What does the future hold for the UK steel industry?

The age of steel dawned around 150 years ago. To ensure it continues for centuries to come, foundries will need to embrace new materials, technologies, processes and industrial innovations. Thankfully, the UK steel industry is already at the cutting-edge of technical developments.

The US has announced that aluminium and steel tariffs on imports from the EU are to come into force - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Continued global overcapacity in the steel sector demonstrates the need for effective and meaningful innovation – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

No one can argue that the UK steel industry has faced – and continues to face – challenging conditions.

High energy costs have exposed our nation’s producers to decades of low growth and increased competition from imports.

Things came to a head in Autumn 2015 when cheap Chinese steel – of reportedly questionable quality – flooded the global market, resulting in the closure or reduction in capacity at major plants in Redcar, Scunthorpe, Scotland and South Wales.

It’s thought that around 7,000 jobs have been directly affected to date.

The sluggish and arguably ineffective reaction from Sajid Javid – Secretary for Business, Innovation and Skills at the time, and current Home Secretary – won him little respect from industry, trade associations and trade unions alike.

More recently, Donald Trump took matters into his own tiny hands by imposing tariffs on US imports of steel (25%) and aluminium (10%). Intended as a largely tit-for-tat measure against Chinese dumping, the result is a rather blunt approach to what was, and remains, a complex global issue – overcapacity.

Change is the only constant

Continued global overcapacity in the steel sector demonstrates the need for effective and meaningful innovation. Luckily, the UK has led the world in the field of industrial innovation for centuries. It’s a pedigree that is still very much alive today and nowhere more so than in our nation’s foundries.

  • The UK steel industry employs 32,000 people
  • The UK steel industry comprises 600 businesses
  • The UK steel industry contributes £1.6bn to the economy
  • Compared to the 1970s, many jobs in today’s steel industry are highly skilled and command greater salaries, but fewer people are required overall
  • Steel produces 25% of global industrial emissions, or 6%-10% of total global emissions

*Figures courtesy of UK Steel

A recent ‘Innovation Day’ demonstrated exactly that by showcasing the dynamic people already driving the steel industry forward and the future opportunities the sector represents through the supply chain.

UK steel industry The 'Innovation Day' took place in London’s iconic Science Museum - image courtesy of UK Steel.
The ‘Innovation Day’ took place in London’s iconic Science Museum – image courtesy of UK Steel.

Organised by UK Steel – the sector’s trade association and a division of EEF, the event took place in London’s iconic Science Museum and explored how R&D can unlock the potential for a sustainable, profitable steel industry.

The packed agenda offered keynotes from the likes of Liberty Steel, Tata Steel, Siemens, Heathrow Airport, and Green Alliance, with a lively audience putting tough questions to the speakers throughout the day.

“Too often, steel is in the news for the wrong reasons,” declared Jon Bolton, CEO of Liberty Steel and Chair of UK Steel. “Today, we are celebrating all the positives, the successes and opportunities.”

Green steel?

According to Bolton, the word ‘innovation’ is used too often and applied to anything and everything to the extent that it has become almost trivial. “Innovation is far from trivial or simple. It is challenging, complicated and difficult,” he noted.

Difficult it may be, but Liberty Steel’s innovative ‘Greensteel’ initiative could represent a game-changer. Traditional steel is made by smelting iron ore with carbon in blast furnaces, in the process producing massive amounts of CO2. Greensteel is made by melting existing scrap steel in electric arc furnaces.

Currently, the UK imports about 6.5 million tonnes of raw or semi-finished steel a year, while exporting 8 million tonnes in scrap metal – most of it steel. Greensteel offers the opportunity to reduce those imports and to recycle steel and other metals.

This Spring, The Manufacturer’s Nick Peters spoke with Jon Bolton to discuss the practical reality of Liberty’s Greensteel initiative. You can read their conversation here.

Responsibility of action

How the UK metals sector can be made more sustainable was a theme that ran through several of the day’s presentations, particularly that of Julian Allwood, a professor of engineering and the environment at the University of Cambridge.

Metal Steel processing plant - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
“Steel is the most circular material on the planet; it is a permanent, versatile, infinitely recyclable feedstock” – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Professor Allwood presented the findings of his research into the steel industry supply chain which forecast that the supply of UK scrap steel would rise from 10 million to 20 million tonnes a year.

“Steel is the most circular material on the planet; it is a permanent, versatile, infinitely recyclable feedstock,” he said, adding that the world will “never need more blast furnaces” because our future needs for virgin steel could be met by recycling scrap.

That paradigm shift would become far easier to realise via a trio of improvements, he added: better design and manufacture of metal-based products resulting in less scrap; the construction sector placing greater emphasis on adapting buildings, rather than demolish and rebuilding; and industries doing more to avoid over-specification.

“Automotive manufacturers currently scrap around half of all the steel they purchase, largely because steel producers insist they buy in standard-sized coils,” he said. “This issue is particularly acute in metal blanking, where a shape is punched out from a strip of material.

“The textile industry is much better at blanking in comparison because its makes better use of technologies such as intelligent blanking and laser cutting.”

Developing an alternative to deep drawing could also represent another way of reducing wastage, he suggested.

Generative design

The steel industry – particularly in the UK – has always paid a significant amount for energy, and therefore, businesses have become very efficient at using it. This means the opportunities for future efficiencies are pretty limited, according to Professor Allwood.

Man is cleaning with brush object printed on 3d metal printer from metal additive manufacturing - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Additive manufacturing represents a totally new model, one where complexity or one-offs don’t equate to a higher cost – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

As a result, the world is likely to produce far less than the 1,600 million tonnes of steel currently being produced every year. Instead of focusing on volume, steel producers will emphasise using less metal in products, but with a higher value.

One way of achieving that, according to Steve Pallant of Primetals Technologies, is via additive manufacturing (AM).

Manufacturing methods have traditionally utilised four techniques: subtraction, casting, forming and joining, and designers largely think and design using these four principles. AM represents a totally new model, one where complexity or one-offs don’t equate to a higher cost.

“Additive manufacturing offers numerous advantages, including design freedom, lightweighting, process optimisation, new supply chains, part consolidation, improved performance, economies of scale at low volume, and the ability to internally route cabling, fluids or sensors,” said Pallant.

“AM could also help meet our sustainability targets as we shift from shipping parts to sending design files for printing on site.”

Many manufacturers are already using additive manufacturing to produce end-parts, such as Siemens (gas turbine blades); GE (aircraft seat buckles and engine fuel nozzles); Aristo Cast (lost-wax casting), and Callebaut (chocolate confectionary).

Use cases may be increasing; however, challenges do persist, Pallant said. These range from market inertia (‘what we’ve got is good enough for now’), weak customer demand due to uncertainty of finished parts, and appetite for change – are companies hungry enough to take advantage of the opportunity? A fitting question which aptly summarises the entire day’s proceedings.

A sustainable future

Like most industrial sectors, the future of steel is uncertain. Steel and its wider supply chain has the means to address almost every major societal challenge we face – efficient resource management and adaption to climate change, industrial renewal, sustainability, social mobility, modern urban environments and innovative societies.

Yet, doing so relies on developing and investing in new materials, technologies and processes, working together and becoming innovation ‘magpies’. 

Innovation in action at British Steel

UK steel industry British Steel’s David Egner - image courtesy of UK Steel.
British Steel’s David Egner – image courtesy of UK Steel.

British Steel’s David Egner reminded us that society is defined by the material it produces – the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age.

He noted that as a material producer that ‘makes things that make everything else’, British Steel is at the heart of society and technology and therefore feels a tremendous amount of responsibility to innovate.

Innovation comes in a variety of areas, Egner continued, but the objective is always the same – creating greater product and customer value while using less steel. He offered four examples of exactly that in practice:

FORM:

Doppelmayr is a market leader in ropeway engineering. The Austro-Swiss company manufactures chairlifts, cable cars, gondolas, surface tows and funiculars for ski and amusement parks and urban environments. Much of these people movers rely on a bullwheel – a large wheel on which a rope turns.

Historically, bullwheels are made by welding a handful of pieces together, but this creates points of weakness which need to be periodically assessed and replaced. British Steel has created the world’s first ready rolled, single-piece bullwheel which doesn’t require welding, eliminating the time and cost of maintenance.

MECHANICAL:

Train rails are increasingly being asked to perform for longer in harsher environments.  British Steel’s latest train rail material, HP335, has been optimised to deliver higher-wear resistance without the need for heat treatment, and better rolling contact fatigue (RCF) performance – reducing the need for periodic rail grinding.

HP335 reportedly lasts three-time longer than rival ‘as-rolled’ rails, reducing lifecycle costs for infrastructure owners/operators by up to 60%.

PHYSICAL:

British Steel has secured a major German rail contract after enhancing its manufacturing capabilities with a seven-figure investment - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
As the number of rail lines increase, so too does the potential for corrosion – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

As the number of rail lines increase, so too does the potential for corrosion. Certain areas – such as tunnels, coastal regions and road crossing – are particularly prone to corrosion.

Other areas may be subject to contamination from salt, water, minerals and biological matter. More than half of rail failures in some networks reportedly originate from the rail foot, the area most prone to corrosion, but conversely the most difficult to inspect.

British Steel has developed a new thermally sprayed, zinc alloy-coated rail offering five to 10-times the life of previous rails in corrosive areas through the combination of impact and abrasion resistance, and sacrificial protection.

PROCESSING:

Most tyres have wire reinforcement cord running through them to maintain its shape and support the vehicle weight.

To achieve the required dimension and strength, wires undergo ‘patenting’ – passing through tubes in a furnace at 950˚C and then rapidly quenched. The process creates wire that is both high in strength and malleable.

British Steel has developed the world’s first patent-free tyre cord, helping to manufacture lighter and more durable tyres, which in turn improve fuel economy and vehicle performance.