2016 – The UK steel industry and Tata Steel

Posted January 25th 2017

2016 was a turbulent year for the UK steel industry. Featuring in headlines such as, ‘Britain’s steel industry: What’s going wrong?’, and ‘Steel crisis far from over…’, it’s safe to say that the industry has been sorely hit over the last 12 months.

The privately owned Tata Steel has been instrumental in some of the changes we have seen. In January 2016, Tata Steel announced their intentions to cut 1060 jobs in the UK with 750 of those at Port Talbot, the UK’s largest steelworks and one of only two sites in the UK to make steel in a blast furnace. This paved the way for protests in Brussels and London as steelworkers expressed their outrage and worries about the direction taken by Tata Steel. Unions demanded that the EU take action to prevent the importation of cheap, Chinese steel flooding the market and ultimately costing jobs.

Despite a survival plan being drawn up at Port Talbot, the company board initially rejected this and shocked many by announcing their intention to sell their UK steel business entirely. The UK and Welsh governments both offered financial support for a management buyout of the UK plants, however, the company’s pension scheme deterred potential buyers.

In December a deal was finally agreed to keep the Port Talbot plant open, with proposed changes to the pension scheme that would result in a 10% cut to members benefits. Although union leaders have backed the plan, a ballot of steel workers will ultimately decide whether to accept the changes on 30 January 2017. If the deal goes ahead, Tata will commit to a 10 year and £1bn investment plan at Port Talbot as well as keeping the blast furnaces open for a at least the next five years. Whilst this is good new for the UK steel industry, it remains to be seen whether the workers are willing to accept the price.


Additive Manufacturing – What is it?

Posted January 17th 2017

Additive Manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, rapid prototyping or freeform fabrication is a process in which layers of material are used to form three dimensional objects under computer control; opposed to Subtractive Manufacturing such as machining.

The use of AM with metal powders is a new and expanding industry, with the ability to now produce complex metal parts rather than just prototypes as before. This is enabling a design revolution in various sectors such as automotive, medical, tooling and energy among others. There are currently a wide range of metal powders being used in AM such as, Steels e.g. 316L, Nickel & Cobalt super alloys, titanium alloys & aluminium alloys. Many more powders are being developed including; copper alloys, magnesium alloys, precious metals and Tungsten alloys.

Using AM over more traditional production methods has the following benefits:

  • Reduction in waste (Net shape process) – In standard aircraft manufacture up to 90% of material can be cut away
  • Increased design freedom
  • Possibility of lightweight structures e.g. lattice designs
  • Potential for several parts to be constructed as one
  • Reduced assembly operations e.g. welding
  • Shorter production cycles
  • No other tools needed e.g. molds

However this new technology also has several limitations:

  • Only suitable for smaller parts up to 2-3kg
  • Not yet suitable for mass production; the current capability for smaller parts is around 25,000 parts per year
  • Design limitations – removable support structures can be required if an overhang is less than a 45° angle
  • Material type – it is not yet possible to use non-wieldable metals in AM
  • Porosity – can be some residual internal porosity
  • Mechanical properties – the parts tend to be inferior to those which are wrought

Additive Manufacturing – What is it?



The History of Tin Mining in Britain

Posted January 10th 2017

Tin mining in Britain has been occurring since before the Bronze Age – as tin is an essential component to smelt bronze there could not actually have been a Bronze Age without it. Two of the main areas for this were Cornwall and Devon, both of which provided most of the tin, copper and arsenic used in the UK up to the 20th Century.

The existence of tin in Britain can be traced back to 2000 BC alongside the tin trade developing in the Mediterranean at that time. Tin mining in Cornwall, however, did not begin until approximately 1800 BC. The county became an important producer of tin, to form bronze when mixed with copper.

Early tin was produced from rich alluvial deposits, mainly found in West Cornwall, as well as St. Austell and Bodmin. Tin ore would be washed up into the moors and valleys and the ore extracted from there. However, the invention of steam power in the early 19th Century was what really propelled Cornwall to the forefront of the tin mining industry. At its height, there were around 600 steam engines in the Cornish mines. Removing water from deep mines was a huge problem, and also limited the depths of a mine. Using steam power, the Cornish Beam Engine was produced which could be used to drain water from the mines. Many of the mines found in Cornwall during this period reached down to great depths with some under the sea.

Cornish tin mining reached its height in the 19th Century. Notable areas include Caradon Hill, which housed the most productive mine in East Cornwall, Gwennap, St Day, Porthtowan and Kit Hill Country Park. As the industry began to decline during the latter part of the century many of the Cornish workers emigrated to developing mining areas overseas including Australia, North America and South Africa. In 1875 over 10,000 miners left Cornwall to find work overseas.

Although some mines were reopened during the 20th Century, none remain open today. The Great Tin Crash of 1985 brought about the end of tin production in Cornwall with the price of tin during that year dropping from £10,000 a ton to just £2,000. The last tin mine in Cornwall to be in production was South Crofty which closed in 1998.

In July 2006 ten mining districts in Cornwall and Devon were recognised as World Heritage sites by UNESCO, an important acknowledgement of the key role played by Cornwall in the development of mining technology and its further reach across the rest of the world.