British Steel Stocksbridge Works 1984

Background to the move

As a trainee, I was transferred to Stocksbridge Works of British Steel in Spring 1984. The Government had intervened in the Sheffield steel industry in moves to enable the privatisation of the then Government owned and supported British Steel, and the "maverick" Hadfields steel plant was bought-out and closed by the Government in preparation for this.

About Stocksbridge Works

Situated in a steep-sided narrow valley North of Sheffield, manufacturing had come to Stocksbridge at the start of the industrial revolution due to water power available
[A pattern seen not just in Britain, where industrial towns found in valleys on the sides of hills and mountains are explained by availability of water power hundreds of years ago. After the advent of steam power new industrial towns would evolve on flat areas where building was easier, space was available, transport was cheaper and expansion was possible. Noting as an example Manchester]

Known locally as "Samuel Fox's" in honour of the original name and founder, constrained in a narrow valley with little room for expansion, the Works has concentrated on high quality special steels, rather than volume and economy of scale pursued out on the Don Valley (a wide alluvial plain).
Technically the Works had the same plant and layout as any other electric-melting scrap-recycling steelworks. However, culture and handed-down skills had the works sustaining a consistent high specification which enabled it to make mainly the higher alloying additions end of the low-alloy steels range. Capitalising on this culture, some technical features facilitated producing very refined high-value alloy steels.

The rest of the Sheffield steel industry referred to the Stocksbridge plant as "Happy Valley" suggesting a favourable treatment. The Stocksbridge personnel referred to the rest of the Sheffield steel industry in very derogatory terms belittling what they produced.

My role at Stocksbridge Works

Being a larger organisation and with some manifestations of being then Government-owned, the staff structure was much more regimented, and I was narrowly fitted into the category of "Technician Trainee". I continued my training, serving placements in the different departments. Everything was higher specification that what I had seen before, so it was a good experience.

On completing my traineeship I moved into a regular technician job, in the Test House of the steelworks, where I continued my pattern of diligent work.

Education - sent on "day-release" to college

With the time-of-year I was recruited then the buy-out and imminent closure of the steel-plant I started at, I missed-out on going to college one day a week, as is the pattern for a trainee.
At Stocksbridge Works, I went with the others of the cohort of trainees to the local college, to do the Metallurgical Studies course for technicians.

Nervous at first, my grades came in middling - then started to rise. Pursuing my own studying at home, supported by self-motivated in context by a wider study about steels, my grades progressively rose until I was finally getting almost full marks in the high 90's of percent (for a pass-mark of aorund 40% to 50%).

I took my studies seriously, and it provided structure for my interest in what I was seeing and working-with in the steelworks.

This was the first time in my life I was getting accolade, and this was entirely my own effort; my own "thing". I'd got a long way to go, but this was the start of something which was to prove major.

Technical description

Stocksbridge Works was very good at making "clean" steel. "Clean" in terms of a steel means it has very few included non-metallics - "inclusions".
This enables the steels to perform well in service at high strengths and hardnesses achieved by the higher level of alloying. Not just for general strength for service loads of for example high-performance machine components. A big market was steels for rolling bearings - ball-bearings and roller-bearings. The intense local stress on the roller ways would fatigue-off small flakes of that surface near non-metallic inclusions if they existed.

In making highly-refined bearing steels, I experienced some of the last of "double-slagging" in an electric-arc-furnace. Given the increasing performance of refractories was making ladle-furnaces possible and ubiquitous for economically mass-producing highly-refining steel through a chemically "reducing" stage.
Steelmaking slag had been previously mentioned.
At Stocksbridge Works, the quality requirement and value of the steels frequently required high level of refinement under a reducing slag.

In an aeroplane on take-off, the thrust which pushes you back into your seat accelerating the fully-fueled plane must past through the bearings which are spinning at the high revolutions which gives that screaming-whining sound. There are only as many of those bearings as there are engines... They are critical.
If you make that steel by double-slagging in an arc furnace, you are going to sweat about an equal weight of perspiration to the weight of steel made...
The oxidising and reducing slags, though both lime-based, are incompatible. Any impurities held by remaining oxidising slag when forming-up the reducing slag will revert to the bath of molten steel, where they will stay.
Therefore, after pouring-off what oxidising slag will readily flow over the refractory weir of the furnace, the remaining oxidising slag must be manually raked off the surface of the bath and pulled over the weir. That steel bath is at around 1700C. That is so "white" that you cannot look at it with the unshielded human eye. Let alone the heat.
The method is to screw a piece of wood crossways to the end of a tubular steel pole. Many are prepared and all personnel form up in a line on one diagonal to the side of the slag-door. Each person runs forward and rakes "like mad" through the slag-door until the wooden slag-rake falls-off, at which point the person runs clear dragging their glowing-hot pole up the opposite diagonal, clearing the way for the next person with a fresh slag-rake. Until the job is done, the person who has finished raking picks up a fresh pole and joints the line to do more raking.
The front of polymer safety-helmets sagged-in with melting, darkly tinted polymer visors protecting the eyes and face bubbled up, smoke rose from gloves and clothing - the job was intense.
The benefit of being a steelworker is that you all then retire to the armoured sound-proofed control-room, where everyone can relax, drink tea and chat. You work hard when you work, and there is no requirement upon you when you are between tasks. Each melt is a predictable campaign. From the minor explosions and burst of flame when the baskets of scrap are charged to the furnace. To the internal-organ-shaking noise as the huge electrodes starting the melt down. A time when everyone retreats to the control-room. Then the melt forms and new tasks start, sampling the bath for composition and similar. Onwards through the cycle to tapping-out the steel into the ladle for casting.

As rising refractories performance removed any upper limit to the time steel could be held in a ladle and a top above-steel refractory could resist chemically-active highly-refining slags plus some mild arc heating from "top-up" power supplied, refining was split into oxidising in the arc-furnace and reducing in the ladle-furnace. Cheap tonnage argon distilled from the atmosphere meant that argon bubbling through a porous plug in the base of the ladle stirred the melt over, making the tallness with small top surface area no issue. etc.
The solution was more economical, better and much more polite.
Sealed-in inside the ladle with a well-fitting lid, intensely reducing conditions can be formed, given all atmosphere / air is excluded. Alloying elements fed through an air-lock suffer no loss due to oxidation, for economy and very accurate alloy composition attainment. etc.
A very low-powered arc heating provision keeps the temperature as-intended and the slag fluid.
Energy usage is reduced, smoke and heat is much reduced, etc.
It is a must-happen, and is universal now. The memory of how it used to be done to achieve very good steels is a precious memory.

The Stocksbridge caster

Pursuit of "clean steel" market for the rolling-bearing manufacturing produced the unusual "Stocksbridge continuous caster". Best forget any prior assumptions of what a continuous caster for steel is and does.

None of the Stocksbridge caster's output was rolled. All was sold as-cast. The product form was round cross-section. For rolling bearing manufacture, rounds are pierced by the "Mannesmann process" in a "Mannesman mill". A brutal hot-deformation process deliberately inducing a central forging rupture which is then splayed-out by the piercing mandrel. Giving a seamless tube. The metal is metallurgically perfect all around the circumference and there is no "join"; no imperfection; no weak point. The hot deformation process is so forceful and extensive that, it can be logically seen, a fine cast structure will be fully refined into a fine wrought structure in the course of the piercing.

Running with this thought, the Stocksbridge caster was commissioned.
It was actually a complete production route.

The first ladle furnace in the region was paired to the existing but upgraded smaller arc furnace in the melting shop. The ladle furnace provided the intense "reducing slag" refinement removing non-metallic impurities which would give non-metallic impurities.
The modest arc heating power enabled the ladle to stay in the ladle furnace until the previous cast going into the caster was finished.
On completing refinement, the entire ladle would be hoisted up to the top of the caster.

The caster itself was very unusual. It cast vertically in a straight line, with no bend in the cast strand. The size of the cast strands were also quite small and very accurate, typically at around 115mm diameter.
The purpose achieved was retaining the extreme cleanness of the steel, with all impurities down the centre and axially distributed - so that when pierced the impurities, starting at the axial centre, would be distributed around the bore surface and fully discarded during processing including machining.
The small section size and the accurate metallurgical control possible with stirring electro-magnets around the linear / straight strands made for a fine compositionally homogenous cast structure which did form a uniform homogenous wrought structure on piercing.

The arrangement made the Stocksbridge caster a great height, from the casting floor high up in an unusually tall tower building with ladle(s), tundish, pouring-nozzles, etc at the top, to the bottom of the strand with its cutting-off and collection in a deep excavation far down below.
Practicality made an elevator necessary to rapidly get to workstations in the caster from the shop-floor level.

The production route with its pursuit of quality and an economy which could not easily be displaced in a niche market into which the company had a global penetration was an interesting education in manufacturing strategy.
I had already been forming the concept of what I dubbed sideways competition .

Shortcomings at this steelworks

Sorry to puncture the image of everything being wonderful at this Works.

There were two noticeable shortcomings at this Works, compared to the rough-and-ready "maverick" Hadfield Works I had been at before.

The plant was gleaming, high-specification and excellent (thanks to significant contribution from the taxpayer(!)), technical standards were superlative, etc.
What was lacking was the non-glamourous detail crucial to a good economically successful operation; the triumvirate of transport-communication-services.
The yards and traffic-ways were a mess, with buildings serving minor purposes left choking through-routes (one crazy location near an entrance-gate (busy) had vehicle-traffic having to loop around the corner of a building against which ran the main railway-line from melting-shop to rolling-mill).
Some equipment was in terrible condition, clearly falling outside anyone's remit to oversee, visibly "bodged" to keep it limping-along.
The managerial structure lacked coherency to be leadership and "glue" the enterprise together. That did improve on privatisation; unfortunately though not until precipitated by a fatal accident resulting from the miasma of not-overseen matters.

The reversion to "normal" after what I had to realise was the abnormal purposefulness of the leadership culture I met at the Hadfield plant ( previously described ) was the management structure.
It is / was a known problem in Britain than in looking to save on "labour" ("labor") costs in Britain, the severity of cutbacks could be very severe indeed on shop-floor personnel many carrying vast experience and knowledge, but far less critical on the many grades of managerial staff with far less obvious "vital selling-points" maintained by the organisation.
Leading to a "mushroom profile", thinning from the general shop-floor grades to the forepersons and shop-floor team-leaders, then a huge widening "cap" of vastly more junior managers than shop-floor leadership, which kept a wide profile lacking clear structure (despite titles) to the topmost management.
That's a big issue. Suffice it to say I did not meet many clear-thinking intellects with a sharp perceptive understanding of the overall functioning of the Works as I returned to it on later occasions having benefitted from increasing education. Much as I would have liked to identify people I could interact with, benefitting from accumulated knowledge and experience one would sincerely wish them to possess.

An overall summary? Less tends to be more with management and leadership...?! (You get a better result with a lean leadership concentrated with people of respected ability)

Settling into a "steady job"

My traineeship ran to completion, and I fitted into a job in the Routine Testing function of the Test House ( previous described )

Detailed work ...

The "glamourous" mechanical testing with the very expensive gleaming calibrated testing machines in super-clean and smart facility had a well-trained-up group of established technicians. I did some time in there, but those jobs were already taken. The totally specified repetition would have "got to me" over time, anyway.

Other staff in the Routine Testing section would happily do one particular totally prescriptive repetitive job all shift every shift. One job was rating the non-metallic inclusion density in the steel - rating how "clean" it was and whether it met specification (it almost invariably did). Hundreds of mirror-polished samples (my previous description of metallography ) were in a tray and some could sit there all shift looking down a metallurgical microscope and recording the inclusion rating for each sample and the batch it represented.
People gravitated to jobs which suited them, for sure.

I found a niche with all the jobs which required some form of freestyle preparation - jobs where the specification lacked a lot of detail necessary to get the job done.

Magnetic testing using high currents and electro-magnetic coils used magnetic testing machines with a hose deluging magnetic particle "ink" over the sample. The magnetic ink supply was temperamental, clogging-up between uses. When there was a backlog, I'd go clean-out the machine, get the pumps and flows working, then process the lot in one "go".

A German customer pre-eminent in their field making heavy-duty gearboxes required a unique test for response to case-hardening [external link - Wikipedia]. A characteristic vital in manufacturing excellent gears with an extremely tough core but with a very hard wear-resistant surface layer.
The test required a micro-harness profile, using a very fine diamond indented applying a force of only a few tens of grammes in gravity.
Whatever talk was had, those tests lingered untouched by anyone else. I made them a nice line of work for my night-shifts, which came around every three weeks. Sufficiently frequent for this organised customer with a steady order-load placed well in advance.
The crucial reason for the night shift was that in the quiet of the night there was far less vibration through the ground from the likes of passing heavy lorries on nearby roads shaking the building - imperceptible normally but sufficient to disturb this test.
Other features included that I had found some ideal-sized precision surface-ground packing blocks on which the sample rested well, for stability during the test.
Finally, as a human factor, it gave me a task to while away the night, when intellect was trying to rest long after midnight, in the final hours of the shift. The exact repetition served well then, as I retired to the comfortable cubby-hole in which I did these tests, with the hardness-vs-depth graph I plotted reassuring that all was on-track.

In this job I was also assigned new trainees to mentor. An amusing indication of my role? We were about to measure "grain size" using the McQuaid-Ehn prior austenite grain size test [if interested, Web search on "McQuaid-Ehn test"]. Explaining to the two trainees the metallurgy of the carburisation method used, indicating in relation to the iron-carbon phase diagram on the wall, I turned and found that, in total silence, most of the shift had pulled-up chairs in a semi-circle and were looking on expectantly, acting-out that they were in a teaching class.

Technical interest enabled me to run the Test House's own miniature heat-treatment facility; which is described imminently.

And so on - I found my niche...

3-shift working - revealing effectiveness of leadership style

When you work in a 24-hour-a-day facility personned by 3 shift teams, you will get switched onto another crew from "your" team to cover holidays, various leaves, illness, etc.
That means that for identically the same job, you will see the effect of different leaders. Obviously each shift team has its own team leader, giving three of them.

"My" shift-leader was the best, I was fortunate to realise. His (our) shift was the most productive by a small but useful margin. For reasons I could clearly see. Perhaps counter-intuitively to many - he was the least interventionist. A family man with an aura of placidness probably coming from much experience, you could organise a job, work up to speed and sustain that rate for the shift. As I was to see subsequently - a workplace often has an inherent full-speed throughput, and success is letting things run up to that pace. When asked by the management about bringing through a particular job quicker, he consulted, and "called" the judgement which any logical person would - sometimes meaning rebuffing the request. You felt both safe and valued. The additional little "garnish" to the sentiment - in the wind-down before big holidays he'd time things to give a little spare time and we'd get to sit down, share food, maybe get a modest serving of beer, chat and generally feel good.

The second-best team leader flapped around, especially when prodded by the management - who probably identified this and therefore were inclined to present requests for the grafication received. With a flurry of believed urgency, the schedule for the work through the shift would get much disrupted and productivity could take big "hits" (there was significant loss). Not a bad person, but you could easily see that relatively to the best he had further to go accumulating a balance of experience and authority.

The least favourite was "gobby" (he spoke a lot at a high rate, often belittling people). Again, not that bad, but when presented with what experience and solid calm presence of authority does, the shortcoming is obvious.

As my career progressed I was advanced several stages further forward by the benefit of these observations.

Logical ability

I applied myself to the role, and did find some interests in it.

Reflecting on challenges of running the heat-treatment facility of the Test House, with its many small muffle-furnaces (a heated insulated chamber with a door), I arrived at a charting method for planning how I would organise the workload / production throughout the shift.
The objective achieved was to organise for unloadings of the furnace to be grouped at an exact two minutes apart.
The unloading was hot, dirty, often had quite a lot of oil on you given oil-quenching - and it took quite some minutes of cleaning-off before you could do paperwork. Not to mention the time attiring-up for an unloading. So if you could group the unloadings together, that would have advantages.
Trying out the plan, it proved to have nett benefit.
The other advantage was that, knowing the loading time, you could develop graphs of change-in-temperature with time for the furnaces when empty and getting to a new temperature for the next job, so I could be much more relaxed, letting each furnace get to temperature in time for its loading time. The stable temperature at loading helped the furnaces run truer up a much more stable temperature rise trajectory to the controlled constant heat treatment temperature. etc.
Then, surveying the chart, I could more accurately identify the best utilisation of the furnaces to achieve the various sequential quench-hardening and tempering treatments the facility was there to provide.
While the benefit was largely to me, the overall outcome was also beneficial to the test-house in terms of productivity.
Another advantage was that I could quickly evaluate a query about changing the prioritisation of jobs, stating on a scale from "I can do this at no cost" to "this would impose an extreme disruption for which you are likely to be criticised for lower productivity over the remainder of this shift" - showing on the chart to the satisfaction of the shift leader why this would be so. Through "middle cases" where I indicated how much productivity would be lost and therefore, on the shift-leader's evaluation of the external circumstance, whether the request should be rebuffed or facilitated.

The chart I produced for the assignment of the furnaces was an instance of a Gantt Chart [external link - Wikipedia]
Introduction to the concept that you will independently derive in the disciplined focus of your work something you find already exists - either fully or closely.

A detailed instance which had a lot of consequence to me was an individual analysis for a pattern in the outcomes for quite rare though not apparently abnormal grade which repeatedly was failing to meet aim properties on test.
Conventionally, for a sample which has been quench-hardened from the "austenitising" temperature, the higher the subsequent tempering temperature, the lower will be the hardness and strength and the higher will be the toughness as measured on notch-impact ( Charpy ) [external link - Wikipedia].

Plotting historical and recent tests of the same grade in the form of tempering temperature vs Charpy impact test value had scatter, for sure, but the cloud of results indicated a reverse of the normal relationship between temper-temperature and toughness. A higher tempering temperature resulted in a lower impact test result. It was as if the tempering resulted in something like precipitation hardening, surveying all aspects of the results - though for my purposes already fulfilled and for the resources I had (none!) I took the matter no further.
Within the spread of results, it looked like consistently passing the Charpy test minimum energy requirement could be achieved by applying a lower tempering temperature in the permissible-by-specification range.
Working alongside the main long-time heat treatment person, with a group of various people from other departments stood behind us directing inveigled personal aspertions at this person, I got the impression the dynamic would not welcome someone asserting a factual correction.

The thought I took away was that my abilities seemed to be becoming significant and the ability of many I met in this environment could not mentor me much further.

Coupled with "Distinction" grades at college and their question "Have you ever thought of going to University?", I began to think ahead in different ways...


The story with Stocksbridge Works ran another couple of chapters, after moving on from working there as a technician...

Away to study...

I had no idea what a University was, despite most contemporaries from my parent's social circle having been to University. That wasn't a world I was engaged with at the time.
Now I was looking at the matter on my own terms, having found my way to this juncture by a route which worked for me.
Looking around, while the University of Sheffield was prestigeous, I had a feeling that I should go with Sheffield City Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University). It had a good reputation, links with local industry (that also could be said for the University of Sheffield) and benefitted from the observation that the metallurgists who had emerged from Sheffield City Polytechnic who worked at Stocksbridge Works were grounded people who could do a job and you could have a useful conversation with - more than could be said for many University graduates I had encountered.
Also very prominent was that the Polytechnic's course had its four years by reason of being a "Sandwich course" in which you went out on industrial placements - which I estimated as being very valuable to me (correctly).

I approached the steelwork's training department - who were anything but encouraging. This was "not the done thing", "they could not necessarily offer me a job at the end even if I did well", it was overall most inappropriate, etc, etc.
The person I was talking with was clearly something of a "hat-stand" (a person with mannerisms of a privileged social class but very obvious limited ability), and had no effect on my vision.

In those days with the arrangements lingering from when the Cold War with the Soviet Union hung over the economy, with the fear of a non-Democracy pulling ahead technically, I was entitled to an unconditional subsistence grant from the Government to study. It was less than unemployment benefit - a meagre allowance - but unconditional and constant - so I gratefully submitted for and was granted it.

It therefore left me to tender my resignation, which I wrote-out and handed over to boss of the Test House.

Looking for advice to finalise the details of my decision, I went to see the Chief Metallurgist who was also Works Manager. Unlike the long-term local management, this person was a gregarious, outgoing, enthusiastic, eccentric, energetic character who had travelled extensively with his work. To be honest, looking for succession, the local management knew they would not be in business long without someone new, well-travelled and knowledgeable to lead them, and he had been incognito inserted as the Melting Shop manager, where I had met him previously, before he re-appeared not so long after as the Works Manager and the overall plan became clear.
He immediately got on the phone to the training department, in my presence, and gently "leant on them", resulting in the offering of a modest bursary and a continuing connection with the Works which the Polytechnic happily worked with in setting-up my industrial placements of my "Sandwich course" there.

Placement 1

Coming back to the steelworks after the first twelve months of my course had me trying my skills as a budding metallurgist.

Did the "time-honoured" "rule-of-thumb" (an empirical proportional relationship with no known fundamental basis but observed to work well in practice) for heat-treatment cycle time apply correctly to newly installed heat-treatment furnaces with high-velocity heat-regenerative burners giving forced convection for rapid uniform load heating at all set temperatures?
Previous generations of heat treatment furnace had many no-particular-characteristic burners along the walls which allegedly radiantly heated (?!) the furnace volume; slow, inherently non-uniform and always known to be barely adequate for task.
So a very good question which needed an answer.

Heat transfer rate from the gaseous furnace atmosphere to miscellaneous stacks of bars is not readily calculated by some simple arithmetic relationship. The physical phenomena governing this practical industrial application are too complex and sensitive to many variables for that to conveniently "fall-out" from the Laws of the Universe.

After struggling around for a while puzzling things, I arrived at an unexpected answer which was accepted as useful.

For test heats which had happened, whose outcome was known due some thermocouples embedded in the furnace load, I found that the fuel-flow to the furnace, which declined as the load came to temperature, was a good indicator of arrival at the "soaking" temperature. The furnaces each had a paper-reel in a pen-chart-recorder showing the total fuel-flow to the burners at time - a graph, which I "raided", finding what I needed.
That can only be applied retrospectively. I surveyed all the jobs which had gone through the facility so far and applied fuel-flow tail-off to identify if the correct "soak" time at temperature had occurred. Finding that the "rule-of-thumb" actually worked perfectly well on the new furnaces.

A good experience in my first outing as a developing metallurgist.

I'd received a lot of good mentoring which was the dominant presence forming this situation in which I found the useful unexpected solution.

Placement 2

This presented a huge challenge and was a seminal experience; one of the big steps upwards in my path.
My formative "Hadfields" experience previously described guided me on this, augmented by the benefits of my accumulating higher education.
But also the break from Stocksbridge Works, as we were left with so little overlap as my abilities blossomed in the direction they did.

One of the "truisms" of my early steelworks work was "Question the question". Never was that more applicable than this case.

The steelworks sold a commercially useful line in huge squares up to 450mm / 18-inch, where the ingot, barely reduced at all, was taken from the roughing stand of the rolling mill. The customers forged the material, making big shafts for machinery like turbines and gas-compressors etc, so it got its extensive hot-working deformation then, bestowing the tough fine wrought microstructure. So would fulfil the promised strength, toughness, etc in the products. The forgemasters where expert knowledgeable customers, metallurgists and engineers in their own right, so there was no need for concern selling out this material in a state yet to have the properties promised.

Why the product from this plant, when it isn't available elsewhere?

The perceived problem was that the very limited rolling reduction left central void solidification flaws "unhealed". That could be seen by ultrasonic examination.
The customers could have avoided this issue by ordering forged stock reduced from tens-of-tonnes forging ingots; however the cost is many many times higher and the "lead-time" to source the material is many months.

Ultrasonic examination provided the "work-around" which made the much cheaper faster trading relationship possible. Regions with voids are identified and the cutting of the blocks ready for heating and forging places the voids in regions which will get heavy forging reductions. Equally, big disks with less reduction would be formed from regions known to be fully-sound already even before any compaction in forging.

"Question the question" showed that the precept of reducing or eliminating central "unsoundness" (voids) was infeasible; the plant had an inherent fairly immutable characteristic which could not be changed for this minority product.

To me, success is to identify and implement something commercially advantageous to do - whatever it is which will make manufacturer and customers happy. Whatever will "eliminate the pain" which caused the call for assistance in the first instance.
That may take a new form unexpected and not foreseen at the outset.

My mind sees the matter like this.
When a call is made for your services, the only thing you know at the outset is people are in pain.
What they say about their situation and what they "instruct" you to do about it is rarely accurate. If they could correctly analyse the situation, they would have acted already to take away their pain, QED!.
You are "the expert" ! That's why your services were obtained.
Your service to them includes at the outset surveying the situation and identifying its correct structure. "Question the question" as posed...

I identified the problem as being a Marketing one. The customers liked and wanted the product.
Generally customers will only pay you fulsome amounts for a product if it comes with contractually binding promises (ie "guarantees") that it will do something commercially very advantageous for them which other producers are unable to offer.
It was the promises which were lacking. The price reflected "washing your hands of" (dissociating yourself from) the product.
What guarantees could be made for the product which would cost us the steelworks little but be very financially beneficial to the customer and worth paying a premium on the price for?

I identified that a good promise (guarantee) was that the product would not contain more than a certain amount of each severity of central void. No large voids; very few and completely localised moderate voids; a limited amount of small voids which will not be widely distributed.
The logic is that the cost landing on the steelworks is small of finding a large square has a lot of voids, as it can be immediately recycled as premium "home scrap" and the order remanufactured quickly from the flow of material down the plant.
Whereas the customer, further down the process and accumulating expenditure so far of manufacturing, transport, etc, will pay for a guarantee that for 100% of what they have purchased and received will never have more voids than they can readily handle in their standard production.
Occurence of voids was very stochastic (randomly probablistic), and promising that unfortunate batches would be intercepted and eliminated at the steelworks fulfilled the concept of a promise which would cost us little but save the customer a lot.

Technically, I "crunched" a huge amount of production data, forming a database, going through years of production records, in order to formulate the exact guarantee which I presented.

The problem at that juncture of presenting this solution was that they could not "see" it (comprehend it). The large only moderately effectual management was very compartmentalised, a pernicious consequence of its numeric size. Telling the technical-department people I had to converse with that they had a marketing problem (whose solution I showed them!), I might as well have been speaking to them in an unknown foreign language.

Wider understandings dawning...

At the time, I was actually struggling to accept this reality which I could logically see the component pieces of.
I got a brief but of massive significance mentoring from an independent chance source.
Describing my confusions while out hiking in the Peaks (the nearby Peak District National Park), the spouse of someone who was part of my childhood, who happened to be a management expert with a range of extreme career-building experiences, stated something to me of profound meaning.
"The reason is that you are seeing and comprehending things which many others never will."
Expanding to explain that many functionaries in organisations will never in their lives be able to survey and comprehend what I see readily.
(my caveat - I often wish I could have lead a "normal life" where all the assumed surrounding happinesses dominate while work is a time-slot of minor significance)
I had developed abilities which enabled me to see (conceptually identify) things which systematically controlled and could be influenced to control situations which remained invisible to others.
This was an ability I had to learn to live with. I have to start small with things which take few resources and let people see I can influence an outcome. They develop faith that what they cannot see themselves which I describe is there and real, and "take it on trust". We all have our different abilities...
Then build up to the big issues requiring big moves with allocation of resources and people involved. Also the trust that we are bound together by sharing the same interest of earning our "daily bread" from the same enterprise.

As well as earning a living, I get companionship and a fun existence passing through the situations I land into, working with local people on the shop-floor with vast experience and deep detailed knowledge who I consult with in analysing situations and identifying solutions.

Final-year project

The link with the steelworks delivered the final-year project of my Degree course at the Polytechnic.
An alloy whose only apparently distinuishing feature was a small Titanium alloying addition consistently hardened quite a lot more in heat treatment than the generally highly predictable outcome of the overall composition. On the Rockwell "C" scale [external link - Wikipedia], something like 10 points - a lot for a carbon-low-alloy steel.

Through-hardening ability costs, in alloying with Nickel, Chromium, Molybdenum, etc, plus additional resultant costs, so this unexplained fairly consistent effect which cost little was of understandable interest.

Higher hardness obtained can be restrained-back via the tempering, so the outcome you want is attainable, but it is the through-hardening in the first instance which can't be had just for the wishing...

If you will, take the metallurgical terms on-trust, or do your own research...

Surveying scientific literature, a plausible hypothesis [external link - Wikipedia] to test seemed to be that fine non-metallic Titanium reaction precipitates "pinned" the grain boundaries of the metal and made the small proportion of alloying elements more effectual in hardening.

A quick check for that, useful but not conclusive due to wild factors of the rough-and-ready test, would be the steel will not grain-grow at prolonged times held at the "austenitising" temperature (around 900Celsius for a carbon-steel or low-alloy steel).

I duly prepared small samples I could load plenty of into a single small tube furnace

The hardeness sustained unchanging and the grain-size did clearly grow, so that hypothesis did not seem to survive.
A reasonable step in trying to understand the issue, for which full credit was given, and contributing to the overall knowledge.
The mystery remained...

The Parting

Completing my Degree, there was little common ground to facilitate enthusiastic interaction with the Stocksbridge Works personnel, and on a competitive interview process other candidates were chosen to join Stocksbridge Works - so my path was onwards and upwards...

I suggest that interview processes in Britain look for putting the right people in the right place to create an organisation out of which drops the useful outcomes sought (sic.). A belief in the system not the individual. With it being taken that the ideal candidates will learn the detailed knowledge along the way. Hence substitute criteria for ability are sought. Meaning that on applying the metrics to someone - like myself! - with the actually ability! - the "substitute metric meter" applied detects nothing and the functionaries, not comprehending the big picture, jump to the wrong conclusion.
Very sad when you are observing them talking between each other, reinforcing each others' limited thought processes.

I was "out on the road again", full of enthusiasm and drive.

(R. Smith, 31Dec2017, 01Jan2018, 02Jan2018, 14Jan2018)