Innovation intersection: AI’s growing role in stainless steel

Kristiina Tiilas, Head of Digital Platform, Outokumpu 

Artificial intelligence and stainless steel don’t exactly sound like “two peas in a pod,” but truthfully, they aren’t so mismatched. Stainless steel is a newer technology — and AI an older one — than many people realize.

Stainless steel is frequently viewed as a straightforward material, but, like AI, it is actually a complex, precisely engineered product subject to continual innovation. Both have an immense number of applications as well as a global footprint that transcends borders and cultures, impacting our daily lives in ways we often take for granted. And, both are poised to play a bigger role in our future than they ever did in the past.


Many people who work in the industry know that AI has been a part of stainless steel production processes for a number of years, providing substantial value through uses like predictive maintenance and prevention of equipment failure. At Outokumpu, we also use various machine learning applications for time series forecasting and streaming analytics. For example, AI allows us to optimize the melting time in our electric arc furnaces. With this ability, we have shortened the furnace treatment melting time by 4% and increased the furnace capacity by 17%. These enhancements result in 1 736 tons of CO2 reduction. Other types of AI, including computer vision, also play a part. But today, it is generative AI that is leading to a fundamental paradigm shift.


Imagine how a fully sustainable stainless steel mill could look like in the future (picture generated by using
Mid Journey AI)


GAI: New opportunities, new challenges

Generative AI, or GAI for short, creates new data or content, as opposed to working with existing data. Among the types of things it can output are text, images, audio, video, 3D models, synthetic datasets, natural language, and source code. The capabilities are so vast and powerful — and are spawning so many new businesses and products — that it’s currently impossible to know where, when, or how the biggest impacts will come about.

This is true for society at large, and also true for individual organizations. As a stainless steel producer, for example, Outokumpu is not only responsible for creating a great product, but also for doing it as sustainably as possible, ensuring long-term business excellence, continuously engaging with stakeholders, and maintaining as much competitive advantage as possible throughout — and GAI is creating countless new possibilities around all of the above.

We are now faced not just with using artificial intelligence to optimize production, but also regarding things like workplace safety, training and skill development, recruitment and employee wellbeing, marketing, customer service, communications, and more. Simultaneously, we must consider the ethical and legal aspects of GAI adoption and maintain an awareness of shifting industry and regulatory standards.

These challenges are significant, but the opportunities are immense — if we can recognize and act on them. The question is, how?


Widening the funnel, changing the culture

Innovation works like a funnel. Ideas go into the mouth of the funnel, pass through a system of filters and purifiers, and some emerge as impactful innovations at the other end. But thanks to GAI, incredibly innovative ideas can now come from almost anywhere in an organization, not only from a dedicated innovation team for example. In other words, the mouth of the funnel can now be as wide as a company is willing to make it.

Unsurprisingly, this can lead to shifts in organizational culture. As technology evolves, so do behaviors, expectations, and fears, so adopting new tools successfully requires fostering a certain kind of environment, where experimentation and diverse contributions are valued, where new processes are communicated clearly, and where engagement is rewarded with a sense of ownership.

If you said this environment sounds more like it belongs to a technology startup than an established stainless steel producer, you’d be right. But this is where AI — especially GAI — is pushing us. It takes effort, but traditional companies are capable of agile behavior. What the trajectory of GAI is showing us is that this agility isn’t only possible, it’s necessary.


Envisioning the future

It is difficult to make predictions about how GAI — or other forms of AI — will affect companies in the future, including those in our own industry. Early signs point to the possibility of increasing productivity throughout all levels of the business. A lot of manual work can be automated, increasing efficiency and reliability. However, that might be just the beginning.

An AI-generated vision of how Outokumpu’s plant in Tornio, Finland, could look in the future (picture generated by using Mid Journey AI)

With AI, we can also likely
optimize production against constant, real-time analysis of multiple factors including raw material pricing, process operations, greenhouse gas emissions, and more. No AI will magically solve fundamental business problems, but where data, operations, and strategy are already good, AI stands to make them better.

Additionally, there are almost no limits to how AI can be used in research and development contexts. In the future, it may be able to help us identify new ways to create and combine materials, reduce our carbon footprint, or otherwise revolutionize our processes. As these possibilities emerge, however, we also have to be mindful of AI’s own footprint, and ensure we use it responsibly.

The bottom line is that the challenges and opportunities created by GAI largely consist of unknowns. As such, there is no single right way to approach them. It can help, however, to remember that the driving force within any organization is people, and effective digital transformations, regardless of the technology they are built around, must still be human-focused. From ethics to applications, the results we get from AI correlate directly with our ability to successfully shape the culture in which it exists.

In short, leveraging GAI requires a few things: a wide innovation funnel, a strategic approach, and a willingness to support the cultural shifts that will enable that approach. In embracing these, the future of stainless steel is ours to envision and build — together, made to last.