Above: In the meltshop at Sheffield Forgemasters, which has invested £2.4m in the upgrade of a giant electric arc furnace
Credit: Marisa Cashill © Johnson Press
Boeing and McLaren dominated manufacturing headlines in Yorkshire and the Humber in 2017 – while calls for SMEs to adopt Industry 4.0 became increasingly urgent, steel saw a flurry of investment activity and a weak pound made life easier for exporters. David Walsh reports.
Boeing flies in
In March, Boeing announced plans for its first factory in Europe. It is also close to the AMRC, but this time over the border, in Sheffield itself.
‘Boeing Sheffield’ will be a £40m site making parts for actuators – motors that move flaps – in wings that are then attached to 737s and 777s in its Seattle, Washington, headquarters. Due to open in late 2018, it is set to employ up to 50, but – again – the hope is it will receive more work and grow as new planes are developed.
For Boeing, it was the culmination of decades of involvement with the AMRC, which it helped found with the University of Sheffield in 1991. For South Yorkshire, it was the best start to the manufacturing year in recent times.
AMRC, VR, 4IR
AMRC researchers believe every SME will be using virtual reality (VR) headsets within five years, to read operating notes while working on machines and other tasks. Siemens boss Jürgen Maier’s ‘Made Smarter’ report urged faster adoption of Industry 4.0 to avoid losing work to other countries such as Germany.
Sheffield-based law firm Irwin Mitchell warned in a recent report that low skill and administrative posts will be cut, while there will be a 12 percent increase in managers, directors and senior officials. Yorkshire is among the regions where manufacturers have the highest number of at-risk occupations, it states.
Devolution: sometime or never
Some 15 of 20 councils campaigned for a Yorkshire-wide settlement, aiming to match the one in Manchester for economic clout and profile.
But the plan ignored Sheffield City Region’s deal, which had been agreed by its four councils and ratified in Parliament, and which the Government refused to unpick.
Without Sheffield or Rotherham, Wakefield or Harrogate – and several waverers – the ‘One Yorkshire’ dream appears to have stalled.
Richard Halstead, EEF membership engagement director for the North, said devolution was evidence of the Northern Powerhouse in action and the lack of a metro-mayor anywhere in Yorkshire was disappointing for manufacturers. “Metro-mayors look at the big picture and they are coming together and talking with their counterparts in the rest of the UK. It’s a shame other cities have missed out. It is a great opportunity to increase devolved funding to help the North grow.”
Mr Halstead also said an industrial strategy that recognised the importance of key industries was vital.
“The lack of one means there’s no direction. When Tata said it was going to sell its UK operations, an industrial strategy that stated steel was vital would have helped Government realise a crisis was coming and help it react,” he said.
Steel: back from the brink
The firm also unveiled a £15m refurbishment of its rail plant in Leeds and announced export orders to supply parts for bogies for Alstom’s light rail vehicles in Canada.
In Rotherham, metal powders specialist Metalysis was hailed a 4IR leader. Its patented electrolysis process can produce an infinite range of exotic alloys more cheaply, greener and faster than previous methods and in a powder form ideal for 3D printing.
It received £20m from investors in 2016, ploughed the money into its original base and a new building, both in Rotherham, and announced plans to make powder-producing ‘reactor’ units that can be installed in factories. After 12 years developing the process, chief executive Dr Dion Vaughan said that the company was now in “growth mode”.
Manufacturing now accounts for 20 percent of South Yorkshire’s economy; in Leeds it is 12 percent – but the sector is bigger in absolute terms of companies and people. There are 7,300 manufacturing and engineering businesses in Leeds City Region, employing approximately 144,000 people. It has particular capabilities in the engineering of pumps, gears, valves and turbos.
Earlier in 2017, Brighouse-based Blackhall Engineering made the world’s largest water gate valve for the US state of Texas. It weighed 100 tonnes, is 40ft high and has a lifespan of 100 years.
A blow for Brough
The small East Riding community of Brough suffered a shock when BAE Systems announced 400 staff – almost half of the 950-strong workforce at Brough Aerodrome – faced redundancy.
The site has a proud history of building Harriers and Typhoons but suffered after the company switched the bulk of production of the Hawk to Lancashire.
Meanwhile, in Hull, Siemens exhibited a 75m wind turbine blade in the city centre for 10 weeks as part of its City of Culture year. The company opened a £310m turbine blade factory at the city’s Alexandra Dock in December 2016 to service offshore wind farms. One of Siemens’ largest investments in manufacturing facilities worldwide, it is set to create 1,000 jobs.
Steel’s problems eased in 2017. Tata pulled back from the brink of selling all UK operations but went ahead with the sale of a ‘non-core’ division: Speciality Steels, which employs 1,700 in South Yorkshire. It was bought for £100m by Liberty House, which immediately unveiled plans to hire 300 people, spend £15m-a-year on equipment and staff, and re-start mothballed plant including an electric arc furnace and a ‘small bloom’ caster, both in Rotherham.
An upturn in Chinese demand for steel, tariffs on ‘dumped’ steel, a weak pound helping exports, steel prices 50 percent up on 2016 and tful signs of a recovery in oil and gas all helped Yorkshire firms this year.
David Walsh is Business Editor of The Star newspaper in Sheffield. He writes on business and finance and has contributed to publications ranging from The Sunday Times to Sport Rider magazine.