A poster in the new $1.2 billion steel mill at ATI Flat-Rolled Products in Harrison seems to speak volumes.
Bearing the likeness of a muscular, masked superhero-type character, it reads, “Securing Our Future: Relentless Innovation Wins.”
Allegheny Technologies Inc., the parent company of the former Allegheny Ludlum Steel Corp., put its innovation on display for the media and local officials Thursday with tours of the new facility.
“You’re not going to find another factory like this one in the world,” said Tom DeLuca, ATI vice president and general manager of primary operations.
Manufactured for ATI by Siemens VAI of Germany, the new mill takes huge 8 1⁄2-inch thick metal slabs of specialty steel and various alloys that ATI makes, and compresses them with massive rolls into coils, plates and sheets as thin as 0.08 of an inch.
Bob Wetherbee, ATI executive vice president for the flat-rolled products group, said the company’s seven facilities in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio employ 2,500 people.
“Their average salary was $92,000,” Wetherbee said. That figure jumps to $151,000 when benefits are added.
Of those, about 1,100 work in the Harrison, Vandergrift and Gilpin (Bagdad) sites.
When the company received needed government approvals that facilitated the mill’s construction, ATI officials did not promise new jobs but pledged to maintain the current employment levels and that has not changed.
However, Wetherbee said, “We’ll see a lot of retirements so we’ll be hiring in the next few years.”
Because of the highly technical nature of the new mill, Wetherbee said that any new hires would likely need to have at least an associate degree in fields such as engineering or electronics.
“We spent an incredible amount of time, up to two years, training our people,” DeLuca said.
That apparently is because of the detail involved in processing the various ATI alloys to ensure that it is consistent with the customer’s specifications.
DeLuca said, “Everything is done prescriptively and exactly the same way every time.”
“The jobs are changing from manual labor to process control-types of jobs,” Wetherbee said.
When the rolling process is completed, the coils, sheets and plates are shipped for finishing to ATI plants in Vandergrift, Bagdad (Gilpin) and Midland, Beaver County.
From there, the finished metals are shipped off to ATI customers through a broad spectrum of worldwide markets including automotive, food processing, medical, aerospace and energy, to name a few.
“Really, nobody else in the world makes the same kind of products that we do on one mill,” DeLuca said.
Though the mill was built to handle ATI’s diverse metals menu of 140 product recipes, it will not be limited to them.
According to ATI spokesman Dan Greenfield, around half of the mill’s capacity will be used to roll metals — including basic carbon steel — from other manufacturers.
“This mill is the most powerful of its kind, not just in the U.S., but in the world,” DeLuca said.
He referred specifically to the roughing mill, which initially reduces the thickness of the metal from 8 1⁄2 to 1 1⁄2 inches in the space of about 80 to 90 seconds.
He said it was designed because of the strong, nickel-based alloys ATI manufactures. In the process, though, it enabled it to easily handle other metals such as stainless and carbon steel.
He said this mill is designed with features that are not included on mills for carbon steel.
“You get the thinner thickness with the same properties,” DeLuca said.
Approved by ATI’s board of directors in 2008, construction of the new hot-strip mill began around 2011 and was completed last year.
ATI financed the project itself, although it does receive tax abatements for a number of years because the entire site was designated a Keystone Opportunity Zone by the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development.
The metals are shipped to and from the mill from six ATI melt shops primarily by rail using Norfolk Southern lines.
Wetherbee said that the rail shipments will occur three times a week.
“If you’re in Vandergrift, you should see less trucks because we are going to more rail deliveries.” Wetherbee said.
Overall, Weatherbee estimated that using the rail line will eliminate about 150 truck trips per week and likely help keep local roads in better condition.
Once inside the mill, the raw metal never touches the ground, according to ATI officials. It’s moved onto the rolling mill and then heated to 2,250 degrees in one of the two primary furnaces.
It’s then cooled by several hundred degrees and moved through the next part of the process, the seven “stands” of the rolling mill, which incrementally reduces the thickness down to 0.08-inch.
From there it’s cooled further, and coiled if that’s what the product calls for, then bar-coded to identify the product before being loaded back onto railcars or trucks and shipped out for finishing.
The entire process is controlled and overseen by engineers and technicians from a “pulpit,” a room overlooking the mill filled with computer screens that looks like it could be a control tower for an airport. The computers are constantly feeding information from the mill to the operators to ensure that the equipment is performing as it should.
If there is a problem, the process is halted until it is corrected.
Greenfield said that the operators run “ghost slabs,” which are computer models or simulations for a product to make sure that everything is correct before the actual metal is started through the process.
In fact, the late-morning tour group that went through was unable to actually see the mill in action because a cooling glitch was detected.
“The computer was telling the operator that the machinery had a fault,” DeLuca said.
Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or [email protected].