Harrison mill being tested
Six years ago, ATI-Allegheny Ludlum started the process to build its new hot rolling mill at its steel mill in Harrison.
Although construction of the new, state-of-the-art $1.1 billion rolling mill, which actually began in 2011, apparently was completed late last year, the company is in no hurry to reveal it to the general public.
That likely will not happen until sometime in 2015. The steel mill is in Harrison — at what is commonly called ATI-Allegheny Ludlum, but whose formal name is ATI Brackenridge Operations.
“The No. 1 issue is to get things qualified, get the operation qualified, and we don’t want to provide any distractions,” ATI spokesman Dan Greenfield said. “We’re going to do something whenever we feel that a public event will not be a distraction. Right now, we are not planning anything. We are concentrating on the qualification process.”
That process, which Greenfield also refers to as “commissioning,” has been ongoing since the start of the year. It is essentially putting the new mill to the test and seeing how it performs in processing the wide variety of stainless steel and exotic specialty alloys the company produces.
Most powerful and expensive
“It should be online fully by the end of this year,” said Christopher Plummer, president and CEO of Metal Strategies, a Lancaster-based metals analysis, strategy and consulting company. “By 2015, it should be the sole rolling mill for all of Allegheny Ludlum’s flat-rolled products.”
“It’s a very prominent project in the steel and metals industry,” said Plummer. “At the stated capital cost, which is $1.2 billion plus capitalized interest, it is arguably the most expensive rolling mill ever built. And it is certainly the most powerful ever built in the world.”
Considering all that, he doesn’t see the time it has taken to build the new mill as being unusual or extraordinary.
“They recognized, and they were quite accurate, that it would take about four years to have it up and running once they signed the contract, and that’s about what it took,” Plummer said.
“It’s on track,” said Greenfield. “So far, of the coils that have been rolled and tested, 95 percent met customer specifications. You can talk to any engineer in the world and they will tell you that is unheard of, that is outstanding.”
Near the end of October, Greenfield said the new “hot- rolling and processing facility (HRPF)”, as ATI calls it, had put out 600 coils of various metals. However, he said there still is a long way to go.
Despite the 95 percent of coils meeting the customer requirements, Greenfield said, “It doesn’t mean that we have produced 95 percent of what we normally produce.”
Cleaner air, water
Producing metals is not the most environmentally-friendly pursuit and over the years the so-called Brackenridge Works has had run-ins with state and federal regulators regarding water and air pollution.
Greenfield, who said that has not happened for many years now, said this plant should have none of those problems with its new operation.
He said the plant was designed with the “full concept of sustainability.”
“There’s no coal being burned there, there are no pollutants,” Greenfield said. “There’s no smoke being created in the facility.”
According to Greenfield, the plant operates on electricity and the re-heat furnaces run on natural gas.
In a 2012 news story, ATI environmental relations representative Lauren McAndrews said, “The plant will have state-of-the-art air pollution control quality. The emissions will be much lower.”
Regarding its effects on water quality, ATI project manager Darin Sarin, in the same story, said, “The EPA has said it will use this as an example for other companies building new plants.”
Sarin added that the plant continuously will re-use water taken from the Allegheny River, thereby reducing what the plant needs to take from the waterway. Less than 5 percent of the water used will be returned to the river.
“What does go back into the river will be cleaner than when it came in,” he said. “We went above and beyond what EPA standards are.”
Greenfield said, “The whole vision of a dusty, grimy facility is just not the right image of this facility.”
Steeled for competition
Plummer, who has been an analyst for the steel and metals industry for over 25 years with firms such as Chase Manhattan and Standard & Poor’s, said ATI-Allegheny Ludlum has three main competitors: A-K Steel, Spanish-owned North American Steel and; Finland-based Outokumpu.
Each produces about 450,000 tons of flat-rolled specialty steel products annually.
He said ATI has produced almost 570,000 tons in each of the past two years.
He thinks ATI-Allegheny Ludlum has positioned itself well by making the new mill a reality.
“The gains that will be made by (ATI-Ludlum) in terms of productivity, production costs, the ability to roll a wide range of products down to what is essentially an unmatched precision, is something that is really going to benefit the company in the future, Plummer said.
David “Skip” Hartquivst, counsel to the Specialty Steel Industry of North America, a trade organization, said while other companies have been making capacity improvements, none are as large as the $4 billion ATI has invested companywide over a number of years. That includes the new mill in Harrison.
“This is a major capacity addition to the domestic industry and it’s refreshing to see that American companies are investing to retain and enhance their competitiveness in the global marketplace,” Hartquivst said.
“It wasn’t too many years ago that the general feeling was that there wouldn’t be any facilities like this built in the United States because of competition from imports and, essentially, the global competitive environment.”
Fran Arabia, president of United Steelworkers Local 1196 that represents the plant’s 900 union workers, was reluctant to discuss the new mill since ATI has been reserved in its statements.
“Everything is going well, that is a fact,” Arabia said. “It’s (mill) definitely what I expected.”
Plummer said the new rolling mill, which was manufactured by Siemens VAI Metals Technologies of Austria, is three times more powerful than the mill it is replacing.
The old mill was built in 1932 and then upgraded in 1952. It remains in operation through the new mill’s commissioning process to maintain production, but that will cease once the new mill is fully online, he said.
ATI officials have said that the mill will be able to roll metal coils as wide as two meters, about 79 inches. The old mill could roll coils with only a maximum width of 48 inches. Greenfield said ATI has already received an order for 60-inch coils.
It is also expected to slash the production time.
Sarin, ATI’s project manager, said in a 2012 interview, “It used to take between 48 and 100 days from order to shipment. Now it will take between 14 and 48 days for the same process.”
“If you are thinking about a nickel alloy, which is a very high end product for oil and gas and even aerospace, we’ve taken weeks out of that,” Greenfield said. “That is melted in Latrobe, but then we had to take it to North Carolina to roll it so, (the new mill) will take weeks out of it.”
According to Plummer, production time is a critical factor because of what is being made and the process involved.
“When you are rolling very specialized metals and stainless steel, you are looking at rolling at much slower speeds,” he said.
The rolls on the mill come into contact with the metal and get contaminated by it, he explained.“Every time you switch to a different metal, the mill rolls have to be reset up, the IT software has to be reset for that metal.” Plummer said.
“It is an array of products that are vastly more complicated than carbon steel,” Plummer said. “If U.S. Steel had this and rolled just carbon steel, it would probably be able to roll 3 million tons.”
But the products it will handle, particularly the high-end alloys using titanium and zirconium, hold bigger rewards, according to Plummer.
He said the overall average selling price for ATI’s flat-rolled products was $1.84 per pound and the average price of stainless products was $1.28 per pound. But the specialty alloy prices more than doubled that at $2.63 per pound.
“All things being equal, they are going to be looking to up those prices,” Plummer said. “I think what ATI-Allegheny Ludlum is doing is moving itself up the quality pyramid. It is trying to separate itself from its competition.”
Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or [email protected].