Monday, 21 June 2010

Sheffield Forgemasters and Other Solutions

The new Coalition Government of the UK (the "Lib Cons") has recently made several fairly controversial spending cuts, mostly focusing on items which the outgoing government decided to spend in the last few weeks of its existence. Some of these were indeed pure pork barrel or "scorched earth" items, but one or two were booby traps, in that something bad would genuinely happen if they were cut, as an incoming government (and Labour was expecting it to be pure Tory) could be predicted to do.

One of these was a loan of £8oM (not strictly spending, therefore) part of an overall £140M finance package to enable a company called Sheffield Forgemasters to build a 15,000 ton press capable of forging very large steel castings. (One cannot simply cast steel as if it were bronze: to have strength, the casting has to be heated up and walloped a bit.) Currently, the only firm that can cast and forge single steel components of the size required for the new generation of nuclear power stations, is Japanese. The previous government judged it to be in the public interest (and not just in the UK public's interest) for there to be more than one place in the world that could make this kind of thing. The present government doesn't think they can afford it, and are openly suspicious of all the arguments in favour of the development. (The new energy secretary is openly suspicious of anything to do with nuclear power, too.)

However, even if the government cannot play a part in funding the press, it's still in the public interest for it to be built, and if it is built and Forgemasters then have the capacity to make steel parts bigger than have ever been seen before, Medawar has no doubt that applications outside the nuclear power industry will swiftly emerge. For example; one of the green alternatives to nuclear power stations, are offshore wind turbines with a turbine diameter approaching, or even exceeding, five hundred feet.

This will require several very large steel components: the turbine blades may be carbon and glassfibre composites, but they will need to meet in a hub of quite spectacular strength and integrity, and there will need to be a corresponding bearing, too. The whole turbine mounting and generator housing will need to track the wind, which means there will have to be a mounting ring many yards wide. All of this will be on top of a steel tower, which can be fabricated by shipbuilding methods without a 15,000 ton press, but where this tower is fixed to the concrete-filled foundations at the base, there will be another high-integrity component.

Perhaps all of these things can be fabricated out of several smaller forgings, but there might well be strength added and weight saved if they can be done in one forging each.

A similar trend applies to wave and tidal power schemes: to become efficient enough to compete with nuclear power, some of them will need the benefits of scale, our existing manufacturing capacity will struggle, globally, and thereby our solutions will be shaped by the limits of what we can fabricate, and not by what we need to do to achieve our goals. Sometimes this forces people to invent better solutions, but it can equally block access to simple and straighforward solutions.

There's no real question that the steel industry has reached the stage where at least one company in the UK has to have tools of this scale, in order for them to move forward and offer designers new possibilities. The question is how, if the government won't help finance it, do we do this thing. And not just this thing, but any equivalent tooling job for the future?

In the 19th century, where a loan of taxpayer's money wouldn't even have been thought of as a solution, all manner of things were tried. Including public subscriptions to bond issues, and even just to charitable funds which had the building of a bridge or whatever as the charitable goal. The public was offered the chance to ride across the rigging being used to construct the Clifton Suspension Bridge, in return for a donation towards the ongoing building costs, and so on.

In the 20th century, public interest corporations were created for big projects, such as the building of Garden Cities at Letchworth and Welwyn. (Some purely commercial town-building efforts were total failures, others, like Jaywick Sands, got built, but without proper planning.) The most famous public interest corporation of this period, the BBC, is still with us. Although, the BBC was made possible by parliament granting it the right to extract a licence fee from any householder who received wireless or, later, television, signals. This makes the BBC a lot more independent of government than a typical state broadcaster, although it is not fully commercial. (And commercial broadcasters must either charge a subscription, or be subject to censorship by advertisers.)

More recent still, are umbrella organisations set up as companies limited by guarantee, which allow several competing companies to pool resources in their and the customer's interest, without forming a cartel that would be both unwelcome and illegal. Two noteworthy examples of this are: The London Internet Exchange and BUPA.

In effect, the former is a self-funding entity to make sure that the internet develops and keeps happening in the UK, the latter performs more or less the same task for private medicine. Paying no dividends, both have no alternative but to put any operating surplus back into the growth and development of the "business". Whoever put up the money to start this, did not get it back directly. But the members of the LINX benefit from the huge growth in internet activity which it has enabled, and members (and a lot of other parties, too) have benefited from the growth in medical practice that BUPA has facilitated. BUPA was originally set up to do the things which the state-run National health Service didn't offer. To a large degree, that's still the mission.

Although ideologically opposed by those who think that the NHS should be the only provider of health care in the country, it's hard to see how the NHS could possibly have survived the past sixty years without BUPA, because it would have had to do too many things and public finances would never have stood the strain. Although BUPA is seen as "private" medicine, it is still a public-interest company at heart and it certainly is not as rapacious as many American commercial healthcare providers.

Sheffield Forgemasters, meanwhile, is not the first British manufacturing company to face difficulties funding the new tooling needed to get from the products of the past, to the products of the future. BSA and other motorbike manufacturers were in the same bind in the nineteen seventies, because to compete with the new Japanese motorbikes, they needed, not just new models, but entirely new ways of making them. Other marques had the same trouble, the British Motorcycle Industry didn't so much "nearly die" as die. Yes, it exists again and a state-of the-art factory makes new Triumph bikes, but this is a rebirth, it was not a survival. Yes, every company involved should have anticipated change and put money aside, but there are two problems with this:

Money put aside within a profit-making company always gets used for something else, or it gets eyed up by the taxman.

Anticipating change is a full time occupation and the people running the company in the here and now, simply cannot also anticipate changes of this scale until they happen. The signs can be hard to spot, and those behind the changes may be keeping them secret for commercial advantage, as the Japanese were.

If there were a non-profit making company limited by guarantee, set up to ensure that British manufacturing industry gets the major tooling investment, research and development that it needs, then capital put into it won't come back as dividends, but it won't be taken by the taxman, either, as the investment vehicle is not for profit. And it can have "anticipating change" as an objective named in its articles and as the full time job of its directors. Charging companies a licence fee for using tooling that it funds, or helps with research and development, would in time give it an income stream to make it independent of direct funding inputs from its members. It might be called "British Industrial Tool Exchange" (BITX) or something similar.

Give people the tools, and they can do the job.
We face all kinds of environmental problems in the near future requiring engineering solutions, one immediate example is bound to be an oil well Blowout Preventer that is two orders of magnitude more robust and reliable than the existing types, which differ only in scale and ancillary equipment from those of the early 20th century. A Blowout Preventer is the way it is, largely to make all the components possible, preferably easy, to make (by the standards of East Texas around 1911.) Paradoxically, to make it simpler and more reliable, we will need ways of making components in one piece that are currently several, and perhaps in sophisticated cam shapes where currently they are simple pistons and cylinders. The Blowout Preventers of the future will be simpler in operation, but more complex in manufacture.

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