Steel is often referred to as a commodity product. Although recognized as a material with a wide range of uses, the breadth of different end-uses is often not well understood. In the article that follows, the author discusses some typical end-uses of steel that illustrate the breath of different applications for which this material is commonly used.
Within flat steel products, a number of different product groups can be identified. These include:
- Plate, commonly used in shipbuilding, for the production of large diameter pipe (e.g for oil and gas transport) and for military applications such as armoured plate (tanks, personnel carriers).
- Hot rolled coil and sheet, where important uses can include low pressure tanks, heavy ducts and channels, gas and water pipes, roll-formed sections for use in construction, machine parts, and some auto chassis components.
- Cold rolled coil and sheet, where typical uses include roofing products, enamel coated kitchen utensils, packaging (including strapping), non-exposed elements of white goods such as fridges and freezers, brackets for construction and machinery.
- Coated steel products – meaning mainly zinc coated and tin coated steels – where key uses include motorway crash barriers, air conditioning ventilation shafts, lockers, cabinets, metal boxes, non-exposed car body parts, railway wagons, drums, vessels, roofing products, PVC window assemblies – and at the highest end of the quality spectrum for exposed auto body panels, white goods panels, sandwich panels for construction applications; and tinplate for packaging uses (food and beverage).
Within long products, several different product groups can be identified. These include:
- Heavy sections, typically used to make bridges, or as construction elements (beams) as load support structures in buildings. Railway rails are also an important end use of heavy steel sections.
- Light sections, which can include merchant bar products [meaning round, square, hexagonal, rectangular, flat and other shapes used as support structures for building, construction and machinery], reinforcing bar (which is used to reinforce concrete – both horizontally and vertically) as well as engineering steel products (used for the production of crank shafts, gearbox gears, suspension arms, automotive springs and hydraulic components).
- Wire products, used for tyre cord, mechanical springs (including bedding), steel rope, as well as for fasteners (nuts, bolts, screws) as well as wire mesh, nails and fencing products.
Within tube, further products can be distinguished. These include:
- Seamless tube, where the thinnest applications include syringe needles and precision tube; and larger diameters find uses in oil and gas exploration as well as in high temperature and pressure applications including uses in highly corrosive environments.
- Welded tube, which includes small, medium and large pipe, with uses ranging from furniture, gas and water piping, as well as construction elements. The very largest diameter pipes are used for cross-country, sub-sea as well as intercontinental transport of oil and gas.
Whilst often called a commodity product, it is clear that the uses of steel are very varied indeed. Many of the applications of steel are also highly specialised – especially in the case of:
- high-speed steels, used for metal cutting.
- tool steels, used for the manufacture of tools (including stamping dies, shear blades, and hand tools such as wrenches and machine tool-bit holders).
- steel forgings (with very broad industrial applications including components and machinery).
With certain sub-groups of steel (such as stainless steels) themselves having further quite unique sets of applications (jewellery, surgical instruments, kitchen surfaces and tools).