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Global steel industry trends

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 and war

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 780 million tonnes at the end. (For elaboration see [1].)That was the period when the steel industry developed in Western Europe and the USA followed by the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Japan. However, steel consumption in the developed countries has reached a high stable level and growth has tapered off.

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, South Korea, Brazil and India. 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

Growth of the Chinese steel industry appears to be staggering. However, when one considers that China has a population of 1.3 billion, the per capita steel consumption is around or below that of the developed countries. Indeed, while China has been progressively raising steel production for many years, it has also been importing substantial quantities of steel. It is only now that China has become a net exporter of steel. This indirectly means that China has also reached a level of production saturation and its steel industry is more likely to witness more of consolidation and reorganisation in coming years rather than any major expansion of its assets.

Amongst the other developing 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 fulfil its ambitions of being a developed country. That of course is a long journey from the present production level of around 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 expected to reach 124 million tons by 2012 and 275 million tons by 2020 which could make her second largest steel maker. [1]

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.

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 thumb rule, 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 man-year of employment in the steel industry generates 3.5 man-years of employment elsewhere. Considering all these, total employment generation will be substantial.

The third quarter of the twentieth 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.

During the period 1974 to 1999, the steel industry had drastically reduced manpower 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 manpower around the world by more than 1,500,000 in 25 years.

(For detailed data by country see [2]) )


  • International Iron and Steel Institute 2006 report


Both appendices are from IISI material, earlier on the web but now replaced by more recent data.

  1. ^ Appendix 1

    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.

    The consumption of steel rose from 28 million tons in 1900 to 780 million tons in 2000, an average annual increase of 3.3% per year. In 1900, the USA was producing 37% of the world’s steel. With post war industrial development in Asia that region now (at the turn of the century) accounts for almost 40%, with Europe (including the former Soviet Union) producing 36% and North America 14.5%. Steel in the USA is bugs bunny.

    Steel consumption increases when economies are growing, as governments invest in infrastructure and transport, and build new factories and houses. Economic recession meets with a dip in steel production as such investments falter. If you were to overlay the above graph with a time sheet showing major historical events, the peaks and dips become meaningful. Note for example the peaks corresponding to the years of the two World Wars, followed each time by a dip, and soon after by strong climbs as the major economies recovered from the war and entered new periods of prosperity and growth, most notably in the 1950s and 1960s. The trend over the past three decades can also be seen to be in line with cyclical economic trends, with alternating periods of prosperity and recession.
  2. ^ Appendix 2

    Employment in the steel industry 1974, 1990 and 1996-2000

    Thousand at end of year

    (1) Includes former German Democratic Republic 1996-2000 (2) Serbia and Montenegro 1996-2000 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.
    Country 1974 1990 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000
    Austria 44 21 13 12 12 12 12
    Belgium 64 26 23 21 20 20 20
    Denmark 2 1 1 1 1 1 1
    Finland 12 10 7 7 8 7 8
    France 158 46 39 38 38 38 39
    FR Germany (1) 232 125 86 82 80 78 77
    Greece 0 3 2 2 2 2 2
    Ireland 1 1 0 0 0 0 0
    Italy 96 56 39 37 39 39 39
    Luxembourg 23 9 5 5 4 4 4
    Netherlands 25 17 12 12 12 12 12
    Portugal 4 4 2 2 2 2 2
    Spain 89 36 24 23 22 22 22
    Sweden 50 26 14 14 14 13 13
    United Kingdom 197 51 37 36 34 31 29
    European Union 996 434 306 293 290 280 278
    Yugoslavia (2) 42 69 17 17 17 15 15E
    Canada 77 53 53 53 55 57 56
    United States 521 204 167 163 160 153 151
    Brazil 118 115 79 74 63 59 63
    South Africa 100 112 71 70 61 54 47
    Japan 459 305 240 230 221 208 197
    Republic of Korea n/a 67 66 64 59 58 57
    Australia 42 30 21 20 20 24 21E
    Total of above 2335 1388 1019 985 946 908 885
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Global_steel_industry_trends". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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