The steel story: it's the last stop

Journalist Glen Humphries and photographer Sylvia Liber pull back the steel curtain and take you deep inside BlueScope's Port Kembla steelworks.

A coil field showing the variety of packaging the steel coils get - blue plastic, metal sheeting, straps and more - before being sent out.

The painting and finishing department at Springhill is the end of the line for steel.

Well, sort of.

See, once the painted or galvanised steel leaves BlueScope’s Springhill plant it's not always really ready to use.

The coils go out flat – to get the corrugation in them that you see in the Colorbond roofs all over the place it gets sent to one of a number of service centres across the country.

Other coil may get sent out unpainted so that the customer can take care of that themselves.

So while the path from raw material to finished product at BlueScope may take at least six weeks, there can still be a few more stages.

But our journey ends with the painting and finishing department, where the coils are coated in cottage green, surf mist or other colours and them wrapped up in an array of packaging before heading out the door.

From the metal coating line, those coils that don’t require painting head straight to the pack line.

Steel coil enters the machine that will coat it in cottage green, surf mist or a range of other colours.
Customers can opt for their galvanised steel to have one of several different "spangle" patterns.

Those that are to be painted get uncoiled – again – and then stitched together into one continuous length to go through the paint line.

It gets a primer and main coat (and a “backer” painted on the side you don't usually see) and is run through an oven to dry the paint and ensure it stays put.

Computers keep track of the coil to spot any flaws, and a spectrometer compares the colour as it comes off the line with a master sample (there are a series of envelopes that hold samples of each colour made at BlueScope.

After it’s dried, the coil is cut again and wrapped up (for the last time) and then it enters the packing line.

This is a surprisingly involved process – there are 13 stations in the line and each is responsible for putting a different packaging option on the coil.

These include straps that run around the coil, through the centre, protectors at either end (aka “donuts”), body wrap and even steel crimped around the edges.

Some of the stations are automated, others are operated by workers. In either case, they have three minutes to get their job done before the coil moves down the conveyor to the next station.

At the end of the pack line a robot prints out a packing sticker containing the delivery address.

But before it places the sticker, it scans the coil’s size to make sure there hasn’t been a mix-up.

From there the coils head out a field in preparation to be loaded onto a truck or placed in so-called “Better Boxes” for transportation on rail.

And so what arrived at the BlueScope docks as as iron ore, limestone, coal and a range of other ingredients leaves Port Kembla as a rolled coil of steel.

Jessica Grossmann runs a test on a sample to confirm that the paint has satisfactorily adhered to the steel.
Samples of the paint range at Springhill
Delivery labels are stuck on by computer, which first scans each coil to make sure it is getting the right label. This coil also has "donuts" - the black cover on the side of the coil - and the metal crimped around the edges, which are two of the packaging options available.
Trucks await their loads of coils, while the yellow "Better Boxes" that carry the coils via rail can be seen at the rear right.
This is the last instalment of The Steel Story series. To view all the features, click here.