Software and steel

Posted on 9 Jul 2012

From half-drowned downbeat to world beater, Sheffield Forgemasters has come a long way since its nadir in 2005. Graham Honeyman explains how brainpower, software and market demand for super-safe components has led to its latest company, RD26.

A few years ago Sheffield Forgemasters was a on its knees. Following several years of poor management under a US parent devoted to making steel for markets where the company could not compete, it was rescued by some prescient-minded businessmen in a management buyout. But the steelmaker carried enormous debts, its workforce was rudderless, and to cap it all, Sheffield’s big floods in 2007 wrecked half the factory.

Seven years on, Sheffield Forgemasters International Ltd (SFIL) is exporting products worldwide and has just launched its seventh spin-off company.

RD26 is a pure technology consultancy, selling carefully calculated methods for manufacturing complex steel components. These manufacturing ‘recipes’ will often be sold without the need to make prototype parts, saving huge costs for both customer and steelmaker.

“We were getting more and more questions about what our research department can do,” says CEO Graham Honeyman, a key player in the turnaround story. “Several high profile companies globally want this type of work. It is one of the fastest growing departments in the company and we believe that we will become one of the best research companies related to castings and forgings probably worldwide.”

CEO of Sheffield Forgemasters Graham Honeyman
CEO of Sheffield Forgemasters International Ltd, Graham Honeyman

Forgemasters is a unique company: in a series of giant buildings, 750-tonne presses work side-by-side with 400-tonne gantry cranes pouring molten steel to cast and forge mega-parts for the oil and gas and nuclear power sectors. But it has competition, especially in Japan, Korea and France. Why is the new consultancy special?

“A specific advantage is that we can actually simulate processing on our computer before we make any parts. We don’t do any experimental work and then see whether it has worked or not.”

SFIL has accumulated a vast array of software, which has been modified extensively by RD26 – named after managing director Prof Jesus Talamantes-Silva and his team. These that combine to create a process route for special steel alloys.

“It’s not a straight simulation, you can modify features to get the optimum way of making something,” says Mr Honeyman. “You often have to make a prototype, but it’s one now rather than several. The system is so good that the made component will come out with precisely the same properties as the on screen simulation. Customers want to examine all the data, and you can now make these parts with extreme confidence.”

With steel prices stubbornly high, the time and material costs saved by this precise simulation amounts to several million pounds a year and helps to improve the quality of SFIL’s current products, as well as new structures. Honeyman says there are three clear benefits. “It requires less steel to produce a component and you get a better product. New designs come in that we’ve never made and we can develop a cost effective route of manufacture, which gives us a commercial advantage. And thirdly, customers are often impressed when they see the amount of data and the part – they think “these boys know what they’re doing”.”

Risk of selling IP

SFIL has lawyers working on its intellectual property carefully. “We used to feed out the manufacturing methods. But the technology has moved on so far in the last few years we’re getting nervous about the amount of data leaving the company,” says Honeyman.

Many say that UK manufacturing needs better PR and branding. SFIL finds that its Sheffield provenance has leveraged its marketing, and it has made a trademark of its name. “Certain companies [customers] have brochures which use photos of SFIL. The Sheffield brand is very powerful; we’re becoming more iconic in that way and we need to protect ourselves,” he adds.

Honeyman says the direction for Forgemasters’ recovery, and new business strategy, comes internally. “The strategy is to simply stay ahead of the game. Remember we are competing against some very low cost countries here, and we need to offer the best technology there is on the market.”

“It’s getting to the point where people are taking such a strong interest in this company,” he adds. “Its deep research – nobody’s got the combination of software and modified software to simulate manufacturing processes that we have.”

Safety and confidence

Precisely how does the software explore the casting process?

“We can take some molten steel and look at the solidification process before it even gets to a solid state, so we know what the internal composition looks like and we can check its physical properties,” says Honeyman. “And it calculates how far we can ‘quench’ things to get the best toughness – there’s a whole lot of material issues. In the end we not only want a product that meets customer requirements but that significantly exceeds their needs. They think ‘this is ultra-safe if we use it for this application.”

Catastrophe has driven the worldwide interest in the integrity of heavy steel components. Events like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and Japan’s tsunami and Fukushima nuclear incident have spurred oil and energy companies to invest more heavily in the structural properties of parts like anchor cleats for offshore platforms.

“Customers now want intelligent thinking in the way things are made,” says Honeyman. “They send technologists here to discuss things with our technologists. After Fukushima people want something of minimal risk. And they will pay more money for higher integrity, and that’s where Sheffield Forgemasters needs to take our name.
“The public demands it too – roads, railway lines, ships; everybody wants the safest infrastructure.”

Forgemasters is a 200-year old company forging ahead with a heady combination of fire and steel, brainpower and software.

Will Stirling