History of Steel Manufacturing in Australia
Steel manufacturing in Australia has had a chequered history. Following the discovery of deposits of iron at Iron Knob, SA, in 1840, the industry had an inauspicious start, with several unsuccessful attempts to produce pig iron and steel in South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania. Because of poor quality iron ore and coke, as well as inadequate technical expertise, the local product could not compete with steel imported from Britain and by the late 1870s all of the Australian ironworks had been abandoned.
At the turn of the twentieth century the demand for steel increased as railways and manufacturing industries expanded, and Australia’s first modern blast furnace went into production at Eskbank near Lithgow, NSW. In 1915 BHP opened a steelworks in Newcastle, fuelled by coke from local coal and processing iron ore mined in South Australia. Other steelworks opened at Port Kembla, New South Wales, in 1921 and Whyalla, South Australia, in 1938.
After World War II, there was further requirement for steel and steady growth was seen in Australian steel production, from 4.6 million tonnes in 1963 to 10 million tonnes in 1981. During this period sheet steel was in demand as a material for manufacturing motor vehicles and domestic appliances. Steel pipes were required for infrastructure projects and for agricultural applications such as cattle panels and Australia’s building industry used steel products as structural components and roofing materials.
By the 1980s an excess of production of steel around the world forced changes in the Australian steel manufacturing industry. As the volumes of iron and steel produced in Australia fell, manufacturers embarked on an ambitious program to increase productivity in Australian mills. From the mid 1980s Australian steel manufacturers introduced significant changes in the industry’s structure. They rationalised their operations by closing inefficient production sites and adopted innovative practices and technologies to ensure that the local steel product remained competitive in terms of both quality and price.
While steel is a totally recyclable material with a potentially infinite life, its manufacture has traditionally created large quantities of waste by-products. Pressure to adopt sustainable manufacturing operations has challenged Australian steel manufacturers to find uses for waste materials that would previously have been discarded. Slag is now used to produce aggregate for road building and cement making and blast furnace gas is cleaned and reused.
Although the Australian steel manufacturing industry is now very efficient, the global market for steel is intensely competitive. Consequently, much of the steel used in Australian industries today has been produced offshore from iron ore mined in Australia.
As a consumer of fossil fuel energy, the industry looks forward to working with governments on the environmental challenge of continuing to produce competitively priced steel in a climate of rising costs and potential tax penalties for greenhouse gas emissions. The Australian steel manufacturing industry has risen to many challenges during its history and looks forward to a robust future and continuing central role in the country’s manufacturing sector.