Luxembourg, December 17, 2020

"Our highly qualified staff is a key to the success of Paul Wurth"

Interview with Georges Rassel, CEO of Paul Wurth on the occasion of the 150th birthday of the company

Georges Rassel, CEO Paul Wurth, talks in an interview about the success story Paul Wurth and explains how the company is making the steel industry greener.

Mr. Rassel, Paul Wurth celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. What is the formula for the success of the company?

I can summarize the formula of Paul Wurth’s success in three terms: innovative strength, flexibility and our employees. During all those years, our innovations have enabled us to promote the development of the market and be regarded as a highly competent and reliable partner by our customers. And, thanks to a great deal of flexibility, we have proved to be able to adapt not only to the requirements and demands of the market, but also to the specific needs of the regions in which our customers are based. Last but not least, our highly qualified staff is a key to the success of Paul Wurth. It’s our employees who are in regular contact with our customers around the globe. They discuss with them the potentials and benefits of innovations, and they are the ones who listen to our customers’ proposals and understand their concerns, should there be any. Good leadership and team spirit are two other essential elements of our company’s success. As a company with its roots in Luxembourg, we benefit yet from another aspect: The inhabitants of Luxembourg – and therefore most of our employees – are generally multi-lingual, with a multi-cultural background. This additionally facilitates communication with our customers located on all five continents.

Were there any decisions and strategies that – in retrospect - turned out to be milestones in the company history?
Paul Wurth workshop at the beginning of the 20th century: assembly of a blast furnace segment for the Differdange works.

The company started as a boilermaking facility 50 years ago. During the first decades of its existence, Paul Wurth was a typical manufacturing company, fabricating products on the basis of drawings provided by the customers. We were subsuppliers to a wide range of companies active in steel production and construction. An important milestone event took place in the early 1950s, when Paul Wurth acquired a license to build complete blast furnaces, including the engineering. This was the starting signal to expand the engineering department, marking the transition from a manufacturing to an engineering company. Engineers became a key asset of our company, not least due to the fact that they became the developers of many of our innovations.

In 1970, we launched an entirely new, revolutionary blast furnace charging system. The new technology enabled rapid productivity increases and was – given the standards of that time – considered an ecofriendly production process. Blast furnace operators from all over the world got in contact with us, as they were interested in our innovative system and considering using it on their furnaces. Definitely from that time on, the name Paul Wurth has been standing for innovation among ironmakers the world over. For us, our BELL LESS TOP® blast furnace charging system was a door opener to the world markets. Before, our activities had been limited to Luxembourg and the rest of Europe. 50 years ago, we started to establish what is today a world-spanning network.

In 2004, we decided to close down our workshop in Luxembourg. In other words, we had to give up what had formed the roots of the company 150 years ago – our manufacturing activities. An extremely painful, though essential, process, which – thanks to the lower overhead costs – enabled us to enhance our competitiveness. As a matter of course, Paul Wurth continued to maintain its highly efficient worldwide network of third-party manufacturing partners.

In 2012, we became a company of SMS group. This marked another key milestone in the history of Paul Wurth, as SMS group supported us, for example, in acquiring the license for building Midrex® direct reduction plants – a future-oriented technology that will play an important role for promoting CO2-free steelmaking. The exchange with SMS group forms a solid base for our future. Developing today technologies for tomorrow will result in both our companies growing together even closer.

Paul Wurth supports plant operators with a range of services. What’s the role of service today?
Blast furnace 1 of Hyundai Steel

During the last few years, we have made service one of our top priorities. This is why we have established service workshops at locations the world over – including Brazil, China, India, Russia and the U.S.A. This allows us to overhaul, repair and service products originally made in Europe. Apart from the technical service they perform, our workshops are also able to take in manufacturing jobs. An area where we are planning to expand our activities is after-sales support. We want to be a life cycle partner to our customers, a partner they rely on at all times. We will make increasing use of digitalization – for example in order to be able to log in to our customers’ facilities to render immediate support whenever required. 

More and more plant operators have been asking us whether we would make our service know-how also available for third-party equipment. Yes, we also offer service for third-party equipment in addition to the service of Paul Wurth plants. Actually, it is not all about selling services. It is our aim to support our customers as best as we can in making their production plants even  better.

Currently, digitalization and environmental protection are much-discussed topics in the media and the public. How does Paul Wurth go about these issues?

As early as several years ago, we set up an internal digitalization team to push this extremely important topic ahead - with great success, as we have made great advancements in this area. And, we maintain an extremely efficient exchange with SMS digital. Products developed by Paul Wurth are now also available on the digitalization platform of SMS group.

When we developed the BELL LESS TOP® 50 years ago, productivity increases and environmental protection were considered as two entirely separate issues. This, however, has dramatically changed with the launch of many innovative technologies we have developed, as our pressure control system for blast furnaces, for example. We have been concentrating on developing solutions that optimize production and reduce emissions at the same time. Recently, we have been seeing customers ask for products that have been part of our range long since, but for which there is now an increasing need in order to be able to comply with the ever more stringent environmental standards. In other words, it now pays off that we have been very active in the field of environmental protection for so many years. 

Especially today, our development activities continue to concentrate on environmental topics. Last year, for example, we joined Sunfire, a Cleantech company, as a lead investor. This cooperation marks another chapter of our initiatives to develop climate-neutral technologies for the steel industry. Sunfire develops and commercializes own innovative electrolysis processes for the production of hydrogen from water and for the production of synthetic fuels.

This sounds like a highly promising cooperation. What can the market expect as a result of your partnership with Sunfire?
Sunfire Hylink-module for highly efficient hydrogen production using industrial waste heat (steam).

We believe that hydrogen will be crucial on the path to CO2-free industries. Sunfire has developed a hydrogen technology, which is based on high-temperature  electrolysis, using waste heat from ironmaking processes. A very special feature of this process is that it uses steam instead of cold water. Thus, it requires 20 to 30 percent less energy for the production of hydrogen than the common electrolysis process. Hydrogen will in the future be increasingly substituting coking coal as a reducing agent. It can also be used as a base material for synthetic fuels, enabling the production of e-fuels which are likely to become the fuels of the future - for planes, trucks and ships, for example, for which electrical propulsion technologies may not be available in the near or even the more remote future. 

In a first pilot project in Norway, in which we participate together with Sunfire, hydrogen and CO2 coming from an industrial source are processed into e-kerosene by means of a technique that involves the rearrangement of molecules. This will certainly become a highly interesting market, in which we can build on our expertise as a global player in plant engineering. For the steel industry, we are developing another lighthouse project in cooperation with Sunfire, so that the first “ton of green steel” can soon be produced. 2025 - this is the deadline we have set ourselves to demonstrate the feasibility of this project.

Looking into the future, which topics is Paul Wurth going to focus on in the next few years?

Hydrogen technology for industrial applications may become a second mainstay of Paul Wurth. Should this materialize, it is good to know that SMS group will be around to back us as a strong partner in implementing the technologies and the newly to be created infrastructures. 

However, this will not keep us from continuing to satisfy our traditional customers’ requirements and wishes. We will continue helping blast furnace and cokemaking plant operators reduce their production costs and the CO2 footprint of their existing facilities. In addition, we will continue working to enhance the availability of their production plants. We will no cease cooperating closely with research institutes and universities to make the steel industry greener. In our endeavor to develop technologies that will lead to the greening of the steel industry, we once in a while hear people uttering doubts about the feasibility of the technology. In such cases I would quote the writer Robert Lerch: “Never will wings grow on those who do not dream of flying.” And we do want to fly!