• ‘Adding value’ has become a key strength of Sheffield’s steel industry, with treating, coating and ancillary enterprises building on its steel-making heritage
  • Despite its dominance in the global market, China’s “high-volume, low margins” approach is not considered a threat to the more complex and highly technical Sheffield steel operations
  • Many companies in the city region are taking the lead in new techniques – treatments, coatings, powdered metals (atomised) – for use in additive manufacturing

In its own mind and that of the rest of the country, Sheffield has always been a ‘steel town’, its destiny enmeshed with the fate of the industry as a whole. But those working in this area have, for a long time, seen a far broader picture.

“I don’t talk about the ‘steel industry [in Sheffield]’ any more,” says Richard Wright, executive director of the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, himself a metallurgist and a retired director of Sheffield Forgemasters. “We’ve used the heritage of steel to go into ‘materials’,” he continues. “Sheffield has transformed itself to be far more ‘fit for purpose’. We do a lot of very complex castings as well as stainless steels (invented in the city), nickel alloys and titanium alloys. We’ve added value to the metals we make in highly technical areas. That’s why we’ve attracted the likes of Boeing and McLaren into the city.”

It’s no coincidence that both firms sit adjacent to the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC). The AMRC is successfully bringing together manufacturers and their clients and advancing new technologies in a host of areas, largely fed by local industries.

Saved by specialisation

It’s hard to stress the rarefied level of steel refining and production in Sheffield. Where once – a very long time ago – stood the distinctive towers of blast furnaces (never really a Sheffield speciality), now along the banks of the Don stand the squat, square sheds that house vacuum induction furnaces. These plants melt and remelt metals to provide highly consistent and homogeneous results: high-performance, high-premium steels for very demanding environments, where, for instance, extreme precision, toughness, or heat and corrosion resistance are needed.

It was this specialisation that has kept Sheffield and Rotherham (the two are in effect a single unit as regards production) from the severest effects of the decline felt elsewhere.

In ‘the slump’ of 2016, and concerning the looming sale of the then Tata Stocksbridge plant on the northern side of the city, one shift manager observed: “Our lads aren’t too worried – we do the speciality stuff.” He was less sure about the less specialist Brinsworth mill, or the blast furnaces of Scunthorpe and Port Talbot, producers of more ‘standard’ steels.

At that time (and since then) China was blamed for a lot of the US’s and the UK’s steel woes. It had risen to the number one steel-producing slot back in 1995, overtaking Japan. The years from 2002 to 2012 saw its steepest growth – as well as in its own domestic steel demand. Over this period and on to 2016, the country accounted for an 86% increase in global production and 70% of consumption. Though its period of high-speed growth is over, today it produces nearly half (49%) of the world’s output, some 830m tonnes.

Sheffield is a fantastic place with a lot of international respect… ‘Steel’ is as much about the process, from the raw material to the finished product

Craig James, managing director, Hillfoot

However, the bald figures don’t impress the South Yorkshire steel men. They cite China as a “high-volume, low margins” producer – using older blast/blast oxygen furnace technology. One steel stockholder’s exact words were: “Rack ’em high, sell ’em cheap. And it’s the basic stuff – plate, rebar…” – steel destined for the construction industry and such.

Going up against this artificially discounted surplus on the international market, the UK ‘standard’ product had no hope of competing on cost, coming as it did from similar blast furnaces whose grazing fields of iron ore had long since been depleted, and whose running cost were, as a result, much higher.

“Basic steels don’t travel well,” said the same steel stockholding director. “If you’re looking to compete on a like-for-like basis with a local (overseas) supplier, it’s not going to be a level playing field in terms of cost.”

Adding value key to staying competitive

In buying up much of Tata’s UK steel business in 2016/17, Sanjeev Gupta, executive chairman of Liberty House Group, had a more progressive vision of how to move forward – and one that particularly suits the mills of the Sheffield area.

“We need to redefine our capabilities to keep us competitive,” he said at the time, pointing out that 80% of the steel (of all types) we consumed came from abroad.

He proposed turning more towards electric arc furnaces – which Sheffield already had (Stocksbridge, Brinsworth), and which are fed largely with scrap steel, which South Yorkshire certainly has, and which was/is largely being exported. He also stressed the need to invest in the ‘downstream’ engineering businesses that use the steel.

“Sheffield has a fantastic tradition and community,” says a Liberty spokesman. “It’s taken a bit of a pounding, but a lot of steel is still produced here.”

Like Richard Wright, he points to specialist steels as the way forward (high-end, decent margins), sold as finished product. “Add as much value as possible.”

Many companies in the city region are taking the lead in new techniques – treatments, coatings, powdered metals (atomised) – for use in additive manufacturing (another AMRC speciality). They look towards an automotive industry wanting to ‘add’ lightness, strength and safety and the aviation business. (Doncaster’s burgeoning aviation park is 25 miles away – and, yes, there’s Boeing.)

A city of skills as well as steel

But ‘adding value’ is the key strength in the city.

Sheffield was never just a steel mill town. From its earliest times it was also about working the metals, most famously cutlery and electroplating, but also edged tools, tempered springs, precision drills, alloys.

“There’s not a skill we don’t have,” says Craig James, MD of Hillfoot steel stockholders, a stalwart of the city for almost 100 years. “Sheffield is a fantastic place with a lot of international respect. We have steel-making, treatment, a lot of engineering. We need to use all that. ‘Steel’ is as much about the process, from the raw material to the finished product. We [Hillfoot] don’t just want just to buy and sell; we need to understand the client, not just what they want, but what they need. And we make our clients our supply chain, adding processes – treating, testing, coating – and adding value, to give them what they need.”

Wright concurs with his view, adding that reciprocal practices enhance supply-chain relationships even more, be that packing or shipping product in a way that it slides seamlessly onto the next production line, or recovering alloy cutting shavings and returning them to the original manufacturer for remelting.

“There’s a critical mass of knowledge, capabilities and ancillary enterprises here,” he says. “The materials industry in Sheffield is very healthy.”

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