British Steel was not the only company who had a technical exchange programme going with a Japanese company. After the merger with Hoogovens we heard they had a similar programme, also with Nippon Steel, and Iscor had an technical exchange arrangement with Nippon Kokan.
When I joined the discussions the topic at the time was ERW or electro-resistance welded steel for pipeline. Presumably this was in preparation of the Mossgas project where high purity steel quality was required. The main reason why I was involved in the discussions was that at the time I was working on the cleanliness of continuous cast steel for DWI tinplate applications, which required a similar level of steel cleanliness and as such lessons learnt on one project could be applied to the other and vice versa.
At a later stage we also asked for advice when we had problems with hot cracking of slabs for a new boron containing welding quality steel. In the end we resolved that one by ourselves, since I remembered doing a bit about boron steels when I was doing my literature survey on IF and ULC steels at professor Dilewijn’s laboratory. The trick was to either reduce the nitrogen content below 30 ppm or raising the boron content above 20 ppm, and since our steelmaking facilities at the time produced a nitrogen content in our steel of about 70 ppm, the only option was to increase the boron content.
It was strange to see how the discussions took place in English, but when there had to be consultations within each group Nippon Kokan’s discussions naturally took place in Japanese, whereas the Iscor discussions used Afrikaans. Quite a simple way to keep your internal discussions private. This was also the first time that I noticed how it was very easy to upset the Japanese mindset by being too abrupt, something that Yuri Chvostek, the manager of our continuous casters and someone who had fled communist Czechoslovakia, managed to do on a number of occasions. When that happens, they don’t protest verbally, but instead go all quiet and become uncooperative in a passive-aggressive fashion.
Most of the time the technical exchange programme was a one way system with Iscor asking the questions and Nippon Kokan answering them. However, at the same time they kept their eyes and ears open for any practice that they hadn’t thought of or tried themselves. One instance when we described our method for desulphurisation of our hot metal, which used NaOH. In order to maximise the desulphurisation process a ladle was tipped into another ladle, thereby remixing the NaOH containing slag intimately with the steel. When they heard of this practice, you could almost see the Nippon Kokan people prick up their ears and think “interesting …” Still, the practice is highly polluting (if you were in the habit of parking your car close to the desulphurisation station, you were bound to see your windscreen etched over time), and I’m pretty sure that’s why it’s not being used in Western Europe.
I never got a visit to Japan out of it though – presumably I was not high enough in the rankings at the time, and when I moved from steelmaking technology to plate mill technology I lost track of what happened of this exchange programme. But it was a curious first insight into the Japanese way of doing business.