Tag Archives: Technical Exchange

Nippon Kokan

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.

Nippon Steel

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.