UK - Forging the future with steel and science

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Sheffield Forgemasters' steel and engineering business has a proud past, but now technology is the flame attracting new customers

Sheffield Forgemasters sounds like a relic from Britain’s industrial past, perhaps where the characters in The Full Monty worked before they had to resort to stripping.
But, quite simply, it isn’t. The steel foundry and engineering business makes advanced components for blue-chip companies including Royal Dutch Shell, Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems, and gets 80pc of its £110m revenue from exports.

The company certainly has an illustrious past. It has been in Sheffield since the 19th century, when the South Yorkshire city made more than half of the world’s steel, and made engine parts for Spitfires and Lancasters during the Second World War.

Chief executive Graham Honeyman pays a respectful nod to this weighty heritage, and then leaves it firmly in the past. “I’m not a history man, I have to be honest,” he says.
“We have a completely different vision for the company now, even from 10 or 15 years ago. We’ve invested in technology and that’s how we survived. I like the heritage but I don’t rely on it to take us forward.”

Sheffield Forgemasters still produces rolled steel and castings, but it is all a far cry from “metal bashing”, and that is what makes the company so relevant.
Its main customers are offshore oil and gas companies, as well as the defence and power industries, including the nuclear sector.

“We can now make things entirely on a computer, from scratch,” he says. “We have 16 integrated software packages, and they take a component through the entire process from design.

"Our company would not survive if we weren’t science and technology-based. There are other people who could do metal bashing more cheaply.”
Turnover has increased from £38m in 2003, when Dr Honeyman led a management buyout of the business, to £110m now. That has been static for two years because of the global slowdown, but the company has a two-pronged plan of attack for growth.

First, in its steel manufacturing business, Dr Honeyman aims to expand the “added value” work it carries out for customers, such as welding other parts on to their components or adding cladding. “As soon as the economy picks up, we’ll pick up on the manufacturing side,” he says.
Sheffield Forgemasters exports to countries including Germany, Russia, the US and China, and will open an office in Singapore early next year because of increasing demand from oil and gas customers in the Far East.

The second prong is an expansion of three pioneering non-manufacturing engineering businesses, set up over the past four years. The goal is for them to make up 30pc of turnover, up from 10pc now.

Yet the engineers carrying out this new work are all Sheffield Forgemasters employees – the company does not use contractors. It now has a workforce of around 800, 150 of whom are engineers.

Sheffield Forgemasters also has between 50 and 70 apprentices, including 12 taken on this year. Some 90pc of the apprentices complete their training, and the company has a job for them all.

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