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Man of Steel

Close to the site of the two cooling towers over the Don Valley just outside Sheffield (that briefly had the honour of closing the M1 when they were demolished ten years ago) a new monument is soon to be erected.

This new landmark, called Man of Steel, commissioned by Rotherham council, will be a seated figure on a coal black slate plinth, symbolising the development of stainless steel by Harry Brearley in this city over one hundred years ago. As part of the new monument, a 2.5 metre, 3mt heart of steel will be placed within the structure.

Our new MMTA Chairman, Simon Boon is a man of steel too. Yorkshire through and through, his grandfather, Clifford, worked for 41 years at British Steel, while his father, Tony, started work as a shift chemist (metallurgist) at Spear & Jackson before working in many of the city’s foundries and eventually retiring as a trader for Tinico (now Cronimet). Simon left school at 16 to be apprenticed to Firth Brown. ‘I have Sheffield steel running through my veins’, Simon tells me over lunch.

His family epitomises the traditions upon which Britain’s capital of steel was built, with knowledge passed down through the generations, binding a community that had a common purpose. Today, local people in South Yorkshire are donating £20 to have their family and loved ones’ names memorialised and stored inside the Inconel alloy heart; and the three generations of Simon’s family who worked in metals are amongst the 150,000 so far subscribed.

Simon began his three year term at our conference in Montreal in April 2018.

Ironically, we are meeting not in Sheffield but at Rick Stein’s Cornish Arms near Padstow, where Simon now lives with his second wife Theresa (a Cornishwoman descended from miners who worked the South Crofty Tin Mine) and eight year old daughter Maisy. In this beautiful part of the world, with its own deep metallurgical past, it is a fitting place to talk about our minor metals industry and how Simon sees his new role.

I ask him first to tell me a bit more about himself. In the way of Sheffield, metal people move like free electrons between companies, binding with various entities before moving on within the metal community – these included for Simon, Sheffield Forgemasters, Firth Vickers, Spencer Clark, a stint located in Kingston-upon-Thames at Anderman & Co., (agent for Fortech, the forgings subsidiary which became absorbed into Aubert and Duval), then Enpar, Derek Raphael Metallurgical, Thyssen-Krupp, Firth Rixson and now Steven Strulowitz’s Sovereign International. As Simon says, ‘Sheffield people do not sit back, they adapt and change.’

In his early 20s he trained at Firth Vickers on the rolling mills, working long hours while studying for a degree in business. That early job meant following the stainless billets from preparation and cutting, through to the heat of the rolling mills followed by heat treatment itself, ending up at finishing and despatch. But already, by 24 years old, he abandoned production and found his real talent for selling. Initially, it was stainless steels to defence, IGT and aerospace. By the time of Fortech, it was the oil and gas boom of the 1990s, selling heavy 3-5mt well-head valves (known as christmas trees because of the many branches), stabilisers, drill collars, stress joint risers, all required to withstand the ultra-corrosive environment of the North Sea. The Raphael period involved being a stockist of bulk and foundry quantities of ferro-alloys and minor metals along with tool steels for the local Sheffield industry.

Mention Sheffield to those outside our trade, though, and the immediate response is ‘But, it’s all gone isn’t it?’ Yes, Simon agrees, the volumes of mild steel output might have gone but what has replaced it is a proliferation of specialisms. These, Simon thinks, are epitomised by the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), sited next to the closed Orgreave mine that saw bitter running battles between miners and police in 1984. The forced closures of coal mining and heavy industry is still the picture in the public mind but in fact, as Simon points out, it is the perfect example of the ‘adapt and change’ attitude that Sheffield is famous for. Today, yoked to Sheffield Hallam University, students take courses which second them to one of the many modern metal making units in the area, while sending them back to AMRC to learn, develop and discuss new casting and manufacturing advances. Today, Simon points to the fact that the transformation from a once highly manned heavy industry to a modern hi-tech one, is seen in techniques such as additive manufacturing or 3D printing which will carry Sheffield/Rotherham into the future. The Rolls-Royce automated precision casting facility across the road from AMRC is an example of the type of technology that is heralding this new era and will hopefully maintain Sheffield’s metal status for many years to come. With China biting at our heels, and trying to create a super alloy industry of their own, Sheffield has to continue to develop to stay ahead.

The MMTA needs to stay ahead too. The seven original elements which the MMTA was formed to manage have now grown to encompass elements that were barely known, let alone traded in any structured way at inception. To Cadmium, Antimony and Nickel, new elements such as rhenium, hafnium, tantalum and niobium have become mainstays. And, who knows, during Simon’s term others will come in from the cold. Perhaps Scandium, an element now harnessed by Airbus and developed within a patented alloy called Scalmalloy, will come of age? With as little as 0.6-0.8% Scandium bringing properties of temperature resistance, weldability and grain refining to aluminium, weight reductions in the airframe could be as much as 15%. And yet at 10-20mt per year supply, Scandium represents the kind of frontier element that perhaps only the MMTA umbrella can encompass. So what does he think the theme of this three years will be?

He sees the MMTA as a work in progress, a machine that embraces some key parts of our metals industry but has gaps. He highlights the word ‘trade’ in our title – a ‘trade’ organization, not a ‘traders’ organization. Amongst our membership, we can count some very large entities -producer/miner/traders such as Glencore AG, precious metals refiners such as Heraeus Deutschland GmbH, huge stainless and super alloy scrap stockholders/processors such as ELG Utica Alloys Ltd., super alloy makers such as Simon’s former employers, Firth Rixson, (presently being merged with Howmet’s investment casting division to form Arconic Engines), by-product generating copper miners such as KGHM Polska Miedz S.A. and Rio Tinto Kennecott, leading Western producers of magnet alloy, Less Common Metals, Ferro Titanium producer Metals & Alloys International, high tech recycler and producer of renewable materials Umicore and many more.

However, the gaps perhaps include those makers who, through adaptation and change, now need to embrace and use minor metals that were once outside their field. The MMTA needs to welcome these entities into the fold. Engineers, who once could leave the metal buying to others, but need to be more aware of the supply chains to which they are exposed, where metals come from, the forces that can interrupt supply, and how to bring orderly delivery of metals that are by their nature volatile and unpredictable. He sees our MMTA as a centre of excellence in this field and the annual conference, an event that has grown in significance over the last ten years from 100 attendees to close to 300.

He would like to see our magazine and every part of our organisation diversify, develop and grow not just in quantity but in quality, adding more value to the members and strength to the MMTA. The board is already a mix of age groups and he further sees the need to plan for succession in all parts of the MMTA so that those drawn from our community have the track record of serving the MMTA before the time comes to take on the mantle of leading it. Simon was in his 5th year on the board before coming into the role.

As students at Sheffield Hallam pioneer new techniques with AMRC, and sell and market their knowledge to the metals industry in the UK and worldwide, the MMTA needs to be part of that grouping, the very cluster that made and makes Sheffield the centre of metallurgy and metal-working that it still is. It is therefore most fitting that our new Chairman will bring the MMTA and the industry we serve closer.

There is a pride in Sheffield that comes from a rich history, an example of which is that Geoffrey Chaucer, the father of English poetry, was able to describe one of the Canterbury pilgrims in the 14th Century as carrying a Sheffield Thwitel (knife)!

Cutlery might still be an intrinsic part of Sheffield metal working but, as Simon reflects, today the product might not so much be a knife for the table as an industrial piece of hi-tech equipment for slitting steel or precision-cutting super alloy sheet. Simon, with his vast experience of our industry, will serve the MMTA as a fine ambassador to a new generation of metal working companies who need minor elements (many once discarded or thought a nuisance) and yet which are today intrinsic to the modern world.

Anthony Lipmann 09.02.2018

[The article was published in May 2018 edition of The Crucible]