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An overview of the materials and metals industry

Materials and metals: industry sector overview

Engineers in the materials and metals industry help pre-empt the competition and be ahead of the curve.

Steel is the most recycled material in the world and the materials and metals industry is a multi-million pound industry. It encompasses procuring raw materials, innovating new products and manufacturing and selling them.The key markets we serve include automotive, construction, consumer goods, energy and power, and packaging. From skyscrapers to cars, drinks cans and chairs, there's a huge process involved in transforming raw materials into the finished product.

There are several large materials and metals companies across Europe, although there is also competition from companies further afield, for example in China and Russia. It has become increasingly important to differentiate our products from our competitors. Customers also want us to be greener than we have been in the past, so there's been a push towards sustainability and the reduction of C02 emissions.

Trends and developments in the materials and metals industry

Globalisation of the industry has led to what we call the steel spread (the difference between the raw material price and the selling price) tumbling. We're dealing with protectionism, such as import tariffs in the USA, and dumping, which is when a foreign competitor has produced excess material and sends it to the UK to sell cheaply at a price we can't compete with.

After the Brexit vote, the effect on exchange rates helped protect the industry against dumping, as it made it more expensive for companies outside of the UK to import their steel here. It also made it more beneficial and cost effective for us to export. In the long term, potential hiccups around trade deals with the rest of Europe pose significant concerns, especially for multi-national companies.

One other challenge we're facing is the price of energy. As an industry, we're very energy intensive. While we do recycle our own indigenous gases and generate our own power, it's still necessary to purchase electricity and natural gas on the open market. The rising costs are pushing us towards generating more of our own energy but also exploring different ways of manipulating energy, such as hydrogen, and reducing the energy consumption in the processes we operate.

What it's like working in the materials and metals industry

The diverse nature of operations in this industry means that you'll work alongside engineers from many different disciplines. There may be times when you'll work alone but engineers typically work in teams. Projects can vary from a small project that will take a couple of weeks to complete to a £200m capital development programme, such as the installation of a new blast furnace. This would take much longer and would involve hundreds of employees as well as external contractors and consultants. You'll typically be based at one plant in the UK; however, there are plenty of opportunities to visit and work on other plants overseas.

Getting a graduate engineering job in the materials and metals industry

To get into this industry, a basic knowledge of how materials and metals are made is essential, as well as people skills. You can apply for graduate schemes, although summer and year-long placements are always a good idea as there's been a shift towards recruiting previous placement students as graduates.

After the graduate scheme, you're likely to become an engineer in a specialist area. If you want to progress to a role that involves managing people and driving your organisation forwards, gaining experience through roles in other areas such as supply chain, manufacturing, health and safety and auditing will give you a solid grounding and wider understanding of the business.

The highlights of a career in materials and metals

  • Working on large-scale transformational projects.
  • Travelling around the world to visit and work in places such as Japan, India and Holland.
  • The opportunity to take on responsibility from an early stage.

The materials and metals industry seeks graduates from the following disciplines:

  • aerospace/aeronautical
  • automotive
  • chemical
  • civil/structural
  • control
  • electrical
  • electronics
  • environmental
  • instruments
  • manufacturing
  • materials
  • mathematics
  • mechanical
  • physics
  • power systems
  • software
  • telecoms

Always check individual employers' requirements.

Thanks to Peter Toms, CEng IET, for his help with this article. Peter is a senior engineering manager at Tata Steel. He has a BEng in electronic systems and control engineering from Sheffield Hallam University. He has worked in the industry for 34 years.