Industry Insider: The European Steel Industry, a Phoenix Rising from the Ashes

photo courtesy of OSHA

The big leap civilisation made between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age shows just how important the development of metals--especially steel, a metal alloy predominantly made of iron and carbon--has been to mankind. "Steel is part of our culture," says Hubert Presslinger, an industrial researcher at Voestalpine Stahl GmbH in Austria and archaeologist.

The European steel industry really took off during the industrialisation of the European countries, creating many jobs. The heyday of the steel industry carried on in the aftermath of World War II, with the creation in the early 1950's of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), which provided a common market and new opportunities for research collaboration.

The industry's prosperity lasted for about 25 years before entering a severe recession and losing much of its appeal as a technical career in the subsequent years. But with a recent restructuring, the development of new high-tech materials, and the increasing demand in growing economies such as China, more and more R&D jobs are being open in the steel industry.

The world’s production of steel exceeded one billion tons for the first time in 2004, and according to experts, its immense potential for innovation and new applications means that there is still space for the steel industry to grow. All the prerequisites that make an industry attractive to young scientists are in place. But the persisting image of an old, dirty, and declining industry is making it difficult for the steel industry to recruit all the material scientists, metallurgists, and engineers it needs. For the first time in many years, the steel industry is adding research jobs, not shedding them. The time may have come for aspiring scientists to reconsider the steel industry.

From Heavy Industry to Technological Industry

According to Matthias Niemeyer, Chief Technology Officer and General Manager of Salzgitter-Mannesmann Forschung GmbH, a company with almost 300 Research & Development (R&D) staff based in Salzgitter and Duisburg, Germany, "the steel industry has developed into a technology" industry. Francois Mudry, scientific director of Arcelor, a steel corporation with 1100 R&D staff operating in France, Spain, and Luxembourg, agrees. "The technological complexity in the steel-making process today involves more computer power than the Ariane [launching spaceport] near Kourou," in French Guyana, he says. "Steel research has changed from using mainly empirical methodology to applying basic research methods," says Peter Schwab, Senior Vice President for Research & Development at Voestalpine Stahl GmbH, an Austrian steel corporation in Linz with a research and development staff of 300. Yet, according to Peter Jongenburger, Chief Technology Officer and Managing Director in Research, Development, and Technology at Corus, an Anglo-Dutch steel company near Amsterdam with 900 R&D staff, notes that the high tech image of the industry has not yet spread to every country in Europe.

Research in the Steel Industry

According to Jongenburger of Corus, in the steel industry "there are two main R&D foci: On one hand [there is] the development of stronger steel, which is [also] lighter and more ductile, as well as the combination [of steel] with aluminium, and on the other, protective or functional coatings such as antigraffiti, antibacterial, and antifingerprinting surfaces."Niemeyer of Salzgitter- Mannesmann adds that the innovation of steel products often goes hand in hand with the innovation of the steel making processes. There is also much responsibility for the scientists to make sure that the new findings they want to apply to the ongoing production will not discontinue it, otherwise the company will experience some financial losses.

What is remarkable in the steel industry is the extent of the cooperation that goes on among the various companies when it comes to research. Schwab of Voestalpine explains that following the ECSC and its promotion of an "open source research", European steel companies started working on common research projects while applying the research results in their own ways. In some cases steel companies are also led to share their applications under the demand of clients such as the automobile industry to be able to purchase the same car components from different companies. This provides an unusual and attractive opportunity for scientists to interact with their peers in other companies and universities, much as scientists in academia do routinely.

Collaborations Between the Steel Industry and Universities

The steel industry also has a tradition of cooperating with universities for longer-term and basic research projects, which are on the increase. The steel industry and its individual companies are potential sources of funding for academic research, and young scientists in academia have opportunities to interact with the steel industry and make contacts that may be valuable later on, whether they want to stay in academia or move into the industry. To Markus Schäperkötter, a researcher at Salzgitter-Mannesmann, the main difference between carrying out research projects in a public and industrial setting is that in universities, one is more free to take the research toward new directions for innovation, while within the industry, R&D "is focusing on the direct improvement of the production process and the continuous development of materials."

The Importance of Quality Management

Quality management is not always studied at university, but anyone who wants to do research in the steel industry needs to be able to implement it. The production of high-tech steel has to comply with specifications to a high degree of precision; for example one may want to prepare an alloy containing 1 g of a given metal for a 1000 ton steel; such precision requires a good quality-management system. "Quality management is trained on the job within the companies," says Christian Schlegel, R&D engineer at Salzgitter-Mannesmann and quality management representative in his department. "The quality management system needs to be understood, and this takes time," says Merveille of Arcelor. Good quality management implies accurate work and a transparent documentation, and this is something that needs to be lived as a standard practice, says Presslinger of Voestalpine.

Opportunities and Training for Young Scientists

Based on current employment figures and hiring trends, Jongenburger of Corus estimates that the steel industry will hire approximately 1000 science and technology graduates a year within their R&D divisions, for the whole of Europe. The spectrum of job profiles is broad, from surface scientists, through metallurgists and material scientists working on material and process development, to narrow specialisations like nutrition scientists, who study the influence of steel cans on the food they contain.

Despite these opportunities, metallurgy--the discipline most central to the steel industry--has been abandoned by many European universities, and at the institutions that still teach metallurgy, those courses have failed to attract many students over the years. The result is a current shortage of specialised scientists. So, some of these posts are being filled by chemists, physicists, and engineers who are learning about metallurgy on the job. Some companies have organised metallurgy and other technical courses and lectures for newly recruited staff. Others may also recruit at the trainee level, allowing scientists to follow these courses and spend several months in different departments within the company. "[This] is an ideal career start, as one can get an overview and establish contacts with different divisions in the companies," says Schäperkötter, of Salzgitter-Mannesmann.

On a larger scale, steel corporations and national associations--most of them belonging to the European Federation of Iron and Steel Industries (Eurofer)--have initiated several activities to attract more science and technology (S&T) graduates into this field, including the organisation of networking events in universities and the visit of some facilities.

Career Development in the Steel Industry

Presslinger recommends that young graduates start their career plan as early as possible to achieve their ultimate professional goal step-by-step. R&D staff at steel companies commonly move on to other activities within the company later on in their career. According to Mudry, at Arcelor as many as two thirds move into another department, such as the production unit, within 5 years. Merveille, also of Arcelor, finds the perspective of career development within a steel company attractive, as one can choose between many different professional directions after a couple of years. Young graduates may even be given tutors to help them find their way. At Corus, "there is a dual career ladder where employees can opt for either a technical or managerial career," says Jongenburger. As a consequence, there tend to be many young researchers in the R&D departments of the steel companies, remarks Schlegel of Salzgitter-Mannesmann.

But the steel industry still needs more early career scientists with a background in metallurgy. Once they are in, young employees often state how surprised they are at how high tech, innovative, and environmentally-friendly today's steel industry is. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the European steel industry has managed to rejuvenate itself through technological innovation. The future of steel is promising, and it wants to share that future with young scientists.

The author is a consultant in industrial R&D based in Europe, who writes under the pen name Albert Michels.

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