I worry about our so-called ‘political elite’ and its ability to ‘do the right thing’. Like a lot of people I was disappointed with the result of the UK’s EU referendum.
While it’s good to see ‘democracy at work’, the decision to leave the EU appears to be because there are many people living in the UK whose needs and concerns are simply ignored by those in positions of power. June 23 was payback time.
Turning the political status quo on its head appears to be a global trend and one that can be predicted, it seems, simply by working out what would be the worst outcome and then betting on it. So, the UK leaving the EU – not a great idea, but hey ho, it’s happened. The nightmare has become reality. What’s next? Donald Trump – considered a joke candidate to be voted leader of the free world, but guess what? It’s looking increasingly likely.
When it comes to the global steel industry, the common wisdom is that giving China Market Economy Status (MES) would not be a good idea. Last week in Brussels the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), an influential group whose opinion is valued by European Commission officials in charge of decision-making, called for the abolition of the lesser duty rule and the need to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of trade defence instruments. “Enough is enough. We have to save our steel,” said Andrés Barceló, rapporteur of the EESC opinion on Steel: Preserving sustainable jobs and growth in Europe. He said it was time to ‘restore a level playing field for Europe’s steel industry’.
The EESC believes that granting MES to China would be a ‘serious setback for Europe’s ambitions for sustainable development and the fight against climate change’. But it goes beyond steel. It would affect the aluminium, bicycle, ceramic, glass, motor vehicle parts and paper industries, the EESC claims.
The global steel industry has been making similar arguments for many years, but as the time approaches for making the big decision, I worry. Jean-Claude Juncker and Chinese premier Li Keqiang seem far too cosy for my liking and talk of an ‘EU deal to assuage steel dumping concerns’ makes me wonder whether another big political mistake is looming large.
“It’s a robot. Ash is a goddamn robot!” This immortal line from Ridley Scott’s Alien will stick with me forever, along with other memorable film quotes that I’ll refrain from mentioning in this leader, although “My friend wants his hand back” from the first Mad Max is worthy of recognition.
The reason for airing the Alien quote is simple: steel production is moving fast towards greater automation and, of course, ‘smart manufacturing’ or ‘industry 4.0’. We’re talking about digitalisation, folks, and while I would imagine the notion of robots replacing steelworkers is a long, long way off – how dangerous would that be? – the steel industry needs to get to grips with what Alvin Toffler once described as ‘future shock’.
And let’s be fair to the steel industry; it’s not as if it hasn’t acclimatised itself to digitalisation. As this issue proves, there’s a lot of stuff being done and plenty of research and development going on surrounding the subject.
At last year’s World Steel Conference in Chicago, during a discussion about digitalisation, I suggested via email that the building blocks of digitalisation were all in place, but what the steel industry lacked was connectivity. Now there’s a good piece of ‘Industry 4.0’ terminology. In other words, bringing everything together, linking everything up.
I mention technology and digitalisation and all things ‘futuristic’ for two reasons: one, Steel Times International will be organising an ‘Industry 4.0’ conference next year – more details to follow, but if you have an idea for a presentation, email me soon – and two, this issue has a kind of ‘technology’ bias.
There’s a lot of ‘techy’ stuff going on at present that shows how far the steel industry has progressed in terms of controlling the steel making process.
This digital edition of Steel Times International opens a few windows on to the world of digital manufacturing and shows how technology, in various guises, be it Fives’ Stein Digit@l furnaces or Transbotics’ automated guided vehicles, has infiltrated the world of steel production.
But let’s finish with a quote from Jeff Vintar from I, Robot. “Robots building robots. Now that’s just stupid.”
Anybody who has read Philip K Dick will know all about parallel universes. In fact, if you read too much of this great American novelist you might find yourself 'Dicked out'. In other words, unable to distinguish between what is real and what isn't. I felt this way when I returned to my hotel room to mull over the content of AISTech 2016's Town Hall Forum where the great and the good of the American steel industry claimed, in no uncertain terms, that they – the American steel industry – were at war with China; not the entire nation, you understand, just its steel industry.
I should have known when I attended the 2015 event and ArcelorMittal USA's Andrew Harshaw brought a touch of High Noon to the proceedings when he told journalists that the only thing the Chinese understand is the rule of law. This year things have escalated and now it's all-out war. Or so said Cliffs Natural Resources' Lourenco Goncalves. He told a massed audience at the David L Lawrence Convention Centre in downtown Pittsburgh – home of AISTech 2016 – that the Chinese started it and they were being aided and abetted by the Australians who were supplying Chinese steel mills with iron ore 'to perpetrate war with the rest of the world'. No, I'm not making this up, and to the best of my knowledge, I'm not living in a parallel universe.
It wasn't just Mr Goncalves indulging in such fighting talk; the rest of this year's esteemed Town Hall panel agreed and who can blame them? According to the American Iron and Steel Institute more than 12,000 US steel jobs have been lost in the past year, with imports touching a record 29% of the US market.
Statistics like that make slapping a 522% tariff on cold-rolled flat steel from China perfectly acceptable and, of course, it's good that the Americans are protecting their home-grown steel industry. On the other side of the pond, a 'significant majority of MEPs' believe it is wrong to grant China Market Economy Status (MES). Perhaps I am living in a parallel universe, just like the characters in Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle.
Later, after a cold shower and an even colder beer – we British tend to enjoy warm beer much to most Americans' disgust – I wandered around Penn Avenue, eventually stumbling (not literally, I only had one beer) upon an impressive-looking comic book store. It was the sort of place where I might have found a few characters from a Philip K Dick novel. After browsing the vinyl and the comic books and considering the purchase of a whacky tee-shirt, I engaged the storekeeper in conversation. How did he feel, I wondered, about Donald Trump becoming the next leader of the free world? He didn't seem to relish the prospect.
As the convention was now over for another year I wandered back to my hotel, contemplating dinner, a good night's sleep and then a transatlantic flight to London. I began to wonder how a Donald Trump presidency might affect the US steel industry – positively or negatively? When I thought of all that excess steel floating around in China I figured he could always build another wall, in addition to the one he is planning to keep out the Mexicans. In a few months from now, of course, we will all have a clearer picture of how things will pan out politically in North America and whether the new President of the United States, be it a man or a woman, will be a good or a bad thing for the nation's indigenous steel industry.