MADE IN SHEFFIELD: Forging steel industry of the future

Independent Forging and Alloys Managing Director Andy McGuiness.
Independent Forging and Alloys Managing Director Andy McGuiness.

Down a side road past Sheffield’s Owlerton dog track is a site where forging has taken place since 1587.

Those early metal workers chose the confluence of the rivers Don and Loxley as the best place to establish their trade.

Hot bar in the press at Independent Forging and Alloys.

Hot bar in the press at Independent Forging and Alloys.

What would the forge have looked like, in the late 16th century, almost 40 years before the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire came into being? Probably a tilt forge, with a water wheel powering hammers.

But the principle of heating metal to soften it up, and applying pressure to change its shape and properties, is unchanged today. And remarkably, the site still has the same use.

Independent Forging and Alloys on Livesey Street proudly continues a centuries-old tradition - but the machinery, the technology and the end products have changed.

“Aerospace,” is the word on the lips of managing director Andy McGuinness.

Made in Sheffield.

Made in Sheffield.

Today, IFA parts can be found in the engines and aircraft of 21st century planes, including the Boeing Dreamliner, as well as oil rigs and satellites.

He also believes Boeing’s arrival in Sheffield – with its first factory in Europe – will be a huge boost.

“I think it’s exciting. Boeing is the biggest thing to happen to the aerospace sector locally and will establish this region as a centre. And it will bring work for the supply chain.”

At the heart of IFA’s operation is a forge fitted with 20 gas furnaces, each about the size of a garage. Huge buggies that look like something out of Mad Max lift out bars of hot metal and place them in a 1,500 tonne press.

A manipulator vehicle places a hot bar in the press at Independent Forgings and Alloys

A manipulator vehicle places a hot bar in the press at Independent Forgings and Alloys

They are ‘cogged’ – squashed and rotated – in an operation involving a small team of men who communicate with hand signals. Oddly, despite the soot and grime, they wear white overalls. But it has a practical purpose, to reflect the intense heat.

Elsewhere on the site, ingots, part-forged ‘billets’ and finished products are kept in a stockyard, some still radiating heat. And in another building, the saw shop, machines slice off rough forged ends where impurities are concentrated.

IFA is also proud of its test house, opened a year ago following a £500,000 investment. Today it employs five and is advertising three jobs. Independent from the main company, it certifies products to show strict standards are being met.

Andy McGuinness adds: “It’s a complex business affected by global uncertainties such as the exchange rate, oil price and the cost of raw materials. That can make life difficult, especially if a customer cancels an order. There’s also the complexity of the shapes and the metals. But there’s a vast amount of knowledge on this site

Part-forged bar at Independent Forging and Alloys.

Part-forged bar at Independent Forging and Alloys.

“I think there’s no one in Sheffield with our capabilities. We are experiencing growth not seen since before the crash of 2008 and it’s forecast to continue for the next five years.

“I’m proud of our heritage – I can see it continuing into the next century.”

IFA employs 135 including three apprentices, turnover is between £18m and £20m.

Export is 20 per cent of business – it won a Queen’s Award in 2008 – and 30 per cent of its supply chain is in South Yorkshire.

IFA is a proud member of the Made in Sheffield club – not least because it helps with recruiting.

Chairman Martin Burnham said: “In the early days of Independent Forgings and Alloys we were very keen to make much of our links to the heritage of Sheffield, we were one of the first supporters of Made In Sheffield. I feel it is key to building partnerships with the local supply chain. When we started the business in 2001 I was keen to use the Sheffield name and even our website used the domain name ‘forgedinsheffield’.

Removing a hot metal bar from the furnace at Independent Forging and Alloys.

Removing a hot metal bar from the furnace at Independent Forging and Alloys.

“I believe that people still know and respect the Sheffield name, especially for metals and we have promoted the Made In Sheffield brand with success at our international exhibitions.

“I feel that the brand also has value when it comes to recruitment and training. People in the local area are justifiably proud of their city.”

David Birkby at Independent Forging and Alloys.

David Birkby at Independent Forging and Alloys.

Ben Gregory at Independent Forging and Alloys.

Ben Gregory at Independent Forging and Alloys.

Independent Forging and Alloys saw shop.

Independent Forging and Alloys saw shop.

Hot bar in a grabber on a manipulator at Independent Forging and Alloys.

Hot bar in a grabber on a manipulator at Independent Forging and Alloys.