History of the steel industry (1970–present)
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The global steel industry has been going through major changes since 1970. China has emerged as a major producer and consumer, as has India to a lesser extent. Consolidation has been rapid in Europe.
Material for development
The volume of steel consumed has been the barometer for measuring development and economic progress. Whether it is construction or industrial goods, steel is the basic raw material. Lighter metals and stronger alloys have been developed. Plastics and synthetics have replaced steel in many areas.
Steel is made from ores still found in abundance around the world. Technological developments have brought down the time for transformation from iron ore to steel to within a day. Even after decades of use, it can be sent back to the furnaces as scrap, melted and remade into new qualities of steel. It is the most recycled material in the world. In developed countries, recycling accounts for almost half of the steel produced.
Another major feature is the continuous improvement of steel grades. Half of today's steel grades were not available ten years ago. Just take the example of the most commonly used steel – rods or bars, used as reinforcement material with cement concrete. It used to be plain bars even in the sixties, then came the ribbed bars, followed by the cold twisted deformed bars and now it is thermo mechanically treated bars. Each development has added to the strength of construction. Older varieties of steel have been improved upon and newer grades introduced. The process continues.
Growth of the industry
Global steel production grew enormously in the 20th century from a mere 28 million tonnes at the beginning of the century to 781 million tonnes at the end. Per-capita steel consumption in the U.S. peaked in 1977, then fell by half before staging a modest recovery to levels well below the peak.
World steel production in the 20th century
Over the course of the 20th century, production of crude steel has risen at an astounding rate, now fast approaching a production level of 800 million tons per year. Today, it is difficult to imagine a world without steel.
During the 20th century, the consumption of steel increased at an average annual rate of 3.3%. In 1900, the United States was producing 37% of the world's steel. With post war industrial development in Asia that region now (at the start of the 21st century) accounts for almost 40%, with Europe (including the former Soviet Union) producing 36% and North America 14.5%.
Steel consumption increases when economies are growing, as governments invest in infrastructure and transport, and as new factories and houses are built. Economic recession meets with a dip in steel production as such investments falter.
After being in the focus in the developed world for more than a century, attention has now shifted to the developing regions. In the West, steel is referred to as a sunset industry. In the developing countries, the sun is still rising, for most it is only a dawn.
Towards the end of the last century, growth of steel production was in the developing countries such as China, Brazil and India, as well as newly developed South Korea. Steel production and consumption grew steadily in China in the initial years but later it picked up momentum and the closing years of the century saw it racing ahead of the rest of the world. China produced 220.1 million tonnes in 2003, 272.2 million tonnes in 2004 and 349.36 million tonnes in 2005. That is much above the production in 2005 of Japan at 112.47 million tonnes, the USA at 93.90 million tonnes and Russia at 66.15 million tonnes. For details of country-wise steel production see Steel production by country.
Growth potential of the industry
Amongst the other newly steel-producing countries, South Korea has stabilised at around 46–48 million tonnes, and Brazil at around 30 plus million tonnes. This brings the focus of the industry to India. Considering a steel consumption of 300 kg per man per year to be a fair level of economic development, India will have to come up to somewhere around 300 million tonnes, if it is to fulfill its ambitions of being a developed country. That, of course, is a long journey from the present production level of around 50 million tonnes but one must consider its past before coming to a conclusion about its potential. India was producing only around a million tonnes of steel at the time of its independence in 1947. By 1991, when the economy was opened up steel production grew to around 14 million tonnes. Thereafter, it doubled in the next 10 years, and then it is doubling again, maybe over a slightly longer span. Steel Production in India is expected to reach 124 million tons by 2012 and 275 million tons by 2020 which could make it the second largest steel maker. 
In the developed countries, the trend is on consolidation of industry. Cross-border mergers have been taking place for several years. The focus is on technological improvements and new products.
Globally, the steel industry became a billion tonne industry in 2004. How much more it will grow will depend primarily on how much more steel is consumed in the developing countries.
The world steel industry peaked in 2007. That year, ThyssenKrupp spent $12 billion to build the two most modern mills in the world, in Alabama and Brazil. The worldwide great recession starting in 2008, however, with its heavy cutbacks in construction, sharply lowered demand and prices fell 40%. ThyssenKrupp lost $11 billion on its two new plants, which sold steel below the cost of production. Finally in 2013, ThyssenKrupp offered the plants for sale at under $4 billion.
Reduction in workforce
Steel is no more the labour-intensive industry it used to be. Earlier, it was often associated with the image of huge work force living in a captive township. All that has changed dramatically. A modern steel plant employs very few people. In South Korea, Posco employs 10,000 people to produce 28 million tonnes. As a rule of thumb, one can put the direct employment potential at 1,000 per million tonnes. It could be less. However, steel being a basic industry, it generates substantial growth of both upstream and downstream facilities. According to some estimates one person-year of employment in the steel industry generates 3.5 person-years of employment elsewhere. Considering all these, total employment generation will be substantial.
The third quarter of the 20th century witnessed massive growth of the global steel industry. Annual production rose more than three times in 15 years from 1960. In the last quarter of the century, production reached a plateau, rising only by around 100 million tonnes. Increase in production gave way to increases in productivity. See also steel crisis.
During the period 1974 to 1999, the steel industry had drastically reduced employment all around the world. In USA, it was down from 521,000 to 153,000. In Japan, it was down from 459,000 to 208,000. In Germany, it was down from 232,000 to 78,000. In UK, it was down from 197,000 to 31,000. In Brazil, it was down from 118,000 to 59,000. In South Africa, it was down from 100,000 to 54,000. South Korea already had a low figure. It was only 58,000 in 1999. The steel industry had reduced its employment around the world by more than 1,500,000 in 25 years.
Employment in the steel industry 1974, 1990 and 1996–2000
Thousand at end of year
|FR Germany (1)||232||125||86||82||80||78||77|
|Republic of Korea||n/a||67||66||64||59||58||57|
|World Production||644 (3)||770||750||799||777||789||848|
(1) Includes former German Democratic Republic 1996–2000 (2) Serbia and Montenegro 1996–2000 (3) 1975 total
Totals are rounded. United States figures are average for 12 months. Various other differences in coverage and definition exist, so that inter-country comparisons are of dubious value. E indicates estimate.
- Steel production by country
- American Iron and Steel Institute
- British Steel
- Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation, in Canada
Both appendices are from IISI material, earlier on the web but now replaced by more recent data.
- Appendix 1
- Smil, Vaclav (2006). Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and Their Consequences. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
- John W. Miller and Ike Henning, "Thiessen gets offers for mills: Final bids for steel complexes in Alabama, Brazil will likely fall short of the company's hopes," Wall Street Journal 1 March 2013
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- Ball, Jeffrey A. U.S. Manufacturing Dogfights: China's Steel and Foreign Aircraft Competition (2011)
- D’Costa, Anthony P. The Global Restructuring of the Steel Industry: Innovations, Institutions, and Industrial Change London: Routledge, 1999 online version
- Etienne, Gilbert. Asian Crucible: The Steel Industry in China and India (1992) *Hasegawa, Harukiyu. The Steel Industry in Japan: A Comparison with Britain 1996 online version
- Hoerr, John P. And the Wolf Finally Came: The Decline of the American Steel Industry (1988) excerpt and text search
- Hogan, Thomas. The Steel Industry of China: Its Present Status and Future Potential (1999)
- Hogan, William T. Minimills and Integrated Mills: A Comparison of Steelmaking in the United States (1987)
- Meny, Yves. Politics of Steel: Western Europe and the Steel Industry in the Crisis Years (1974–1984) (1986)
- Scheuerman, William. The Steel Crisis: The Economics and Politics of a Declining Industry (1986) online