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June 2005 – Steel success message spreads

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The message about the remarkable success of the steel industry in capturing market share in the multi-storey sectors over the past 20 years has clearly spread far and wide. A delegation of visitors from other European steel sectors visited the UK last month under the auspices of the European Convention for Constructional Steelwork to hear from the horse’s mouth how it was done (see News click here).

The bare market share figures are striking enough – over 70% of the high rise office market and 43.5% of multi-storey residential – but they are even more laudable when compared to the situation 20 years ago. Then, the industry only wanted to provide columns and beams when customers wanted a solution including floors, which the concrete rivals provided. Steel could not be delivered to site in the time frame customers wanted, whereas concrete, however unknown the quality, could start flowing straight away. Fire and corrosion protection had to be added, awkward to do on site, while concrete was seen as having these features built in. Safety was another issue, with steelwork erection perceived to be inherently dangerous. It is hardly surprising that steel was not even considered for many projects.

What a contrast with today. As the previously assumed benefits of concrete  are exposed as not matching reality as closely as thought, an integrated steel supply chain delivers what is wanted to customers  who have been convinced by their own experiences of the outstanding advantages of building in steel. All strands of the supply chain from producers to designers and steel contractors have come together to ensure that  customer focussed, seamless solutions are available, with full technical support. The steelwork industry has an improving safety record and an increasing amount of fire protection is applied in offsite factory conditions.

The lesson for the continentals is that first of all they have to get all parties involved in the successful delivery of a steel structure reading from the same prayer book, and present united fronts to their respective markets. There is no reason why they cannot enjoy more success by adopting the same strategies which have served the UK steel industry, and its customers, so well.

Rig threat averted

One of the leading steel figures during those 20 years of transformation in the industry’s fortunes was Professor Patrick Dowling, who is profiled in this issue. One of the stories which is not told in the profile, for reasons of space, is how he combated a severe threat to the future use of steel in the key North Sea market. A major problem had arisen with the welding at the Conoco tension leg platform which was being fabricated at Nigg Bay, near Inverness. Work had come to a halt, the workforce was on strike and there was a possibility that the platform would be abandoned, which would have been a disaster for rig fabrication throughout the UK.

Prof Dowling was appointed to head a trouble shooting team to solve the problem, which turned out to not be fundamentally about welding at all. The main problem he found was that nobody was talking to anyone; there had been a complete breakdown in trust and communications between entrenched parties. Establishing the proper channels of communication was the first step to allow everyone to start pulling in the same direction. Everything else fell into place after that, the welding issues were soon sorted and the platform successfully delivered. “We were helped by the whisky,” says Prof Dowling. Maybe we should give some to our European friends to take home.

Nick Barrett
Editor

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