Germany is the largest steel manufacturer in the EU and the seventh largest worldwide. As a basic industry, the steel sector bears considerable significance for value-added chains and also represents the backbone of the German national economy.
Germany, and North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) in particular, has always paid attention to maintaining a highly productive industrial core. And it is paying off today. Great Britain and other countries which used to have a strong industry are now envious of this. Not only there do discussions centre on a necessary reindustrialisation and an increase in the industry’s contribution. Germany stands at the top of all European countries with nearly a quarter of industry contributions to the gross domestic product (GDP). The same holds true for North Rhine-Westphalia. In no other federal state is the gross value added as high as in NRW. The industry was and is a guarantor and anchor of stability for growth and employment in Germany. In the past years, the industry’s contribution to the recovery of state finances and to securing growth was considerable.
When Great Britain introduced labels for foreign products in 1887, meaning products from Germany had to be marked “Made in Germany”, they were initially intended to protect British industry. Ironically, it was British steelworkers who were behind this, as they protested against counterfeit knives, scissors, files and razor blades from abroad. The “Made in Germany” logo was meant to warn consumers from buying a cheap imitation from Germany. This plan, however, did not succeed. On the contrary: many buyers noticed that products from Germany were of equal or even better quality. The label that was meant to brand German products became a seal of quality within just a few years. Hardly a decade after its introduction, “Made in Germany” had become a free recommendation for German industrial products. Not least, it was this label that initiated Germany’s rise to become the world’s leading export nation.
So while “Made in Germany” was originally meant as a discrimination against foreign, including German, steel products, the German export industry would be unthinkable without steel. Industrial steel products account for over half of Germany’s merchandise exports. Steel-intense industries provide nearly 3.5 million jobs in Germany. These industries include strong export sectors such as mechanical engineering, construction industry, and the automobile industry; all sectors that are also strongly represented in North Rhine-Westphalia. Many products and export hits “Made in Germany” would be impossible without state-of-the-art and efficient steel products. Steel is not only the most commonly used industrial base material around the world. The steel industry is the crucial supplier of materials for numerous key sectors with its annual production of nearly 45 million tonnes of crude steel. Steel is the foundation for countless innovations. When it comes to developing high-performance components and systems, exportable products and sustainable concepts for infrastructure, energy supply or climate protection, there is no way around using steel.
North Rhine-Westphalia is the federal state with the, by far, largest production of steel. Approximately 40 per cent of German crude steel production is concentrated in the Rhine and Ruhr regions. The crude steel production even amounts to over 50 per cent. Close to 56 per cent of the steel production workforce in Germany works in North Rhine-Westphalia. Steel production has a long tradition in the Rhine and Ruhr region: as early as 1758, crude steel was already molten in the Ruhr region in the St. Antony Ironworks in Obernhausen. The use of cutting-edge technologies and environmentally friendly methods is what distinguishes steel production in North Rhine-Westphalia today. Europe’s largest and most powerful blast furnace is located in Duisburg.
However, these are not the only factors which characterise North Rhine-Westphalia’s uniqueness as centre of steel production. The close and successful collaboration between steel manufacturers and renowned research institutions plays a crucial role as well. These include the RWTH Aachen University, the University of Duisburg-Essen, the Forschungszentrum Jülich, the Max-Planck-Institut für Eisenforschung and the Betriebsforschungsinstitut BFI in Düsseldorf. The tightly-knit industrial value-creation networks are always networks of innovation as well.
Innovations plays an important role in the future viability of our industry. Almost 1,000 patents involving steel are published in Germany every year. This amounts to one-third of all cross-sector patents worldwide involving the use of steel. This number has nearly doubled in the last 20 years and is growing by an average of three per cent every year. Material scientists agree: the development potential offered by steel is far from exhausted. Our industry’s innovative strength is the foundation of its future viability.
Innovations in the steel industry include processes as well as the products and their use. These factors are closely related to the competitiveness of the steel industry. And the fact that Germany’s steel industry continues to play a leading role internationally, is not the least due to its close collaboration in developing and implementing innovations with customers on site, thereby securing a competitive advantage. Short distances, a similar technical understanding, and a future-oriented approach open up countless possibilities: business partners work closely together and jointly develop tailored, sustainable technological solutions. The profound expertise of all partners makes a high specialisation possible and results in highly competitive and innovative industry products for the world market. Steel manufacturers in Germany are therefore materials and system suppliers all in one.
Whether wind turbines, power plants, automobiles, machines, medical devices or high-tech lasers: steel, as a “staple food”, is indispensable for the German industry in solving future problems.
The author (born in 1956) studied humanities and economics at the Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf and the University of Cambridge. From 1987 to 1999, he was the permanent representative of the German Steel Federation in Bonn and Brussels. Until 2008, he headed the Politics business area at the German Steel Federation. As of 2003, he initially worked as the managing director of the German Steel Federation and in 2004, he became the organisation’s CEO. Since April 2008, Hans Jürgen Kerkhoff has been the president of the German Steel Federation and chairman of the Steel Institute VDEh.