Giant of the steel industry is still showing its mettle

Peter Birtles, director of Forgemasters.
Peter Birtles, director of Forgemasters.
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IT’S PART of the anatomy of industrial Britain.

And it’s at the heart of Sheffield.

Forgemasters.

Forgemasters.

With its towering, corrugated iron-clad buildings and bridge, Forgemasters looms over Sheffield’s landscape like a giant cathedral.

The company can lay claim to links with city steel firms dating back to 1805 and has been forging some of the most impressive steel structures across the world.

In 1851 the company - then known as Vickers - made the largest ever steel ingot for the famous Great Exhibition. It made the San Francisco fire bell, which weighed almost two-and-a-half tons.

More recently, Forgemasters has made components for nuclear reactors, submarines, huge parts for offshore oil rigs and hydro power equipment.

Forgemasters

Forgemasters

And it’s all done here, at the company’s Brightside HQ. The site covers a baffling half-a-mile and comprises a network of colossal factories.

Everything at Forgemasters is giant-sized, with equipment big enough to machine 350-tonne castings. This is big, British, high-spec engineering at its best.

And a testament to the Forgemasters’ industry is the thin layer of black dust covering the ground - remnants of excess solidified steel.

There are various departments at Forgemasters. These include the Melt Shop, where steel is melted down, the Pattern Shop, which makes the patterns for ultra-large castings, the North Machine Shop, which machines ultra-large castings, the South Machine Shop which machines most of the forgings and the Foundry, which casts the ultra-large castings.

Over in the Melt Shop, all is blackened except for the orange glow emanating from molten steel sitting in huge three-metre-wide ladles. These ladles carry up to 100 tonnes of liquid steel, which has been melted down from tonnes and tonnes of scrap metal. The steel splashes from its container.

It’s not gloopy and magna-like, as one would think, at this temperature - 1,500˚C - it’s about the consistency of molten chocolate.

The steel is then cast into complex shapes or made into ingots to be forged, shaped and machined and made into some of the world’s most complicated large-scale engineered components - whether it’s part of the structure of an oil rig, a turbine for a hydro-electric dam or part of a nuclear powered submarine to name but a few.

Given this scope of activity, it’s hardly surprising that director Peter Birtles thrives off his job.

“It is really exciting working here,” says Peter, as he paces across the expansive factory floor.

“Some of our engineering processes look exactly as they would have done 100 years ago, but we combine this decades-old technology with new technology, which enables us to build more complicated things.”

Many of Forgemasters’ commissions are designed using computer systems that can virtually test the stresses on particular designs, saving enormous amounts of money and reducing risk. And it’s essential that these tests are made.

“This here is waiting to go into a nuclear power reactor,” he says, pointing to large cases used for pumps in the reactor. “This cannot fail. If it were to fail in service it would be a disaster.”

The responsibility that lies at Forgemasters’ feet is enormous.

Mistakes or malfunctions on an oil rig structure, nuclear reactor or submarine could result in catastrophe.

But this is where the bulk of Forgemasters’ business lies. “Ninety per cent of the oil rig platforms in the Gulf are fitted with nodes made here,” says Peter.

And while emerging big economies like India and China could produce steel products much cheaper, they can’t compete with Forgemasters on quality.

“We’ve stopped trying to beat people on cost - Britain is a high-cost economy in which to work but we specialise in getting it right,” says Peter.

“The companies and organisations we work with can’t afford to take risks just to cut costs.”

Forgemasters’ business strategy is diversity. “We make products for the petro chemical industry, the oil industry, the renewable energy industry and the defence industry.

But while it’s easy to be a jack of all trades you also have to be a master of them in order to prosper.”

In order to prosper, Forgemasters reinvests as much as it can of its £104 million turnover into research and development.

“We put everything back in to the company,” says Peter.

And despite being a British company, little of Forgemasters’ business takes place in this country.

“The demand for products in the UK is quite low, around 80 per cent of what we produce is exported.”

But exporting at Forgemasters is no mean feat. “We use a 72-wheel truck, which is so big it has a driver at the front and a driver at the back.”

This colossal machine leaves the site at around 2am, so as to avoid traffic, and is escorted by police to Hull, from where it travels to Rotterdam to be loaded onto an ocean-bound ship which then travels down the Suez Canal.

Each of these trips costs Forgemasters £120,000.

“But for every tonne of steel that leaves this place there’s a tonne of paper work,” says Peter.

“It’s the quality assurance stuff.”

But Forgemasters has had its tough times. In 2003 its then owners, Atchinson Casting Corp (USA), went bankrupt, leaving the company in limbo.

But in 2005 management and shareholders – many of whom were shop floor staff - clubbed together, bought the company and built it up again, and reinvested profits in research and development and high-spec equipment.

This is the company whose metal is made of Sheffield mettle.

“Management and shareholders resurrected the company and saved lots of jobs because they put their own money back into the business,” Peter says.

“One of things I’ve learned in this industry is that attitude counts for everything - staff relationships are so important.”

And despite its global reach, Forgemasters is very much still a Sheffield firm. “We have three to four generations of families working here,” says Peter.

The company also works closely with both Sheffield University and Hallam for its graduate and post graduate training programmes.

The company also offers apprentice schemes for school leavers, which provides opportunities for further and higher education.

“People are so important - we like to grow and train our own,” says Peter.

Indeed, a trip around Forgemasters shatters the commonly-held perception that Sheffield no longer makes anything.

Peter says: “I had to speak at a dinner at the Cutler’s Hall recently about high industry and in my speech I argued against the belief that we don’t manufacture as much as we used to.

“As far as I’m concerned, Sheffield’s got its best years to come. We must recognise what skills we do have as a city and build on those.

“The worse thing you can do is what Sheffield did in the 70s - sit on its backside in complacency.”

Forgemasters facts

Forgemasters has links with Sheffield businesses which date back to 1805.

It was Edward Vickers, who owned a water mill and other members of his family and that of the Naylor family who set formed what became Forgemasters, though back then it was known simply as ‘Vickers’.

Vickers benefited from a global boom in the demand for steel. Such was the demand that in 1850 Sheffield produced 35,000 tons of steel - more than half of the total world production.

In the 1860s Tom Vickers designed a giant crucible and the Mayer method of moulding for castings. This opened up business for the Sheffield firm and enabled them to build parts for USA railroad equipment, which contributed hugely to Vickers’ success.

Today Forgemasters is still a world leader in bespoke, high-end engineering of large scale products.