No sooner had I left Tinplate R&D and got settled in at my new position in Ebbw Vale, or I became involved in the work on coil shape at the temper mill. As part of that work I also got to sit in with discussions that took place between British Steel and Nippon Steel as part of a technology exchange programme that existed between them. Most of the meetings took place in Trostre or Ebbw Vale, but on one occasion, in November 1999, a group of us went to visit Nippon Steel in two of their plants in Japan.
It was a bit of a surprise to me that after only two months with the Process Development Team I was invited to go along, but obviously I wasn’t going to say no to such an opportunity. It’s quite some time ago and apart from a few photographs (the topic of a next blog) I have no record of it apart from my (vague) memory.
The trip started with a flight to Tokyo, where we stayed the night, to take the bullet train to the Yawata Works in Kokura on the island of Kyushu. That was the main part of our trip. For the second part, at the Hirohata Works in Himeji, we had the occasion to interrupt our journey in Hiroshima to see the iconic building in the Peace Memorial Park. At the end of our journey we had a free day in Kyoto before we flew out from Osaka back to Heathrow.
What was it like ? A bit like an illiterate person must feel in Britain, not being able to read any of the signs and notices. That’s probably why we hardly ever were left to our own devices and spent evening meals (and two karaokes) with our hosts. We also had a translator who was with us for most of the time – not just for the discussions with Nippon Steel, but also for simple things like going out for a pizza.
As for the food, I was warned by some people who had been before that they disliked the food so much that in desperation, and to stave off getting increasingly hungry, they went to a McDonalds near the hotel. No such worries for me – I found the food so interesting that I had to try just about anything on offer, and put on weight as a result. Apart from Japanese specialities such as raw fish and fried soft-shelled crab, there was also the Korean barbecue (frying your own meat on a hot stone) and as one of our last meals the softest, tenderest steak I’ve ever tasted.
Anyhow, back to the reason why we went to Japan, which was to get assistance with our investigation of coil shape. We had to compile our questions in advance and send them through, so that our hosts would have plenty of time to mull over what answers to give us. And then there were the meetings which didn’t look all that different from those we had had in Britain. I’m not sure what, if anything, came out of them that really helped us and which we couldn’t have figured out for ourselves.
This was a visit organised while we were still British Steel, and even though we had become Corus following the merger with Hoogovens in October 1999, our visit still was considered part of the British Steel – Nippon Steel agreement. As such we were all issued with a fresh set of British Steel shirts, works trousers and jackets, and steel toe-capped shoes. It was also one of the last of these visits, if not the very last – from then on the Corus machinery started to deploy itself, and presumably there was no new agreement between Corus and Nippon Steel.
Whatever the case, I never went back to Japan again, and as far as I’m aware, the temper mill work on coil shape continued with just our own input.
At a later stage, when I was starting to think about filling the Strip UK Wiki with useful stuff, I had got the idea that summaries of the various task team reports which had resulted from earlier collaborations between British Steel and Nippon Steel would be a good idea. However, when this came to the attention of Lianne Deeming, she put a stop to it once she became aware that everyone in Corus would be able to see this information. It would appear that the contract stipulated that this was for the eyes of British Steel personnel only, and even though we were now in the same boat as our Dutch colleagues, they would not be allowed to see those reports. I’m still not sure if this was really so, but you can’t argue with someone that high up, so that was the end of that clever idea.
I wonder whether this type of exchange became outdated once the Japanese domination of the 1970s started becoming a distant memory, and maybe it died a natural death, and the coming of Corus merely hastened it.