The Manufacturer catches up with Sheffield Forgemasters’ group development director, Mark Tomlinson.
Demand for UK steel has, not surprisingly, dropped since 2007 and the financial crisis. Do you see the UK steel industry rebounding anytime soon?
There is a mixed picture with some sectors performing well, while others lag behind. I think a general recovery in all markets is some time off and must be led by an improvement in industry confidence.
We all hope for a period of stability and growth following the election in May, but it will take time for that to filter through the supply chain to raw material producers.
What do you see as the key barriers standing in the way of the UK steel industry becoming as profitable and productive as it was pre-recession?
The issues that concern steelmakers at the moment are those of competitiveness and skills. We have a very efficient steel industry, but it is faced with a distorted competitive environment where things like non-wholesale power costs are hugely different both across Europe and even more so across the world.
By 2020 it’s estimated that half of our power costs will be made up of elements of green taxation and support for infrastructure that our competitors are largely insulated against, even though their environmental performance may be worse.
Protection against these artificial charges has been agreed by Government, but a decision on how much and how soon this might be applied is still awaited.
Skills are a key issue in the modern production environment. We need a healthy steel industry to act as the foundation of advanced manufacturing.
Young people with the right blend of skills and attitude will shape the future of a balanced economy, and it is critical that the manufacturing supply chain is allowed to play its part in securing a talented and well-trained workforce. Continued support for employer-led training is essential.
Looking more directly at Sheffield Forgemasters what work, if any, has been carried out in recent years to help keep energy expenditures in check?
One of the biggest advances in energy efficiency in recent years has been the ease with which energy (and carbon) accounting has allowed business decisions to be made based on improved information.
Sheffield Forgemasters has been able to challenge and improve performance based on enhanced monitoring and reporting of energy use and carbon emissions.
Since the 1990 benchmark year, our carbon emissions have dropped more than 40% and improved planning, the replacement of inefficient equipment and the implementation of innovative production methods have all contributed to optimise our use of energy.
Despite the recent drop in demand for UK steel, Forgemasters has been on a growth path, with the new expansion and forging press installed in 2010. How has this affected business since, are there any plans for further expansion?
As a privately owned company, all our profits are reinvested in the business. This has allowed us to significantly improve and expand our facilities over recent years.
We have invested more than £55m in capital equipment including a new forge and machine shop as well as significant investment in product and process improvements and developing our R&D expertise.
These investments have allowed us to reduce subcontract processing, access new markets and reach further down the supply chain in terms of extra added value both in manufacturing and, importantly, design.
Further expansion is planned in our “non-manufactured” output where we believe the application of our world class R&D and our unrivalled experience can benefit a range of new customers looking for more than just traditional build-to-print work.
Despite the image of the steel industry being “dirty, dusty, heavy work”, it appears Sheffield Forgemasters has managed to keep a fairly strong stream of recruitment in the region. What actions are being put in place to make sure the business has a solid future workforce?
As an advanced manufacturer, we compliment the “dirty, dusty, heavy work” with the application of world class research, technical discipline and commitment to quality to ensure that our workforce can be justifiably proud of the components we produce.
The ability to take part in making some of the world’s biggest and best forgings and castings is an understandable draw for the region’s best talent. We also recognise that because of the specialist nature of our production process, “growing our own” future workforce is a key undertaking.