Tag Archives: Tinplate R&D

Counterfactual #3

So there I was in 1999, freshly rescued, if you want to call it that way, from the tyranny of an overbearing and unbearable boss in Tinplate R&D. So what could have happened if Chris Eliot hadn’t hatched the plan for my secondment to Ebbw Vale?

First of all, and something that happened within a few months of the merger with Hoogovens, Tinplate R&D became part of the new Corus-wide R&D division , with a re-organisation along lines that were inherited from Hoogoven’s R&D efforts. It’s hard to envisage where I would have fitted into the new structure, and whose decision it would have been who was posted where.

I think that for Corus Packaging Plus (the tinplate part of Corus) it became quite clear that since the head office was located in IJmuiden, that’s also where the PACS Centre was relocated. I know for sure that John Selwyn Williams and John Gamble both made that trip. Not sure whether the other positions were based there or had to do regular commutes.

Anyhow, all that became pretty immaterial once the decision was made that Welsh Labs was to close. Whatever physical presence there was across the bridge in Port Talbot, it became somewhat of a ghost town when the Welsh Development Agency bought up the site and rented some space back for some relic activities by Corus and subsequently Tata.

So either I would have moved to IJmuiden (a possibility, but far from certain), or I would have been on the lookout for a job elsewhere. Who knows whether I would have ended up in Ebbw Vale after all. Still, if the latter, it would have left me less time to try and find my feet and show that I was worth keeping for the last year when I really made my impact that secured my future in Corus / Tata Steel.

Whatever the case, the present situation where I made my move to Ebbw Vale in September 1999 was infinitely better. Not having to worry about all possible job permutations in the new R&D structure was a bonus, and by the time Ebbw Vale’s closure was announced I had at least built up some local goodwill that would stand me in good stead for the coming years.



Hotels are strange places if you’re there on business. In the end it turns out to be just a place to get yourself some food and a night’s sleep. Also strange is that, as time wore on, the use of hotels shrank, until in the last ten years of my career I hardly stayed in one at all. Possibly this had something to do with austerity measures and restricting travel to a minimum, in preference of having meetings via video link.

Most of the time, hotel stays were paid in advance, either because you were part of an organised group, or because the company had an arrangement of prepaying on booking a hotel room. That happened to be the case in Allied Steel & Wire, so once I moved to British Steel it was a bit of a shock to have to foot the complete hotel bill yourself. So much so that on my first stay for a visit to Heinz I had to be rescued by a colleague who paid my hotel bill for me.

At the time I didn’t have a credit card, so I applied for one, but the application hadn’t been completed yet when I stayed in the Post House near Newcastle-under-Lyme, and was quite shocked to be treated as a potential petty thief when I said I was going to pay cash and I was asked to pay in advance, and again the next morning before having breakfast. After all, I was working for a reputable British company, did they really expect me to do a runner ?

I can see how this arrangement could be financially beneficial to the company. You spend the money from your own pocket first, and that’s all cash that remains in their coffers until you claim it back on expenses. That’s why the use of a credit card was imperative, since you were likely to have your expenses repaid before you had to settle your credit card bill.

On the one hand, staying in hotels with other people can help establish relationships beyond the workplace; on the other hand staying in a hotel all by yourself can be pretty bleak. As an example of the former, I once stayed in a hotel with Norman Leah for a visit to Impress Deventer, and I’m sure the wining and dining together gave him a better view of me as a person rather than merely bring his boss.

However, being on your own just a few days prior to Christmas for trials at CMB Braunstone was pretty lonely, and a good thing too that most of the day was taken up by witnessing trial runs by CMB. Or the time I took part in an introductory Matlab course and stayed in a Travelodge near a dual carriageway leading out of Cambridge, where there was absolutely nothing to do apart from be in your room and watch television.

Hence that in later years, when I no longer was flitting about going to customers, and when the stays in hotels first reduced to a trickle and later dried up completely, I didn’t miss hotel rooms at all. It may be nice for a change, but I wouldn’t want to do it on a regular basis as part of my day-to-day job.

The Vision Thing

I remember George Bush Sr. admitting that he wasn’t all that good at “the vision thing”. If my performance appraisals at Tinplate R&D are to be believed, then I’m also lacking in this department. Not exactly sure what was meant by that, but maybe that’s why I was deemed deficient in that department.

Mind you, if I see how British Steel was going about their business of deciding on their strategy and implementing it, I have my doubts about this vision thing. Was it all that clever to underinvest in your core and instead spend your money on a mini-mill in Tuscaloosa ? Or to close one of two coke ovens in Port Talbot just when the demand from a China cranked up the coke world price ? For people who were in a position where you’re supposed some degree of vision, those were pretty daft decisions (I know, 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing).

Closer to home, I’ve never understood that senior managers never bothered to find out how much man hours was spent producing the reports they wanted. And hence they never found out the hidden waste involved with people going through mindless loops and spending between a quarter and half of their time unproductively in producing regular business reports that could and should have been automated. But then again, IT is only advanced plumbing, and whoever heard of a plumber with vision ?

Soudronic Welder

British Steel’s PACS Centre had various pieces of kit for making different types of can, one of which was a Soudronic welder, which takes a rectangular piece of tinplate, forms it into a cylinder and then welds the overlapping edges of the cylinder to make the body of a 3-piece can.

Although the machine was often used to produce feedstock for other purposes (e.g. can performance tests or filling tests), the main trial it was used for during my time at Tinplate R&D was the welding of lightgauge can bodies from tinplate produced in Ebbw Vale. The standard gauge of commercial cans used to be 0.16 mm, although some had already gone as far as 0.14 mm.

Ebbw Vale had first trialled out the rolling of a 0.12 mm gauge material, followed by a 0.10 mm gauge. These we had then cut up into blanks of the correct size for a standard size 3-piece can – the 0.12 mm material we could do in-house, but for the 0.10 mm material we had to call in the help of Impress in Grantham. Even then we had to sort the blanks by hand so that we could feed batches of the exact same size into the welder; unfortunately there was such a size variation in the unsorted material that the welder couldn’t handle the changes in overlap.

And that’s when the welder started to misbehave, so we had a technician brought across from Switzerland to give the machine a good looking into. Turns out that the only thing the machine really needed was a proper oil service: what we didn’t know was that a Soudronic welder only starts to lubricate itself after extended runs, something that over all these years had never happened. Meaning that we were basically running the welder without any lubrication for the best part of 10 years. No wonder it started to misbehave.

Once this obstacle was out of the way, the machine managed to weld can bodies from 0.10 mm feedstock, thereby successfully completing that part of the project. Shortly afterwards I left Tinplate R&D for Ebbw Vale and ever returned. I don’t know what happened to the Soudronic welder – was it moved to IJmuiden or sold off ? It definitely was in good enough condition to handle the production of run-of-the-mill cans, but maybe there were other, more capable machines available by then, so I don’t know.

All I know is that when Welsh Labs shut down, the two main people of the PACS Centre moved to its equivalent in IJmuiden, but their forte was more DWI can making, so I don’t know whether the Soudronic followed them or not.

Loss of Data

It’s probably happened to all of us at one time or another: you’ve been working on a spreadsheet or some other document for several hours, and were so absorbed in your work that you didn’t make intermediate saves, and then the server or your computer went down (say by a power cut), and you lost a whole afternoon’s work.

This was more likely to happen in the early days of computing, where application software didn’t carry temporary back-ups, and if an unsaved document was gone, it was gone for good. One example that clearly stands out in my mind was when a load management at Allied Steel & Wire cut out the mains a quarter of an hour earlier than I had expected, and I lost a 1-2-3 spreadsheet that I had been working on all afternoon. My expletives must have echoed through the building, because a manager of a few offices down the corridor came to compliment me on my command of the English language.

The situation was even more fraught in Iscor, where many of our documents were stored and edited through a mainframe terminal. In the end you started to read the warning signs when your connection started to slow down – often a warning sign that the connection might cut out – and then it was a race against time to try and save whatever you had before you lost your work.

At least I’ve never been in the situation of Steve Carless, who lost all his EngDoc work that was stored on a common drive when we changed our system of using common drives at Welsh Labs. The worst I did was to accidentally delete all my emails on my Lotus Notes account, and you know what ? I never missed a single one of them !

All of this confirms the adage that data isn’t data until it’s backed up. That was proven when I accidentally deleted more than a year’s worth of blast furnace 4 production records, and they were restored within a few hours from the server back-ups held by Process Control.

Come to think of it, considering that I’ve been working with computers for several decades, I’ve had surprisingly few mishaps. Either I’ve been lucky, or I’ve been doing something right.