Something that has been the bugbear of many a metallurgist in the steel industry in the UK is the emphasis – to the exclusion of everything else – of making tonnage. Never mind the quality, feel the weight ?

It’s why I’ve always been wary of production records. At one point I heard of a record shift at Allied Steel & Wire’s rod mill, where the next shift had to pick up the pieces by cleaning out the mill scale pits which the record shift had not bothered to deal with in the pursuit of their records. So any time I see a production record reported, my first reaction is “how much of that tonnage is prime?”, shortly followed by “at what other cost did the record tonnage come?”. You hear stories of shifts picking the easy part of the order book to maximise their tonnage, leaving the other shifts to make the harder grades, or the narrower material which gives you less tonnage for the same coil length.

The strange thing is that despite the best of intentions, the ultimate approval comes from achieving or exceeding the required treatment tonnages. Lip service may be paid to making quality products, or achieving a consistent rather than a peak-and-trough tonnage, but in the end the glory goes to those who can break the record.

Likewise at the blast furnaces: the first thing people look out for is how many tones have been produced, and not whether this has been achieved in a sustainable way. It’s a bit like relentlessly driving a small family car at 80 miles per hour: how long do you think it will last before you’ve ruined the engine. Likewise for any piece of equipment that is continuously run above its standard output; in the end something is likely to give, and your downtime may well cost you more in money, time and manpower than if you had been driving along at an optimal speed.

But somehow, profitability is always linked to tonnage, and this pushes each individual production manager or team leader to try and brighten up his patch by going for the record. After all, you’re more likely to be penalised for missing rather than exceeding your targets. A pity then that the targets are not sustained prime tonnage, but shift-based total tonnage.


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