The steel industry has dragged itself off the scrap-heap in recent years with Asia's relentless economic growth driving selling prices, profits and shares in the sector.

And with demand for steel from China and India - the world's two most populous countries - showing no signs of easing, the buzz has got louder and louder.

But despite the remarkable resurgence of the industry since the dark days of the 1970s, '80s and '90s - when it was almost looked upon as a lost cause - the future for many companies is far from certain.

At the heart of the debate is how mid-sized operators such as Anglo-Dutch operator Corus can deal with the might of global giants such as Mittal Steel and Arcelor.

Indeed, the pair are currently locked in a corporate and political battle of the sort previously unseen by steel producers following Lakshmi Mittal's audacious, hostile and industry-shaking £12.76 billion raid on his biggest rival.

If Mittal is successful in overcoming Arcelor's fierce resistance, the bid would create a steel powerhouse with an output of more than 100 million tonnes a year - three times bigger than its nearest rival - combined revenues of nearly £40 billion and a workforce of 320,000.

Corus, on the other hand, is the world's eighth largest operator by volume with an output of 18 million tonnes a year, turnover of £10.14 billion and 38,000 staff.

And with most of Corus's production based in Europe, its profit margins are much lower than Mittal's - eight per cent compared with 17 per cent in the final quarter of 2005 - which benefits from exposure in Africa and Asia.

In 2005, the world's five biggest steel makers were responsible for 19 per cent of output compared with 14 per cent in 2000.

Tony Taccone, a partner at Pittsburgh-based steel consultancy First River, said the increasing strength of the top producers could leave a number of mid-sized firms in limbo.

"There will be very large companies with operations in all regions of the world and a fairly substantial proportion of the industry," said Mr Taccone.

"And we will have small, regional, nimble players which can react to changes in the market and work to a strong future.

"The ones in trouble are the ones in the middle. Corus and a number of other companies all fit into that middle category."

It has led to a "sustained and fairly aggressive period of consolidation", according to Mr Taccone, as the biggest companies try to tighten their grip at the top and the middle-ranking companies battle to survive - with mergers and takeovers preferred to downsizing.

Corus chief executive Philippe Varin said he could see the benefits of consolidation for the company and the industry, but added: "In the world of steel you can be a consolidator one day and a consolidatee another day.

"What is important to us is to develop our strategy and our

value." Corus was created out of the merger of British Steel and Netherlands-based Hoogovens in 1999 at a time when much of the steel industry was still struggling.

It failed to make a profit until 2004 but now offers a more upmarket and sophisticated product in its battle to compete.

Corus delivered profits of £580 million last year. In the 1980s, two-thirds of the world's steel production was government-owned, but the fall of communism and a string of major privatisations -including that of British Steel - put profits and shareholder return to the top of the agenda in the industry, leaving producers less likely to flood the market with cheap material to maintain output quotas.

Mr Taccone said: "Now we have these fairly large companies looking for greater returns and to create more shareholder value which will see growth taking place on a global basis."

The privatisation and consolidation of the steel industry has coincided with a revival in its fortunes as it emerged from what is known as "the dark period" in the latter part of the 20th century, when demand in Europe and the US dropped off and Asia was crippled by its own financial crisis.

No one picked up the slack leaving the industry with huge over-capacity and facing financial ruin.

But in the last four years selling prices have doubled and shares in the sector have almost quadrupled.

Last year global steel production generated £285 billion.

Behind the transformation was - and still is - improved demand from the US and Europe, and more significantly the emergence of China, where demand for steel grew 18 per cent last year compared with a four per cent increase globally. China now accounts for 32 per cent of world steel consumption.

It has dragged the steel industry off its knees - but left individual companies with major questions over independence and survival. ..SUPL: