In the battle to drive down costs, British manufacturing industry is missing a trick. Cold roll forming and custom roll forming can be an economical way of producing steel sections in volume. Yet in the UK at least, only the construction sector has so far really grasped its potential.
This is the view of Stephen Tilsley, who, as chairman of the Cold Rolled Sections Association, is a man with a mission. He is leading an initiative to make engineers aware of the benefits of a technique whose merits, he says, are widely appreciated in the US and mainland Europe, but poorly understood here in the UK.
‘In Germany there is a much wider appreciation of what custom roll forming can do, particularly for complex profiles. I would say that if we had the same understanding we could increase the volume of the industry by 50%.’
Cold rolled sections are created by running steel coil through a succession of pairs of rolls to produce a structural load-bearing section. The UK construction industry has embraced the process enthusiastically. In lightweight buildings, cold rolled sections are ubiquitous for supporting external cladding and roofing. Construction accounts for between a half and two thirds of the industry’s annual output.
‘Compared with a hot rolled section, a cold rolled section can save 30% of the weight for the same strength because you can put the strength where you want it,’ says Tilsley.
So what are the capabilities, and the competition?
The technology has progressed considerably in the past 10 years or so, says Tilsley. Cold-rolling can produce complex sections, which might otherwise have to be fabricated, in high volumes to tight tolerances. The latest techniques will, for example, allow a section to be bent and welded to form a tube from steel up to 12mm thick.
The industry has diversified into stainless and coated steels – galvanised, painted, or plastic coated.
Tilsley’s own company Metsec, one of the two largest cold rolled section producers in the UK along with Hadley industries, introduced ‘Profil Manipulation’ in which the section, once formed, can be cut to length and bent. A typical example is a cold rolled tube which is cut and bent to form the side frames of a tractor cab. ‘We’re about producing components ready for assembly without needing any additional operations,’ says Tilsley.
The competition, he says, includes brake pressing for small jobs where the volume does not justify the tooling required for cold rolling. For volume production, it is probably cheaper to tool up for an aluminium extrusion; tolerances are similar, but because aluminium is more expensive than steel, cold rolling may work out cheaper overall.
For the technique to be most effective, though, it is necessary for the roll form manufacturer’s design experts to be involved in discussions with the customer’s designers at an early stage, ‘to make sure the customer understands the capability of the process, how best it will fit in, tooling costs and to offer impartial advice.
‘We’re trying to get into the designer’s head at concept stage, so they’ll consider us.’ But whereas a typical German engineer will probably have learned about the technique at university, it is not on the syllabus in the UK. And, Tilsley admits, ‘we haven’t promoted ourselves enough’.
That is all due to change from next year when the association launches its awareness drive on three fronts.
First, it is contacting selected universities offering to hold seminars for students, featuring local member firms, so when the students go into industry, at least they will be aware of cold forming. It is hoped to get these off the ground early next year.
Second, the association is producing a technical manual for designers ‘which will allow them to absorb in five minutes the capabilities’. This should also be ready next spring.
Every member firm is being asked to provide a case study ‘where they’ve helped a customer become more cost-effective’.
Third, there will be visits to member firms’ plants at which presentations will be made to demonstrate their capabilities to local design engineers. The association has members from the north of Scotland to Kent and so should be able to cover most of the country.
Tilsley, 48, has been a director of Metsec since a management buyout from the TI Group in 1981. He graduated from Cambridge in mechanical engineering in 1970 and worked for the UK Atomic Energy Authority for four years before taking an MBA. He joined Tube Investments’ internal consultancy department where he carried out various strategic projects throughout the group, before joining TI Metsec in 1978.
He became chairman of the Cold Rolled Sections Association in 1995 and says: ‘Helping members to be more efficient and more world class has been my central aim as chairman.’ He does not see CRSA members as competing with each other: ‘We need a world class supplier base because the real competition is from overseas.
‘There are good opportunities overseas, in Europe particularly. The market is 10 times as big in Europe. Germany is the biggest market but has few producers of cold rolled sections. It mainly imports them from Austria and Belgium.’
Hence he has put benchmarking and training at the head of his agenda as association chairman. In surveys this year and last, member companies were asked to rate themselves, anonymously, on a range of criteria, and he hopes the exercise will become an annual event. ‘Benchmarking enables people to see where they’re at and who the best performers are, and identify where to improve.’
On the training front, in association with Steel Training, the national training organisation for the steel industry of which Tilsley is also a director, the CRSA offers help to firms seeking to become Investors in People. It has also developed an NVQ Level 2 for production operators on rolling mills.
Efficiency and well-trained staff will be crucial given that Tilsley expects that custom forming, currently representing 50% of the market, will increase in importance, being a higher valued added activity.
Despite the difficulties created by the strong pound, the UK cold rolled sector remains a net exporter. ‘But no matter how fast you go there is a limit to what you can do when material represents 60-70% of costs. Where members are selling high value added products they’ve kept their share of the export market. Those selling less sophisticated, low margin products have pulled out.’