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This question is asked quite often, So is high time I answer it. The idea for Steelo itself all started back in 2007 when I started working for an engineering company. Although to explain why I started Steelo, I probably have to go even further back in time. When I was a kid, I always wanted to join the army and that was my mission when I was in high school and through University. However, When I applied to join the army as an officer in Poland, my application was rejected. I pass every test that was given to me and every fitness challenge but was rejected due to my Polish / South African dual Nationality.
After processing my rejection, I didn’t have any idea as to what I was going to do next. So, I decided to move to the UK. After being brought up in South Africa, I always felt the UK was a country where people had the same mentality and the same way of living.
When I arrived in the UK, I joined an engineering company in London to put my degree as an aeronautical engineer to work. The firm I joined used to do everything and would accept anything, not because they planned to do everything. It was just because the owners just were afraid to say no. Any inquiry that came our way, we looked into it, we quoted it, and then when we wanted it, we fulfilled the order. For me, it was great. As a young engineer, I could learn about various sectors. We used to do things in glass, timber, and plastic, we even designed machinery for the London Underground.
Of all these incredible projects, there was a project with structural steel that really stood out to me. The thing that struck me was that at University you learn about new technology, science machinery, robots, project management tools, about software for project management. But suddenly, I was in London, one of the powerhouses of the Globe and what I saw was something I just couldn’t believe.
Fabrication is still being done manually!
With a good old-fashioned tape measure, a scriber, a manual puncher and a magnetic drill, which still requires you to you manually drill the hole. I just couldn’t believe it! With all the technology available, steel is still almost made like in medieval times. It became my personal mission to revolutionize it.
Back then, I still had the army on my mind. So I adopted a dual vision. On one hand, I was still preparing myself for the army and the ultimate rejection of my second application. On the other hand, I now had a plan B, to revolutionise the steel industry. During this time, I spent nine months preparing myself for Plan B, which was to start the business and be the change I wanted to see in the industry.
In time, I learned what it takes to run a business, went on a five-week sort of how-to start a business course, and did a lot of bookkeeping with my grandfather. He was an actor, an academic, and a teacher who taught me how to do books the old way.
One of the pieces of advice I always mentioned to anyone thinking of going into your business is to learn the numbers and not how to use accounting software, but to actually learn how the numbers work. My re-education process took nine months. During this time I was also doing research in terms of what my offering will be, preparing the website, and finding a location to start my new business.
So that was the first part of my journey in bringing the steel industry into the 21st century. I was young, very ambitious, and looking back, naive as well. I thought it will be a much quicker journey. I thought that as soon as I start the business, people will be piling into doors and windows. Unfortunately, that was never the case.
I started on the 1st of September 2009, but my first order was received at the end of October and it was for a whopping amount of £57.50. It was for steel plates, which I delivered on my bicycle. But I guess that’s a story for another time. The driving force was to revolutionize the steel industry, the beginnings were tough, I would say they were very, very tough. In the back of my mind, I was still mentally prepared for military selection and when was taken away from me, I had all the energy in the world inside of me, and I just needed a way to let go. So whatever obstacles I had, I just overcame them. There was nothing that could have been thrown at me that would shake me out to a point where I was sleeping next to steel beams outside because on one occasion they were stolen, I also remember sleeping in our van the night before delivery in fear of it being stolen.
The most annoying thing back then was that the mission was to revolutionize the steel industry but I was performing even worse than the company that I worked for before. The production was done sometimes literally outside in the wind and rain. The deliveries were done on a very old van bought second-hand and barely running. It was all embarrassing; I had this inner conflict where I set out to revolutionize the industry with all my problems we were five steps back working out from a very old and undersized garage.
But again, the driving force was the mission, the higher purpose, and that was always the driving force. It’s like the North point on a compass. I always knew where I wanted to be, going through all the obstacles and building a team on the way, we made our way into that position. We then moved into much larger premises near Heathrow in London, and that’s when we started investing in CNG machinery.
The one piece of equipment that made a difference for us would be our ERP system. An ERP system is a system that manages all the operations within the company, decided to write our own because the ones that were available off the shelf just weren’t made for the steel industry. We operate in lengths rather than only numbers of items, designing the software was a task in itself. It was very ambitious and very expensive. I just knew that this will be the foundation of the new company or the way I envisaged our company to operate and indeed it was a success. I then introduce a lot of methodologies like the theory of constraint by Eliyahu Goldratt, obviously the lean manufacturing concept, and then a few other management concepts.
As a team, we created a very, very efficient manufacturing plant. The one thing I always questioned is the way steel fabrication places looked because by default people assume that because it is steel people have a green light or license to be dirty. I challenged that from the very beginning, we made sure that our layout is carefully designed and organised. We have lines defining zones and painted sections of our production floor in different colours to ensure we are organised. As a team, we also introduced 5S ideas to encourage people to simply clean up after themselves and also start the day with a nice clean workspace. Everything in our production line has evolved around efficiency, so it is fair to say that here is where we started bringing the steel industry into the 21st century.
That was achieved around five years after starting the business, which does show how naive we were at the start as I thought we’d be able to achieve the same results within a year or two.
It’s incredible to look back on how far Steelo has come from just the idea I had, as a matter the fact, the first name of the company was StruxSteel, which was short for structural steel. The original idea for the business was more focused on work management. The idea was not to have a fabrication plant at all, only manage projects. We would source projects in or around London and manage the fulfilment process, design and detailing of the structure. All the fabrication works would be outsourced with logistics and installation then managed by StruxSteel.
Bearing in mind that this was in 2009, the middle of the previous recession, it was probably the worst time to start, and that is when I learned about the credit rating of a company. So even when I did have interested companies, when they saw my credit rating, which was zero, if not negative and refused to pay any deposits. Obviously, I didn’t have enough money to finance the project myself and then hope for the payments sometime in the future. Therefore, by default, I couldn’t take those projects on board. So very quickly I was forced to readjust and almost flip my whole business plan upside down. Despite the meticulous nine months of preparation, I adjusted my business plan and took on a very small garage. From there, I understood that having the fabrication facility is much better because you have the whole process under your control and that is where we could start to revolutionize things.
We were able to reduce the lead times from the normal two to three weeks down to three days. Which was a massive shift. From here on out I was finally achieving what I set out to achieve, the drive for innovation never stopped.
Once we settled into our highly efficient fabrication facility, I had the desire to find out “what’s next?” and it didn’t take me long to find out other companies were working already working on the robotic assembly of Steel beams. The process comprising of one robot fitted with Electromagnets that lifts a beam, moves and rotates it into position while another robot welds the beams. My main thought process with this was “other companies already working on it and they have much better resources to do it” which puts us in a position where there is nothing we will achieve in that field.
After thinking this over for a few days, I again thought, “what is the next step? After robotic assembly?” And very quickly I concluded that it must be 3D printing of structural steel. Looking to explore this more, I reached out to various people and simply asked “how can we be involved?” On the back of those conversations, we started working with Cranfield University and a few other partners like Foster and Partners, BOC and also Wintwire. This continued exploration opened up a separate project, where we started working with Imperial College London on creating optimized connections that are all 3D printed in steel.
My vision for the future is that one day steel will not be fabricated in facilities like ours. They will become obsolete because steel will be delivered straight to the site and then robots will 3D print the connections in situ. We have been included in the project for some time now and is still something we’re working on. This still has a long way to go and will be a long journey but again, from the very beginning or even before we started the business, the driving force was innovation. It remains like this to date and hopefully will continue until I die.
I did make some changes and I do see various projects differently now when taking into account all of my experiences on our journey. Nevertheless, watch this space, we are still innovating the steel industry and we are coming up with various robotic solutions to achieve our next goal.
So there will be more to come.