Stagnation in the Industry
Demands for Help in Modernization Drive
A cobble—that's a cobble,” said Tom Yenney, as long sheets of red-hot steel flapped back into snarled loops. Machinery at one end of Bethlehem Steel's hot-strip mill at Sparrows Point, Md., had just jammed, and as a result metal sheets had backed up into scrunched accordions all the way down the line of rollers—a distance longer than two football fields. Now, as workers reversed the rollers to untangle the steel, production supervisor Yenney explained that the mangled sheets would have to be returned to furnaces to be remelted and recast.
“We have about one cobble a day here,” Yenney said, “while you'd have maybe one a month in a modern mill.” Actually, during the five or 10 minutes Yenney took to describe the ins and outs of hot-strip rolling, there were three or four cobbles in a row. Watching the workers maneuver cautiously around leaping strips of hot, rough-edged steel, while Yenney complained that the mill could not produce coils of the size and quality desired by many customers, it was easy to see why personnel at Sparrows Point hope to have a more modern rolling mill installed soon.
In a sense, the steel industry as a whole is caught in a kind of cobble. It is generally agreed that steel companies need to replace equipment like the Sparrows Point hot-strip mill much faster if they are going to have any chance of competing successfully against highly efficient manufacturers in Japan, subsidized producers in Europe and cheap-labor mills in the Third World. But industry representatives say that companies cannot afford to make costly investments in modern equipment unless they are protected, in the meantime, against imports, which foreign producers allegedly are “dumping” on the U.S. market at below-cost prices. While steel spokesmen concede that new tax laws and revised environmental regulations have provided significant incentives for investment, they say that protection from unfair foreign competition also is a prerequisite for modernization.