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  • Steel - After the WAR

    After World War II

    After the war, the steel industry worldwide was in an even more parlous state than Newcastle's, creating a massive demand for new plant. This left little available for Australia and by 1946 production was down to 700,000 tons. An industrial dispute and coal rationing, added to problems.

    To overcome the critical national labour shortage, the government established significant immigration schemes in 1947. These were vital to the Steelworks' immediate future and had a significant long-term impact on the make-up of the workforce and the growth and character of neighbouring residential suburbs.

    Australia saw 55,000 new arrivals in 1948; 150,000 in 1949; and a peak of 152,505 in 1950. By 1955 these new settlers were to account for 20% of the payroll.

    Coal shortages in 1947 resulted in No 1 battery coke ovens and No 1 blast furnace closing for two months. May that year saw production at its lowest since 1935 - 682,631 ingot tons. Employment dropped to 6588.

    A general 10-week national coal strike in 1949 saw No 1 and No 2 coke ovens batteries idle for two months from June and the blast furnaces out of commission for 58 days.

    It was 1950 before the coal industry started returning to normal production levels after the 1949 national strike. The Newcastle Steelworks resumed modernisation and expansion with a program that would continue through the booming 1950s as Australia's steel industry struggled to keep up with the production requirements of a retail boom.

    Increasing prosperity led to increased sales of cars and whitegoods particularly, giving rise to a demand for steel that exceeded supply by more than a million tons.

    Steel imports soared to more than 500,000 tons in 1950 and Newcastle looked to expansion with a sense of urgency.

    In 1950, a major project was launched to reclaim Platts Channel and Spit Island. While work progressed the proportion of the Australian market supplied by local output fell from 91% in 1946 to just 57% in 1951. By 1952, imports had reached 750,000 tons and the Newcastle Steelworks employed 7373 people.

    A hectic growth program began. By 1954, a fourth battery of coke ovens was commissioned to replace older units. BHP's total output was regaining ground with 2,000,000 tons of ingots produced nationally for the first time (50% at Newcastle).

    But that was still not enough to keep up with demand in a market that had required 285 pounds (130kg) of steel per head of population in 1946 and was growing at such a rate it would consume 725 pounds per head 10 years later.

    In 1955, the rebuilding of No 1 battery started. The following year a new stockyard for the open hearth department was finished and an extra row of soaking pits added. New cranes improved ship loading facilities.

    BHP's Central Research Laboratories opened at Shortland in 1957 with far more fanfare than a low-key development some 12 months later that was to have an equally large impact - the installation of BHP's first computers at Newcastle and Port Kembla.

    Although they were in the main to replace clerical functions, one Newcastle unit was used right from the start for operations research. From this base, Newcastle would eventually move to on-line production control facilities in 1970, growing in the 1980s to become one of the most sophisticated computerised steel plants in the world.

    1958 saw a new, high speed, 50,000 ton capacity skelp and strip mill brought into production to improve feedstock for the pipe and tube industry. By 1959, a new coal cleaning plant had been built, the administration building extended, the brass foundry relocated and the ore storage area reconstructed.

    1962 brought a development that was to change the Steelworks' operations forever - the introduction to Australia of the process that was to become known as basic oxygen steelmaking (BOS). The BOS system would eventually replace open hearth steelmaking completely.

    Claimed at the time to be the greatest breakthrough in steelmaking techniques this century, it saw one 200 ton Basic Oxygen furnace capable of providing 50% more steel than all 14 of the old open hearth furnaces put together.

    The BOS increased steelmaking capacity to 1.6 million tons a year, which in turn demanded new or enlarged production units up and down stream. The company installed a 44-inch bloom mill; one of the world's fastest, largest capacity, four-strand rod mills, a raw coal blending plant and new coke handling facilities; a new ore unloader; deeper berths; a new sinter plant; a fourth blast furnace; the coupling of two revolutionary techniques (basic oxygen steelmaking and continuous casting to increase billet production) and new rolling mills.

    In 1964, six of the most modem and almost completely automated recuperative soaking pits in the world began operation.

    To further broaden the Steelworks' skills base, an Apprentice Training Centre was established and on the technical side, to allow the rapid analysis of metal and investigate new fuels and raw materials, a central control laboratory was built.

    1964 saw the introduction in March of BHP News, the Steelworks' own monthly newspaper. It replaced Safety Angles and was designed to highlight the latest progress and planned development within the company, as well as report on items of personal, social and sporting interest to the 11,350 employees.

    The five-year period leading up to the Steelworks' 50th anniversary in 1965 represented only 10% of the Works' history yet it was the single largest period of growth to that time in monetary terms with more than £S5million spent in modernisation.

    On December 2, 1965, the last Newcastle open hearth furnace (No 14) ceased production. 1966, the year Australia introduced decimal currency, was also the year of a devastating drought which, along with a rapidly retreating world market, sent steel prices plummeting. Newcastle's answer was an export drive to South East Asia.

    During the year, Central Research Laboratories installed a $100,000 EAI 60 computer, the only one of its type in Australia.

    In 1968, coke ovens battery 5A, which had 36 ovens and a capacity of 6300 tons of blast furnace coke a week, was commissioned together with the four-strand, curved mould, continuous billet caster and the $28million No 2 merchant mill.

    The caster was an Australian steel industry first that converted liquid steels directly into billets, bypassing conventional ingot moulds, soaking pits and bloom mill operations. The merchant mill, described as 'the mill to end all mills’, was the largest and most modern in the world.

    By 1970, the Steelworks was benefiting from the preceding decade's investment in new plant and equipment. There was a new level of manufacturing efficiency.

    Improvements were continuing too. On October 21 1970, the steel foundry's 53 year-old acid open hearth furnace was tapped for the last time. It was the last of 17 that once operated in Newcastle, and the last of its type in Australasia.

    The furnace was replaced by two, almost fumeless, 25 ton coreless induction furnaces, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. Used to make high alloy iron, their main benefit was the ability to make 'double-pour" rolls that had previously been imported.

    In 1971, the company announced expansion plans worth $l4million to increase merchant bar output from 320,000 tonnes a year to 600,000 tonnes. The program's main features included duplicating some rolling and finishing facilities, increasing the bloom mill's standard ingot size from 6.4 tonnes to 8.5 tonnes, and extending the direct metal foundry to handle larger ingot moulds.

    But by the end of the year it was obvious an increasingly tight economic climate was not going to ease and operations were reduced because of insufficient orders. Nevertheless numerous improvements continued to be made.

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