Steel City becomes carbon capital

Sheffield was not chosen as the location of McLaren’s new Composite Technology Centre by accident – it’s a city rich with cultural meaning

Turn over any fork or spoon in the UK and you’ll likely be greeted by the words ‘Made in Sheffield’ etched into the silvery steel. It may be that you’ve never visited this city, located some 140 miles north of London; in fact, if you’re from Dallas or Dubai, you’ve probably never even heard of it. But Sheffield has a special place in the UK’s national culture – this is our own ‘Steel City’, an industrial powerhouse that, at its peak in 1969, produced 3.5 million tonnes of steel. In times past, there were nearly 200 steel firms here, and as many as 40,000 people were employed in the industry. Every time Britain made a cup of tea, Sheffield was there to help.

Which is why McLaren’s decision to locate our new facility here has an added significance. Centuries after the city made its name as a steel producer, we have spread beyond Woking – our traditional home – to set up a new carbon fibre production facility in Catcliffe, on the edge of Sheffield. The McLaren Composites Technology Centre (MCTC) will produce the incredibly rigid yet lightweight Monocell and Monocage chassis that underpins all of our cars.

McLaren’s move, turning Steel City into a carbon fibre capital, was no coincidence. ‘The region has a long association with advanced materials; first with steel, and now a future to look forward to with carbon fibre innovation and production for McLaren,’ says Mike Flewitt, McLaren Automotive’s CEO.

But the history of production in Sheffield goes back even further than steel. ‘The town had already become a major location for ironworking in particular,’ says Dr Andrew Heath, history lecturer at the University of Sheffield. ‘It was already a centre of production before the crucible process revolutionised steel-making.’ As far back as 1379, around a quarter of the population of Sheffield were employed as metalworkers.

Sheffield’s innovation in materials continued into the 20th century with the invention of stainless steel. ‘The process was first developed in Sheffield by an engineer called Harry Brearley,’ says Heath. ‘He was able to create steel that didn’t rust.’

"It’s great to see McLaren bringing the production of its supercar bodies to Britain – and even better that they chose to do it here."
Professor Keith Ridgway
Co-founder and Executive Dean of the AMRC

During the 1970s, the steel industry went into sharp decline, with many foundries closing. But you can still find remnants of its steel-making past – such as Ernest Wright, a specialist scissor-making company that dates back to 1902. ‘We meet people who are fifth- or sixth-generation metalworkers,’ explains co-owner Paul Jacobs. ‘Recently, our saddle grinder broke down, but opposite us is a company that still makes bearings and axles for these machines. In Sheffield, companies like this are all around.’

Steel-making may have decreased in the whirlwind of globalism, but the city’s manufacturing ethos had already been forged. Over the past decade, Sheffield has enjoyed a renaissance, with many high-tech firms relocating to the area. Playing a part in that is the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), a partner in McLaren’s cutting-edge carbon factory. Professor Keith Ridgway, co-founder and Executive Dean of the AMRC says: ‘It’s great to see McLaren bringing the production of its supercar bodies to Britain – and even better that they chose to do it here. The AMRC’s expertise in composites and light-weighting was a critical factor in this great British car maker’s decision to locate their own state-of-the-art factory here.’

Sheffield’s renaissance goes beyond manufacturing, however – its art and creative industries are also flourishing. ‘I think there’s something of a buzz with McLaren and other brands locating here,’ says Heath. ‘It’s a city of makers, and that’s drawing a lot of creative people as well. It has the highest number of artists outside London.’

McLaren’s choice to build our high-tech manufacturing plant here is proof that Sheffield’s materials expertise hasn’t been lost. Now there’s a new maker in town.