Sup­ply chain needs a lot more work

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Steel Special Report - COM­MENT Sandy Long­worth

AT THE be­gin­ning of last cen­tury the ad­vent of rolled steel sec­tions en­abled en­gi­neers to adopt sig­nif­i­cant steel fram­ing sys­tems for multi- storey build­ings. This was ex­em­pli­fied in New York, birth­place of the sky­scraper, and typ­i­fied by the de­vel­oper Ja­cob Raskob’s Em­pire State Build­ing, com­pleted in 1931 and framed with 57,000 tonnes of riv­eted steel. This frame was erected in 23 weeks at the rate of a floor a day, un­for­tu­nately with the loss of 14 lives. Steel be­came the most widely adopted ma­te­rial for fram­ing multi- story build­ings and Aus­tralia was no ex­cep­tion to this trend.

The post- WWII era wit­nessed the start of a build- up in the use of con­crete fram­ing in Aus­tralia, al­though steel was still the most widely used ma­te­rial for tall build­ings. While this pat­tern was re­flected else­where in the world, in Aus­tralia us­age fell to as low as 3 per cent and has only re­cently crept back to 13 per cent. This com­pares with us­ages of 70 per cent, 50 per cent and 40 per cent in the UK, US and New Zealand, re­spec­tively. The more re­cent in­tro­duc­tion of both com­pos­ite metal deck con­struc­tion, min­imis­ing form­work and new fire en­gi­neer­ing con­cepts and ma­te­ri­als has helped steel con­struc­tion stay in the race. How­ever, it still faces stiff com­pe­ti­tion from a very ef­fi­cient con­crete in­dus­try, par­tic­u­larly in its ap­pli­ca­tions of pre­stress­ing and post- ten­sion­ing tech­nolo­gies.

The War­ren Cen­tre ( TWC) within the Univer­sity of Syd­ney con­cluded, af­ter pre­lim­i­nary re­search, that this down­ward trend was not con­ducive to main­tain­ing a strong steel fab­ri­cat­ing in­dus­try, which is an es­sen­tial com­po­nent of Aus­tralia’s con­struc­tion in­dus­try. While the build­ing struc­tural steel sec­tor is only a small part of the to­tal in­dus­try, it is a main­stay which has pro­vided con­tin­u­ing sup­port to the con­struc­tion in­dus­try over the years. This is in con­trast to the re­sources and min­ing sec­tor, which while cur­rently strong, has a volatile record. This down­ward trend has also re­sulted in a weak­en­ing of the skills base, which TWC con­sid­ers to be not in the na­tional in­ter­est.

TWC con­vinced steel pro­duc­ers and the fed­eral Gov­ern­ment’s De­part­ment of In­dus­try Tourism and Trade, to sup­port re­search into the causes of steel’s poor per­for­mance in this sec­tor and to pro­pose reme­dies. With this fi­nan­cial sup­port, the co- op­er­a­tion of the Aus­tralian Steel In­sti­tute and pro bono in­put from some 50 ex­pe­ri­enced pro­fes­sion­als from across the steel sup­ply chain, the project Steel- Fram­ing the Fu­ture ( S- FTF) was born. Now near­ing com­ple­tion, this TWC project demon­strates how se­lected teams of par­tic­i­pants from an in­dus­try value chain can, through interactive work­ing, iden­tify causes and pro­pose so­lu­tions to in­dus­try prob­lems. Teams in­volved in such projects have a strong sense of own­er­ship of the so­lu­tions pro­posed which en­hances the like­li­hood of in­dus­try adopt­ing th­ese so­lu­tions.

The FTF project has un­cov­ered the star­tling con­clu­sions that the Aus­tralian struc­tural steel sup­ply chain suf­fers from a lack of strong lead­er­ship, poor spe­cial­ist es­ti­mat­ing skills, a non- in­te­grated sup­ply chain, an in­abil­ity to ar­tic­u­late the value propo­si­tion for steel- framed build­ings and a poor take- up and in­te­gra­tion of tech­nol­ogy, even though tried and proven in other in­dus­tries and other coun­tries. Th­ese root causes fur­ther ex­ac­er­bate the value chain’s poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion record and lack of col­lab­o­ra­tion.

The in­dus­try needs to re­learn the art of work­ing co- op­er­a­tively, to make its prod­uct un­der­stood ( ie sell it­self) and get with the times tech­no­log­i­cally. While pro­duc­tiv­ity is im­prov­ing, it is still short of its over­seas coun­ter­part lev­els, eg, in the UK, where out­put per man per an­num has risen from 30 tonnes to 240 tonnes in 13 years, a 700 per cent in­crease, mainly due to the use of 3D doc­u­men­ta­tion, IT in­te­gra­tion and work­shop au­toma­tion.

Suf­fice it to say, dur­ing the course of the S- FTF project, signs of change have started to emerge and are ex­pected to gather pace. This change fo­cuses on weld­ing the sup­ply chain to­gether by in­te­grat­ing pro­cure­ment and de­liv­ery thus cre­at­ing a sin­gle point of re­spon­si­bil­ity and re­duc­ing the cus­tomer’s risk. Whether this is done by in­te­grat­ing en­gi­neer­ing, pro­cure­ment and man­u­fac­ture into a sin­gle de­sign and con­struct en­tity by part­ner­ing, col­lab­o­ra­tion or al­lianc­ing, or some other model, is en­tirely the choice of the driv­ing en­tity, namely the pre­vi­ously ab­sent strong leader. While de­sign and con­struct has been es­tab­lished in the in­dus­trial and re­sources sec­tor for years, it has had lit­tle ap­pli­ca­tion to mul­ti­storey build­ings. En­cour­ag­ingly, there has now been a re­cent project com­pleted in Syd­ney by Lysaght De­sign and Con­struct, with an­other on the way, as well as firm plans by other op­er­a­tors now en­ter­ing the field.

Steel fram­ing is un­ques­tion­ably mak­ing a come­back with the emer­gence of a more en­tre­pre­neur­ial group of sup­pli­ers. With its at­tributes of pre­fab­ri­ca­tion, sus­tain­abil­ity and now in­te­gra­tion of the sup­ply chain, steel is poised to make great ad­vances in fram­ing the fu­ture build­ings of Aus­tralia. Sandy Long­worth is a char­tered en­gi­neer with min­ing and heavy en­gi­neer­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, a past chair­man and cur­rently hon­orary gov­er­nor of The War­ren Cen­tre.

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