A big boost for a 21st century industry - Swansea experts welcome steel deal

Steel is a 21st century industry with a bright future, said Swansea University experts today, as they welcomed news that Tata Steel and the unions have agreed a deal to keep Port Talbot and other UK sites open.

The experts, who work closely with the industry, recently published a report showing that the UK steel industry could have a very bright future, and could once again become a world leader, but only if Port Talbot remains open, and the UK government moves fast to support innovation and cut costs.

‌Professor Dave Worsley, research director at Swansea University’s College of Engineering, who works closely with the steel industry, said:

"Today’s announcement is very welcome news.   Steel is a 21st century industry, developing tomorrow’s technologies.   UK steel can not only survive, but thrive.   It can be transformed into a lea‌ding-edge zero carbon industry, for example developing carbon positive products using locally-generated waste products as a materials resource and energy supply. 

This future is already starting to happen in the work we are carrying out at Swansea University, particularly in new uses for steel in construction. 

Wales can continue to play a leading role in steel, at the heart of a vibrant and innovative 21st century industry.  To do so it must focus on making high-value products.  This is only possible with support for innovation, from government at Wales and UK level”.

400 x 267Picture: 21st century steel is at the heart of the SPECIFIC project, turning buildings into power stations that can run sustainably.

Brian Edy, Senior Industrial Fellow at Swansea University, and former senior manager in the steel industry, said:

"There is a huge opportunity for the UK steel industry, as demand for steel products – from cars to packaging to new construction materials – will remain strong. 

The question is whether it will be steelmakers here or overseas who make the most of it.   Today’s announcement will hopefully help ensure that Tata Steel UK is well placed to take these opportunities.  

Port Talbot - which is back in profit - and its vital downstream units across the UK are central to a successful strip steel industry.  That is why one of the vital steps we called on the government to take is to ensure that Port Talbot remains open, as a fully integrated steel works. 

This means it must have sufficient iron and steel making capacity to satisfy growing demand for high-quality value-added steel products in the automotive, construction, energy and packaging sectors”. 

Find out more:  from smart buildings and solar energy to producing steel for the next generation of cars, Swansea University works closely with the UK steel industry.

From the recent steel report by experts from Swansea and Warwick

In figures:  demand for steel

  • 60% - amount of steel used in the UK which is imported
  • 50% - increase in demand for steel products in car manufacture 2015-17, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders
  • 40 years old - age of the National Grid transformers, built with electrical grade steel, which will soon require upgrade across the nationwide network

Six steps for government to support a successful steel industry:

  1. Seek assurances that Port Talbot’s primary steelmaking plant, along with its downstream units, will be retained as a whole
  2. Devise and commit to a long-term strategic plan for the UK steel industry
  3. Cut the biggest costs facing the industry:  energy and business rates
  4. Use its procurement power to encourage the construction sector to adopt low-carbon steel-based technologies
  5. Support the asset improvement plan presented to the Tata board
  6. Support innovation, research and development, including considering the long-term potential of electric arc furnaces for recycling steel

300 x 202Picture: new cars; the UK market for cars, and thus steel to make them, is growing fast

Professor David Blackaby of Swansea University’s School of Management, an economist and expert on labour markets and public policy, said:

"This is very good news for the workers and people in the area who have lived in fear about further job losses, and all the social and economic consequences which would have followed.

Steel is a strategically important industry, and the UK needs a steel industry.  Currently the UK is running a massive balance of payments deficit.  We are not paying our way in the world.  The loss of this strategically important plant would make this position worse.

We also currently use twice as much steel as we produce in the UK, so clearly there is a demand for steel. It is important that Port Talbot contributes to that supply well in the future.

The way forward for the UK is a steel industry which is technologically advanced, using the latest techniques producing high value-added products.

Currently Tata Steel UK is producing high-quality steels for car body panels for customers like BMW, JLR and Nissan.  It also makes advanced colorcoat pre-finished steel products for building and cladding applications, and ultra-high specification aerospace steels made using cutting-edge steelmaking technologies for the aircraft industry.

The steel strip mill built in South Wales in the 1960s was the first in the world to have a steel strip line which was fully computer-operated.  To survive in the future the sector will need once again to be using world-leading techniques and developing world-leading products."

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Picture:  21st century steel industry needs the lab and the factory close to each other.  The Swansea University Bay Campus Engineering Quarter, with Port Talbot steelworks across the Bay