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Lack of steel availability leads to loss of orders

08 September 2015

Roger Haw believes the short-sightedness of materials manufacturers and suppliers is putting the future of some small, specialist manufacturers in jeopardy.

The myth is constantly being perpetuated that manufacturing in the UK is dying. It may be true that the huge engineering enterprises that were once prevalent are now considerably few in number but, according to Engineering UK’s 2015 report, ‘The State of Engineering’, in the 12 months to March 2013 the number of engineering enterprises in the UK grew by over 2 percent.

Some 5.4 million workers (19.3 percent of all people employed in UK enterprises) are employed in engineering, and the collective turnover of UK engineering enterprises is £1.17 trillion.

But the face of engineering has changed in line with market demands and 97.1 percent of businesses are now either small or micro, with 86.9 percent having fewer than ten employees. This reflects the change of focus towards niche and high-specification sectors of the manufacturing market, which has led to the increase in small specialist suppliers.

However, the short-sightedness of materials manufacturers is putting some of these specialist businesses in jeopardy.

The design and specification of any engineering component requires consideration of the intended application, the stress levels involved, the material to be used and any treatments required to enhance the material properties.

There are many companies specialising in a specific field of expertise. Examples of such specialisations are gear manufacture, cam making, guide and slide making. Manufacturers of equipment and machinery no longer produce such items in-house as they prefer to buy in components from experts, taking advantage of high quality and competitive prices.

Many companies, therefore, have established a reputation for the supply of individual specialist items and a prime example of this is roller manufacturing. 

Defining a roller as a cylindrical component with a length to diameter ratio (the aspect ratio) between 10/1 and 40/1, these items are used in a variety of applications, such as printing, coating, metal processing, textile manufacturing, food manufacturing, conveyors, glass making.

Rollers usually require a high surface hardness level and a ductile core, and must have resistance to surface wear and loading with a minimum of deflection. The method of manufacture is to machine to pre-hardening dimensions, surface harden by either flame or induction hardening techniques, and finish by grinding.

The steel must have sufficient carbon to produce a hardness level of 60/65HRc and sufficient alloys to give good hardenability thereby producing hardened depths between 2mm and 10mm, depending upon geometry and diameters. Greater hardened depths can be achieved on rollers with an aspect ratio of  1.2/1 to 1.5/1.

The steels meeting this requirement are carbon chrome steels: for example, BS970 –1955 EN31, BS970-1970.1972 535A99.

However, whilst this evolution has led to the UK having a small group of world class roller manufacturers, they face an ever increasing difficulty in obtaining carbon chrome steels. The requirement for a typical order for a batch of, say 20 rollers, is 10 tonne of steel. But steel producers are reluctant to supply less than a mill quantity and stockists do not carry the range of diameters or quantity that may be required. 

This unacceptable situation is leading to failure to gain orders or even inability to quote against enquiries for potential work.

It’s time for materials manufacturers and suppliers to wake up and realise that the face of engineering in the UK has changed. Is another successful niche industry to be lost to us because we are no longer prepared to produce small quantities of specialist steels? 

Roger Haw is managing director of Flame Hardeners

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