MADE IN SHEFFIELD: Liberty turning scrap into super steel

A worker preparing an ingot to go into the VAR furnace at Liberty Speciality Steels Stocksbridge.
A worker preparing an ingot to go into the VAR furnace at Liberty Speciality Steels Stocksbridge.

It involves melting huge ingots, lightning bolts, a 14-mile rail journey – and hoovering.

Transforming scrap into high purity steel used in critical parts of planes – landing gear or jet engine shafts – is nothing short of epic.

An ingot in the VAR furnace (Vacuum Arc Remelting) furnance at Liberty Speciality Steels Stocksbridge

An ingot in the VAR furnace (Vacuum Arc Remelting) furnance at Liberty Speciality Steels Stocksbridge

But that’s the business Liberty Speciality Steels is in.

The vast operation employs more than 1,700 people on sprawling sites in Rotherham and Stocksbridge.

But a focus on one department shines a light on a little-understood, but very demanding world – and one which is key to the region’s prosperity.

The process starts at Aldwarke in Rotherham. Here, scrap from the auto industry is melted to produce ingots weighing up to eight tonnes.

Once cooled, they are loaded on a train and transported 14 miles to Stocksbridge on a private line.

There, the ‘remelting’ section works with obsessive attention to purity – and some very expensive equipment – to create a product that can cost £15,000-a-tonne.

But when a passenger jet costs £100m and carries thousands of people for over a decade or more, only the very best material will do.

The department employs 75 and works 24-hours-a-day.

Andy Cheetham, left, explains how the VAR furnaces work

Andy Cheetham, left, explains how the VAR furnaces work

Andy Cheetham, process metallurgist, says they cut off the ends of the ingots, where impurities gather after the first melt.

Then they are given a surface grind to polish them up, before being lowered into a VAR – vacuum arc remelting – furnace. Each one costs £3.5m and the business has nine, with plans for two more.

Now it’s time for the lightning bolts.

Electrical charges at 1,000 degrees melt one end like an “upside down candle”.

Liberty Speciality Steels Stocksbridge Re-melting section

Liberty Speciality Steels Stocksbridge Re-melting section

The computer-controlled process, which can take up to 22 hours, drives out impurities and introduces other elements. What re-forms is a very different piece of metal.

Every inch undergoes ultrasonic inspection before being signed off. Records are kept forever, says Andy.

And the hoovers? A vital piece of equipment used regularly to keep the dust down.

Liberty Speciality Steels showed off its capability at the recent Paris Air Show.

Chief executive Jon Bolton told 100 aerospace executives they could help the industry reduce fuel consumption, cut costs and meet environmental standards.

He is optimistic that it will result in valuable contracts.

The top of an ingot after removal from a furnace

The top of an ingot after removal from a furnace

Mr Bolton said: “Our aerospace business is growing year on year and we are investing to ensure we continue to develop and supply the highest quality steels for this demanding and sophisticated market.”

Some 41,000 new aircraft will be needed by 2036, according to Boeing.

Steel accounts for almost a fifth of material in aircraft manufacture, and the total annual world market is estimated to be $13 billion.

MADE IN SHEFFIELD

Speciality Steels boss Jon Bolton has a long history with the firm, he ran it 17 years ago when it was Corus.

But he always been a big fan of the Made in Sheffield organisation.

The Star has partnered with MiS to highlight the innovation and quality of firms who are part of the world’s best brand.

Mr Bolton said: “I’ve worked in the steel industry all my life. I’m a big believer in the power of heritage and pride in our achievements and Made in Sheffield is a key element of that.

“Boss Sanjeev Gupta talks about pride in British industry. Speciality Steels has a bright future.”

Earlier this year Liberty bought Speciality Steels from Tata for £100m. It has plans to invest, expand production and hire 300.

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New Liberty Speciality Steels sign in Stocksbridge

New Liberty Speciality Steels sign in Stocksbridge

Liberty Speciality Steels headquarters in Stocksbridge

Liberty Speciality Steels headquarters in Stocksbridge