of metallurgical equipment including furnaces, and the integration of tailored iterations of ABB’s indispensable melt mixer the Electromagnetic Stirrer, or EMS invented by Dr Ludwig Dreyfus in the 1930s.

Here, Yang shares his passion for physics and the ever-evolving opportunities of ABB’s collaborative work in the metals industry.

What led you to work in metallurgy?

Hongliang Yang: My original idea was not to work with metals, but to become a physicist. At that time in China, I was sent to a metallurgical institute which was not on my list. So I was educated in process metallurgy in China and then I moved to Sweden during my PhD. ABB was my sponsor to study in Sweden, and I worked on one project to do with electromagnetic stirrers. In the end, I got my PhD in physics, with my thesis on the numerical simulation of electromagnetic stirring in the metallurgical process. After that it was natural for me to continue to work with electromagnetic stirrers, at first in computational fluid dynamics and computational electromagnetics, which require both applied physics and mathematics.

What excites you about physics?

Physics has no limits for your imagination. When I was young I felt that I had a very good sense of physics, and some ideas about what might be interesting in terms of research. I liked doing experiments by myself and reading about the work of famous physicists. Physics lets you apply your whole mind to research and fields of work that interest you, to extend the perceived limits. I think that is the best part of it.

What metallurgical challenges have you tried to overcome using physics?

The metals industry is very old; it has been around for 1000 years. And even today, the steelmaking process and a lot of the technology in the metal industry is based on experience. It's not like a computer where you can design everything based on physics itself, because one part of the metallurgical process involves very high temperatures around 1500 degrees. You can not imagine everything that's going on at that high temperature, so the prediction of that process is very difficult.

Drawing on over 100 years of experience, ABB collaborates with metals producers, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and other suppliers to develop process-specific and customized solutions that optimize production, improve sustainability, quality and safety.

We can make simulations based on what we understand and discover, but at the same time, every new idea, every new invention has to be tested in use before you can go further. And that process can be very long; it can take 5 or 10 years, even 20 years from an idea to proof of concept.

People may say ‘Can you accelerate this development?” Time to market is important, but it's not like making a new kind of bicycle or car. Today you can design a new car very quickly. A stirrer might look much simpler than a car, but it takes time to develop because you have to have a customer install it and use it to prove it.

What kinds of projects is your team working on at the moment?

Of course we have several projects at once. As manufacturers consider how they will produce green steel, we have to make our equipment adapt to this new industry. For example, green steel has been associated with the electric arc furnace (EAF), which currently produces steel from scrap metal and can be powered by renewable electricity. One related challenge is how to make the downstream process (casting and rolling) more compact. The production speed of EAFs is much higher than other furnaces, so we need to make the downstream process more flexible to suit that output by making our equipment more flexible in its operation.

Another focus for us is digitalization and realizing the potential of Industry 4.0 in metals manufacturing. For me there are three parts: measurement using new and different kinds of sensors; transferring the data to a collection point; and extracting interesting or useful information out of the data. Because we work in the metal industry and some reactions can be unpredictable, measuring is very important. People have developed very good measurement technology using different sensors. For example, on one project we are using optical fibers to measure temperatures in metallurgical processes. Then we collect the data, analyze it and use it to either control our equipment or to get new ideas to make new products.

That must be very exciting. What do you most enjoy about being the R&D team leader?

I have contact with different and new technologies, and with interesting people. I am a very curious person. I like to work with new ideas. I don't like to do repetitive work. Working in R&D I get to make something new all the time.

What does your typical day look like?

About 20% of my time is spent handling daily work, talking with my team members and distributing different tasks. Then 20% or 30% is spent working with our collaboration partners; so that's meetings and discussions. Then I spend quite a lot of time on project management: I'm the leader on some projects, which requires organizing and planning.

What developments could still revolutionize or significantly change the metals industry?

When Elon Musk started making Tesla cars, he made one very big step forward in reducing costs. Car bodies usually have many, many components, and handling all these components contributes to the high cost of manufacturing a car. Musk produced an aluminum car body using much, much fewer components. And to do that he worked with a very old technique called die casting. He cast a car body in just a few components, a method called mega casting because the casting machine is huge — it can be 10 meters high. I think that technology will probably revolutionize the aluminum business. ABB works both in the steel industry and the aluminum industry, so this new method of casting molten aluminum offers exciting opportunities.

In the steel industry, the making of green steel will be revolutionary.

But also in terms of steel we are seeing a new approach to casting, on a smaller scale. It’s maybe the opposite of mega casting, and it’s called “Steel Minimill”. People are trying to make smaller casting machines to supply more local demand. For decades, steel plants had to be built on the coast, to ship in raw materials such as coal for energy and for the chemical process of reducing iron; and to ship out the products. But Steel Minimill foundries, running on electricity instead of coal, could be anywhere close to markets. We can make a big contribution to increase the Minimill’s flexibility and productivity by making new EMS technologies.

This could also change the metal industry and reduce costs.

At ABB we are looking at developing products for these two new themes large and small.

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