Historic press at Forged Solutions Group is Sheffield steelmaking icon

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If a single machine could define Sheffield’s forging prowess it would be the Davy Press.

Built by Davy McKee on Prince of Wales Road in the 1970s, it is still going strong at Forged Solutions Group’s Meadowhall site today.

It is revered, not just for 50 years of loyal service but for creating forgings that are in demand from global manufacturers including Rolls-Royce, Caterpillar, Safran and Pratt and Witney.

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It can squash a red hot 600kg steel billet into a new shape, with a hole down the middle, as if it were plasticine - and do it 100 times a day.

Front end supervisor in the Davy Press Cell, Mark Lewis.Front end supervisor in the Davy Press Cell, Mark Lewis.
Front end supervisor in the Davy Press Cell, Mark Lewis.

A string of owners in recent times and economic turbulence serve only to heighten its iconic place at the heart of the business.

Valuable though it undoubtedly is, it is also great theatre.

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Clouds of white smoke billow as it it reaches maximum pressure before a mini ‘explosion’ and a balloon of flame after it is released. For those who love forging it is magic.

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Front end operative Scott Raistrick on the Davy Press at Forged Solutions Group.Front end operative Scott Raistrick on the Davy Press at Forged Solutions Group.
Front end operative Scott Raistrick on the Davy Press at Forged Solutions Group.

Boss Ben McIvor left a blue chip aerospace company to take the reins in 2016.

He said: “There’s something about what we do that’s quite endearing. It’s not easy and it’s cool to watch.

“It’s been a journey from large corporate to corporate sale to carving out the business. It’s really rewarding.

“The name above the door has changed quite a lot but the core competence, values and how we approach the job haven’t changed.”

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600kg hot steel part after forging.600kg hot steel part after forging.
600kg hot steel part after forging.

The firm - formerly Firth Rixson Forgings - employs more than 400 at three sites in Sheffield - Meadowhall, River Don and Ecclesfield - as well as Darley Dale in Derbyshire and Blaenavon in Wales.

Firth Rixson can trace its roots back to the early 1800s and the River Don site in Sheffield goes back to the 1850s.

It has a complicated family tree.

Manipulator transports steel billet in the forge.Manipulator transports steel billet in the forge.
Manipulator transports steel billet in the forge.

According to Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History, Woodhouse and Rixson was established in Attercliffe in 1881 before merging with Johnson and Firth Brown to form Firth Rixson in 1987.

Johnson and Firth Brown was formed in 1973 by a merger of Thomas Firth and John Brown Ltd with Richard Johnson and Nephew.

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John Brown and Co was founded in 1838, in Orchard Street, Sheffield, and had a small foundry on what is the now Orchard Square Shopping centre.

Thomas Firth and Sons based at Norfolk Works, Sheffield, was founded by Mark Firth and brother Thomas who left Sanderson Brothers and Co, smelting steel at Portobello works, Charlotte Street, Sheffield.

At the Meadowhall site today, the boardroom was once the entrance and a mosaic with the name of yet another company ‘George Turton Platts’ is still embedded in the floor.

Mark Lewis on the controls of the Bliss Press.Mark Lewis on the controls of the Bliss Press.
Mark Lewis on the controls of the Bliss Press.

In World War Two one of the works was moved to Darley Dale in Derbyshire to escape German bombers. It was a ‘shadow factory’ with plants and trees painted on the roof. It is still there today. The business also made parts for Spitfires, Ben says.

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After 33 years, front end supervisor on the Davy Press, Mark Lewis, is part of the history too.

He can remember the days before it was computer controlled and safety cabins were installed to house them. It used to need six workers whereas today it has three.

He said: “We still use the same processes but with upgraded equipment. There are a lot of graduates coming through and there’s always something new to learn even after 33 years.”

In the steel industry, good times come and go. In 2012, the loss of a Caterpillar contract saw them shed 30 staff in the front end section alone, he says.

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And there were floods in 2007 and 2019. Earlier this year an alert triggered the defences but they fortunately weren’t needed.

Firth Rixson was snapped up by global metals giant Alcoa in 2014.

It became part of Arconic in a restructure and was bought by US private equity firm Arlington Captial Partners in 2019, hence Ben’s title of ‘president’.

He says as a £100m operation in a £4bn business unit they were ‘lost in the roundings’ and it was difficult to be heard. Going it alone allowed them to focus on forging, he added.

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Since then the company has spent $2m on CNC machining and $1m on testing technology, with more investment planned.

But skyrocketing energy prices are a big worry.

He said: “In my 25 years working in a manufacturing sectors this is the most challenging period.

“Without gas I can’t make parts, but the price of energy could make them uneconomic to produce.”

At the moment though, business is picking up post-pandemic.

FSG hired 40 in the first three months of this year and needs another 50 now.

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Ben, aged 47, did a mechanical engineering degree at Sheffield Hallam University in 1998 followed by an MBA and a masters in finance.

He worked at blue chip aerospace, metals and construction firms until Sheffield called him back.

He said: “When this came up in 2016 it was too good to turn down. I’m from London but prefer it up north.

“I hold quite an emotional attachment to heavy, traditional industries.”

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A large part of its work is in aerospace, with forgings used as shafts, rings and discs for engine parts, as well as in landing gear and structural components for the main body of aircraft.

It also serves the energy production, underground mining and off-highway vehicle sectors.

The company is a member of the 200-strong Confederation of British Metalforming.

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