The Hunter, and the rest of Australia, benefits from manufacturing

AS befits a 100th birthday, the Commonwealth Steel Company threw a party for its employees on Monday morning, and looked back on a history that had taken Comsteel through a variety of products and owners, and on to its modern-day incarnation as Australia’s only manufacturer of railway wheels. Together with the other side of the business – forging hardened steel grinding media under the Moly-Cop brand – it’s a prime example of what good management and a disciplined workforce can achieve when it comes to competing in a global market.

The Maud Street plant provides work for some 500 employees and an average of 100 contractors, making it one of the largest employers in the region. In this age of digital start-ups and the service economy, it is easy to overlook the role that manufacturing in general, and heavy industry in particular, continue to play in our economy.

But as Moly-Cop executive director John Barbagallo told Monday’s gathering, the future for Comsteel and Moly-Cop lies in continuous improvement, and an embrace of more environmentally friendly methods, wherever they can be utilised. As an electric arc furnace, Comsteel is a business built on recycling, consuming about 1000 old cars a day as feedstock for the high-quality steels it turns out at the other end.

Like another Hunter heavy industry, Tomago Aluminium, it needs a reliable and affordable supply of electricity to remain viable. Tomago, especially, has been outspoken about the future of the electricity grid, and its chief executive, Matt Howell, has again voiced concerns about the price and reliability of supply if the Liddell power station shuts, as proposed, in 2022.

Tomago is an even bigger employer than Comsteel, with a workforce of about 1100, including 936 permanents. While Mr Howell is reassured by Tomago’s 11-year contract with AGL, he says the bigger questions of how the power grid will support heavy industry as the big coal-fired stations are progressively shut down are yet to be properly answered.  Despite the optimism of those who say we can supply all of our energy needs through renewables, Tomago Aluminium is not convinced. From Mr Howell’s perspective, this is a question of national importance. Unless we are content to rely on imports, we need to keep our aluminium and steel industries. And they depend on reliable, affordable power.

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