* JVs included
During 2021 Bekaert has made significant strides in accelerating the innovation agenda. We appointed a new Chief Innovation and Technology Officer, attracted high-profile talent and consulting services, and added innovation projects with promising growth opportunities to the project pipeline. Total R&D expenses before deduction of grants and tax credits amounted to € 67 million in 2021, compared to € 57 million in 2020. Investments in intangible fixed assets amounted to € 13 million in 2021 (€ 3 million in 2020) and mainly related to digital solutions.
Our focus is to develop sustainable and digital solutions for customers, explore new business models, and support and accelerate energy transition programs.
As we extend our scope of innovation activities beyond steel, we plan to expand our partnerships in research, open innovation, and collaboration with venture investors and start-ups in our fields of interest.
Innovation is a key priority in the new Bekaert strategy. We have identified three ‘business engines’ to create a balanced pipeline of incremental and disruptive innovations. The acceleration of innovation programs will be supported by an increase in innovation budget of +50% over the coming five years.
Engine 0 Support our daily efforts by establishing:
Engine 1 Support our value creation strategy through:
Engine 2 Create new avenues of growth that enable us to:
As the company learns to embrace agile innovation methodologies, we held a virtual Dragon‘s Den event where our Business Unit innovators pitched their most promising projects. This demonstrated the breadth of ideas and activities as well as exciting examples of teamwork notwithstanding the challenges posed by remote working conditions. By cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset, we want to complement our cultures of operational excellence and technology leadership with a strong innovation culture.
During 2021 we continued to develop technologies to meet and exceed customer needs and stretch our quality leadership in the industry. Examples include products to support energy transition like Fiber+ ropes for offshore floating wind turbine mooring, Bezinox® armoring solutions for power cables, PEM electrolyser fibers for hydrogen production, as well as solutions for the construction industry like the Sigmaslab® concrete technology that combines CCL’s post-tensioning strands with Dramix® steel fiber concrete reinforcement. In 2021, more than 85% of Bekaert’s global portfolio of Research & Innovation efforts targeted distinct sustainable benefits that: limit the use of natural and harmful resources; lower energy consumption and exhaust; increase recycling opportunities; enhance safety; and address the renewable energy market needs. More information on new products and solutions can be found in the ‘Value Chain’ section of this Chapter.
With the digital way of working and management execution systems being embraced in our plants, we deployed IoT (Internet of Things) systems for steel cord plants to enhance quality assurance and monitor energy consumption. The data generated is feeding into both physical models and digital twins to accelerate R&D processes and drive innovations that reduce energy and the CO₂ footprint of manufacturing.
Bridon-Bekaert and VisionTek Engineering have been partners since 2018. What started as a venture capital investment gradually turned into a successful technology partnership and finally in the acquisition and integration of VisionTek in February 2022. Together with Bridon-Bekaert, VisionTek has developed the first mobile 3D rope measuring and visioning equipment. 360° miniature cameras take high-resolution pictures of the rope in action and feed a real-time model that analyzes the data against artificial intelligence with performance and surface algorithms based on critical rope requirements.
This new, proprietary monitoring technology addresses constant, real-time quality inspection and outperforms other measurement tools like magnetic testing which isn’t always infallible. Bridon-Bekaert has started commercializing the equipment in 2021 to monitor steel and synthetic ropes of customers on a continuous basis. As such, it is part of BBRG’s ambition to be a total solution provider and offer the most advanced services in the ropes market.
Cyber risks can affect intellectual property protection and data privacy. Therefore, information security - securing our company’s and customers’ data, assets, and privacy - is critical, especially with many of our team members working remotely. Our employees are our strongest link, and the most effective protection is their awareness of information security risks and cyber threats. Our Information Security Rules explain the actions we can take to defend against cybercriminals and ensure that our information remains protected.
All employees must be aware of the potential dangers and need to know what to do to reduce cyber risks. The ‘People’ section in this chapter provides more information on how we educate our employees on cyber awareness.
Digital@Bekaert encompasses much more than information security. It is about building digital solutions and technology in general. With Digital@Bekaert, we are on the path to further increase product quality, add efficiency in our operations processes, build new business models, create value to customers and enhance tools and insight for employees.
In 2021, we continued connecting our plants to our manufacturing execution system (MES). It aims to connect and monitor machines on the factory floor. As a result, we can track all movement of goods by scanning incoming and produced goods, automatically capture data via the connected machines, and get instant input from the operator via their handheld device.
Parallel with MES, the Digital Bekaert Manufacturing System (BMS) allows us to generate user insights that are converted into actionable data. The digital performance dialogue enables supervisors to make more informed decisions and spend more time on the shopfloor. The new mobile shopfloor app is the extra pair of eyes and ears of the supervisors.
Bekaert actively seeks opportunities for cooperation with strategic customers, suppliers and academic research institutes and universities. We also consider investments in early-stage companies and venture capital funds that may create new attractive business models adjacent to Bekaert’s current field-of-play.
We maintain and strengthen our research partnership and network in the domains of metallurgy and modeling with an extension of our UTC University Technology Center in University College Dublin, and with PhDs of Imperial College London, Zahreb University, CEIT Spain, UGent, University of Lille and other universities.
Furthermore, we joined and chair the Hyve consortium with Flemish research centers imec and VITO, and industrial pioneers Colruyt Group, DEME and John Cockerill, to invest in the development and production of green hydrogen power. Hyve targets a cost-efficient and sustainable production of hydrogen at gigawatt level.
More information on Bekaert’s 21 research and academic partnerships is available in Part II of this report – Social Statements.
We wish to thank the Flemish government’s Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship (VLAIO) agency, as well as the Belgian federal government. Their subsidies and incentives for R&D projects involving highly educated scientific staff and researchers in Flanders are essential for maintaining a foothold for R&D activities in Belgium.
We also want to express our sincere appreciation for the support of the Irish Research Council and I-Form, the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Manufacturing.
Furthermore, we want to thank the Research & Innovation department of the European Commission for supporting innovation with project grants.
We are privileged to be a winning partner in the more than £ 60 million investments announced by the UK Government for the development of new technologies for deep-sea floating wind projects. Bridon-Bekaert was selected as one of the funded development partners in two of the eleven development projects: the development of a novel, lightweight anchoring system and the development of new mooring system technologies, cable protection, and an advanced digital monitoring system.