Green steel

Posted on 3 Jun 2010 by The Manufacturer

Can steel, a highly processed material with high energy input in manufacture, be an environmentally sustainable product? Roberto Priolo speaks to Corus Colors, the pre-finished steel products manufacturer that has made workforce empowerment and sustainability its war horses.

Next to the steel galvanizing line in Corus Colors’ plant in Shotton, North Wales, a mirror hung on the wall bears a sentence: ‘The person responsible for your safety is…’ The idea of empowering workers and making them aware of the importance of their job, of their responsabilities and of the company’s objectives is in essence the core of Corus Colors’ vision.

With over 40 years experience of manufacturing prefinished steel, Corus Colors, a division of the Corus Group, part of Indian conglomerate Tata, offers a wide range of pre-finished steel products for use in a large number of applications, from bakeware to furniture, from fridge-freezers to building envelopes.

The six Corus Colors manufacturing sites across Europe focus on different products: Shotton, which employs around 1,000 people, produces Colorcoat pre-finished steel and galvanised steel for the construction market. The site’s mission is to become “the centre of excellence in sustainable building” and its performance makes this goal appear closer and closer: £500m turnover, investments of more than £60m over the last 5 years, annual output of 1.2 million tonnes and an environmental strategy set to cut the plant’s carbon footprint by 50% by 2012.

Peter Wilks, general manager, says: “The whole strategy of Shotton is focused on the building industry, specifically on roof and wall cladding. We create maintenance-free steel, and we can deliver our two market-leading products, Colorcoat HPS200 Ultra and Colorcoat Prisma, in 10 days from order.

We have been in the lead for 40 years and we simply offer a better product. That’s the reason behind our success.” The raw material reaches the site (that is over 100 years old and originally belonged to John Summers & Sons) from Corus’ steelworks in Port Talbot, South Wales, by rail. The steel goes into the galvanizing lines, where it is coated with zinc or Galvalloy, a zinc and aluminium alloy, to prevent it from rusting. Half of it then makes up the feedstock for one of the two Colorcoat lines.

Around 50% of Corus Colors’ output is exported, mainly to Northern and Eastern Europe.

Lines are operated by nine to 12 men, 12 days every two weeks. It is a job of high responsibility that requires different skills sets. “Lines work semi-automatically, but there can be a lot of manual intervention required,” says Richard Sidebottom, the company’s manufacturing manager. Sometimes, on the Colorcoat lines, paint colours are changed two or three times an hour, depending on what is required by the customers. Two paint heads are used on the line, one to apply the paint whilst the other is prepared for the next colour. “When many colours are changed in a day, the hard thing to do is keeping the same output,” says Sidebottom.

Speed can also be adjusted depending on the desired thickness of the steel: thicker layers will require a speed as low as 50 metres per minute, thinner ones will have the line working at 110 metres/minute. Keeping the right balance of (among other elements) speed, temperature, zinc input and use of colours is a tricky operation, and the process is monitored throughout.

Diverse skills, short lead-times
“The challenge is to maintain all sorts of skills. The guys need to know what they are doing,” says Sidebottom. “If there is something specific we can’t train them to do, we’ll get an external body to help us. For key skills, we use people from the lines to train others. We also check the effectiveness of the training.”

Employees with experience on the lines (the average worker has worked at the plant for 20-25 years) train newly hired staff, but refresher training is also carried out for all. Bill Duckworth, manager of logistics and business processes, adds: “It’s an ongoing process. The trainers are always around, they pick people up on a regular basis, particularly if they are doing certain tasks like driving cranes or internal transport. We need to test them to make sure they are up to scratch.” Given the wide array of skills needed to run the plant, basic training can take from four weeks for simpler tasks, to at least three months for line operators. “There is a big difference between training a new recruit or somebody who has worked here for a long time. The idea is to try and get people who are flexible in terms of the roles they can perform and the lines they can work on,” Duckworth adds.

Health and safety is a great concern. Hazards, clearly stated on boards throughout the plants, range from moving equipment to toxic substances. Audits and individual safety meetings with the staff are held on a regular basis. The same principle applies to other areas of the business: the worker is aware of risks, challenges, problems, company targets – features of Corus Colors workforce empowerment programme . Performance, for example, is reviewed and monitored on a shift base. “It’s not to create competition. By being able to see how others did a task, what others have accomplished, workers ask each other questions and advice,” Sidebottom explains. “With a 10-day lead time it’s very important to us that workers understand the needs of the business.” Quality checks are carried out throughout the manufacturing process, with a final inspection set up to make sure the colour and thickness of steel are right. “Every time the plant stops, we measure how long it stopped for, and whether it was due to an engineering issue or to an operational issue. We investigate each delay and identify the actions required to prevent that delay from happening again. Over the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve seen good improvement across the lines and better performance,” Sidebottom says.

Performance is measured and presented at weekly and monthly briefs, through reviewing order deliveries and the analysis of customer complaints.

Corus Colors is very successful in the UK, with a share of 75% of the prefinished steel market. “We realised we had to get our lead time within the customer’s lead time, to stop our customers ‘guessing’ what they wanted and start working around known requirements. Lead time for most steelmaking companies is traditionally four to six weeks. We take orders 10 days before customers need the product – we basically don’t know what 30 per cent of our order book looks like two weeks in advance,” Duckworth explains.

Initially this put pressure on the manufacturing team, as they were challenged to improve the efficiency of the way they changed colour quickly.

But ultimately the company was rewarded with a substantial decrease in its finished stock. Thanks to this system, Corus Colors now offers its customers a responsive service and provide them with what they need at short notice, so that they in turn don’t carry much stock, saving inventory and capital.

General manager Peter Wilks comments on the company’s way of dealing with clients and partners.

“We work very closely with a relatively small number of aligned supply chain partners, and we sell these products together to the end client. We want to see the products used correctly, and we can actually help clients design better buildings that perform better, are more energy efficient and never need maintenance.” In the UK and Irish markets, Corus’ supply chain partners, who use the Colorcoat pre-finished steel in coil form to manufacture building profiles and panels, include CA Group, Corus Panels and Profiles, Eurobond, Euroclad and Tegral, while flat sheets are available from “accredited distributors” Capital Coated Steel, Colorsteels and Euroclad.

Clients who benefit from the products and services that the supply chain offers range from big developers, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer to schools and stadia.

Product range key to success
The Shotton site produces the successful Colorcoat brand, which encompasses a range of pre-finished steel products, and is a good example of Corus Colors’ ability to appeal to a large market through the offer of new, modern products and an approach based on customers’ needs. The most innovative product is Colorcoat HPS200 Ultra which has a guarantee up to 40 years and is available in a variety of different colours.

Chatterly Valley, which used Colorcoat Prisma in graduated greens, was the first building to be declared ‘Outstanding’ in the UK by the Buildings Research Establishment’s Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM). The Colorcoat range also includes products for houses, which are proving successful.

According to Wilks, a steel roof is now “the signature of a sustainable residential development”. Colorcoat Urban is the company’s answer to the market needs in this area: Corus Colors supplied the roof for the UK’s first zero carbon development in Hanham, outside Bristol.

High quality, zero maintenance and zero carbon pre-finished steel products represent Corus Colors’ biggest achievement. The company has invested heavily in Research & Development over many years and also calls upon the expertise of independent organisations like the Steel Construction Institute and Oxford Brooks University. The company claims to differentiate itself by adding technical knowledge, and therefore value, to its products.

Wilks adds: “Many people think steel is an old-fashion material, but it’s actually very modern. The industry is very dynamic, always changing”.

Although its business has strong ties to the construction industry, the company managed to keep its head above water during the economic downturn by implementing work flexibility and operational reconfiguration, without enforced redundancies to the workforce. “We reacted very quickly in the fall of 2008,” Wilks confirms.

Focusing on product differentiation and devoting efforts to better understand the needs of the market are some of the strategic measures the company adopts to remain competitive. “We have to keep reinventing the business, for example with the relaunch of Colorcoat Prisma and by offering new products and services,” says Duckworth.

A big ongoing issue the company is powerless to solve, however, is the volatility of energy and raw material prices. In the past, Corus Colors has spent up to £25m on energy and £90m on zinc a year.

Corus Colors goes green
This drive towards reinvention is evident on the Shotton site, which has an impressive environmental performance.

Corus Colors’ interest in sustainability is not new. In 2002, the company gave a series of seminars on sustainable building design around the UK. It was the first steel manufacturer to take out heavy metals used in the coating process. “We are still the only steel company in the world to offer a zero carbon building envelope,” Wilks adds.

Producing pre-finished steel is considered better than powder coating, not just for economic reasons, but also because as a process it creates considerably less waste. Shotton is determined to do its part to tackle global warming, both on its efficiency performance and on the carbon content of its products. This is part of a wider strategy to establish itself as a focal point for sustainable building. For example, as part of a joint venture with Australian company Dyesol, Corus Colors is trying to develop a low cost system to apply a photovoltaic coating directly to steel.

“We are involved in the production of massive buildings, typically 20,000 square meters but it can be as much as 100,000 square meters. If we can apply an energyproducing coating directly to steel, we can functionalise the whole roof area of a building,” says Wilks. “This has incredible potential: if we produced, say, 60 million square metres of steel a year for roofing applications and if all of that was coated with this photovoltaic material, it would be the equivalent of building a nuclear power station every two years.” The process, which is the result of a £10m investment, is similar in principle to photosynthesis and uses special dyes to produce electricity. The technology has a number of benefits, and works well in low and diffuse light which is perfect for areas like the UK. The manufacturing process does not use carbon intensive vacuum processes so the carbon embodiment in the finished product should be lower. It also offers the potential for low cost, high volume manufacturing. Combining these benefits with the millions of square metres of roof material Corus Colors supplies allows the company to overcome the lower operational efficiency and make this a potentially attractive investment for customers.

SolarWall is another solution that shows the company’s commitment to manufacturing sustainable products.

Developed for the UK in collaboration with CA Group, it is an aesthetically pleasing, astonishingly simple method of low carbon dioxide solar air heating, with collector efficiencies as high as 80 percent. Installed as an additional skin to a building’s southerly facing elevation, the system consists of a pre-finished steel sheet with thousands of tiny air perforations uniformly spaced across the full face of the collector.

As sunlight strikes the surface of SolarWall and is absorbed, solar heat conducts to the thermal boundary layer of air which lines the outer surface of the panel. This heated boundary layer is drawn through the perforations (by means of a ventilation fan) into the cavity space so it can then be distributed through the building to offset its heating load and provide the necessary ventilation – reducing the amount of energy required for heating and the associated CO2 emissions.

Corus Colors and CA Group installed Solarwall on the Jaguar Land Rover Academy near Leamington Spa, cutting the training centre’s energy bill by 50%. “It’s a terrific application of low-energy technology that any company, hospital or school can use,” says Wilks. “It doesn’t need to be a huge surface, it’s usually around 200 square metres on a southerly-facing wall.”

Corus Colors’ sustainability performance also includes the way operations are run on a daily basis.

The company is aiming to reduce Shotton’s carbon emissions by 50% by 2012. Emissions reduction are now past 25%, and the ‘Energy from Waste’ programme, that is being developed together with third party companies providing waste management solutions, and will be operational at the end of year, will ensure the target is met.

The scheme will take 160,000 tonnes of black bag refuse from the Flintshire area and convert it into fuel pellets that will be processed in a gasification plant to produce around 10MW of electricity, enough to power the entire plant. In addition, the amount of waste going to local landfill will fall by 90%.

Wilks comments: “We are constructing Phase 1, the waste treatment plant. Phase 2, which we hope to reach before the end of this year, is the gasifier. The programme is a great equation: it not only helps to solve a big problem for the local authority, but it actually underpins jobs on site as well.

It’s truly the perfect solution.” Other sustainability initiatives include recycling steam for heating purposes, the fitting of a regenerative oxidiser on one of the lines which cut consumption of natural gas by 60%, the installation of a railhead so that all feedstock now comes by rail (from South Wales, saving three million lorry miles per year) and the recovering of 95% of Shotton’s zinc pot waste and of solvents used for washdowns between colour changes.

Lean, the Shotton way
The Shotton Way is Corus Colors’ onsite lean programme.

“We visited what we considered to be best practice organisations to see what they did, to adapt it to our individual circumstances. We came up with ‘The Shotton Way’, which breaks the issue down into manageable chunks. That’s where we would like to end up, but we realise we are not going to get there in a year,” Duckworth says. “We’re not launching a massive programme, but want to sure that we are heading in the right direction towards a defined end point,” he adds.

The purpose of the programme is to find a way to make it as simple as possible for everybody to understand what the business’ requirements and targets are. “The difficulty with six sigma, continuous improvement and lean is that they are hard to explain to people. The hard part is to make the message pass through to the workforce,” Wilks confirms.

The programme looks at how Corus Colors delivers results, and is simplified in a schematic chart that identifies, through questions, what the business tries to achieve, what everybody is expected to do, how workers can work better together, how they can make the job as simple as possible.

Wilks says, “We reorganised about three years ago, to bring in some clarity and simplicity. We identified sales, manufacturing and logistics as our three main activities, and the other functional areas are there to support them.

The trick is to make sure that we have alignment between these areas, that the Key Performance Indicators are aligned too and that we are all working towards the same goals.” The clarity of roles and responsibilities, visual management, high standards of the workplace, the team ownership of goals and the removal of waste and bottlenecks are of paramount importance to achieve efficiency.

Duckworth agrees. “We’ve, improved the way we communicate with the entire workforce, and not just the senior managers, what the business needs. We sit with the guys for a couple of hours every 6 months and we talk them through how the business is doing and what we’re trying to achieve,” he says.