Tuesday, 24th March saw Group H spend a couple of interesting hours touring the AIS (Australian Iron & Steel) facility and the grounds. The tour began with a couple of short screenings of the history of the industry and an OH&S safety induction. Everyone garbed up in baggy hi-vis jackets, hard hats, goggles, gloves and communication devices. Jumping on the mini bus, we drove past steel rolls ready for sale to clients like Mordeck, past regenerated gardens and steaming torpedo ladles full of molten iron. We pass by blast furnaces and as clean as it is, it is still a man’s world full of grime, dirt and no doubt, plenty of sweat. We learn steel is a basic mixture of coke, iron ore and limestone (to pull out the impurities). The limestone is mined from Marulan, with the coke (coal) being mined from Coledale/Bulli area.
Our group walks up a set of stairs and are shown through the BOS (Basic Oxygen Steel) making plant with huge hooks, gigantic machinery, huge skip bins of scrap metal and very few staff. Most everything seems to be automated. We follow through a number of doors and offices to arrive at the BOS Control Room; we watch oxygen being blown into a mixture of molten iron and scrap metal. This is the ‘kitchen’ where the iron is converted into steel by boiling out impurities and carbon. From the BOS Control Room, we continue around to the furnace floor. Between the control room and the furnace floor, alloys are added to the mix before being poured into the slab caster. The heat is intense; I feel nervous looking into the boiling, steaming mass, thinking you wouldn’t want to slip and fall.
Back in the bus, we do a quick trip through the maze of roads to the Hot Strip Mill. Here, we see the steel slabs being reheated and spun into coils. Huge coils of hot steel are then pushed through rollers, picking up speed to approx 60km per hour, as it is stretched back into a coil about 1km in length, then cooled in water baths as it is recoiled. The control room here reminds me of Homer and the Simpsons with the deck of computer screens and buttons. Watching the coils being stretched, with all the banging noise, steam, speed and huge machinery is totally fascinating. I am struck by the size of it all. And how the heck its all been designed, especially now it’s mostly automated and run by only a couple of thousand staff.
Back on the bus, past Spring Hill Creek (which we are told is kept very clean, with a couple of sharks and fish now populating the waters), past the gardens grown with recycled waste and back to the AIS office. Our tour guides were ‘old hands’ who had been working at Bluescope for decades (38 1/2 years). I think it would take that long to remember how to find your way out of the maze of roads to get home again. The size of Bluescope is on a much bigger scale than I ever thought, just driving by the perimeter. Part of the harbour is man-made. It has its own railway track, reputed to be the third largest railway line in Australia.
What began as The Broken Hill Proprietary Ltd in 1885, has grown to include John Lysaght (Aust) and Australian Iron & Steel, later adding the acquisitions of NZ Steel and Butler Manufacturing. Staff at its highest was around 23,000 and is now down to around 3000 due to technology and the invention of computers replacing the many bodies originally required to work the long shifts making steel. Output is also now higher, with less workers, with a more consistent quality of product. The company, as big as it is, has been quick to evolve and adapt to economic climates, staying competitive and adding or dropping products to meet customer demands. Today, it produces two main types of steel, plate and strip; leaving other companies, mostly overseas, to meet other demands.
All in all, the 2 1/2 hours flew by. It was dirty (even with strict EPA conditions being met). It was noisy. It was a massive map of roads, processes and work flow. It was a male-dominated environment. It was also fascinating and very informative. An interesting day indeed!