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June 2012
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ArcelorMittal Steps Up to the Plate

Taking customers’ suggestions to heart, the steelmaker upgrades the heat-treat line at Burns Harbor with a giant leveler, plus new plate blasting and painting capabilities.

Steel giant ArcelorMittal has started production on the new heat-treat plate line at its Burns Harbor, Ind., mill—an upgrade that was not just customer-driven, but practically customer-demanded.

Over the past several years, a number of ArcelorMittal customers have told the steelmaker that to remain relevant in the heat-treat plate market, it needed to make some changes. “We listened carefully and went to work designing a new plant that would better meet the needs of those customers, not just today but well into the future to maintain competitiveness against the best in the world,” says Mike Rippey, president and CEO of ArcelorMittal USA.

What came out of those discussions was a $60 million investment to dramatically improve both the quality of the heat-treat product and the company’s ability to deliver it to service centers and other customers.

The centerpiece of the facility’s upgrade is a new high-capacity leveler, which the company claims is the most sophisticated of its type in the world. The giant leveler, designed by Japan’s Steel Plantech, is engineered to level plate ranging from 3/8th inch to 4 inches thick and measuring up to 160 inches wide and 1,500 inches long. The new leveler has 8,200 tons of separating force, a tenfold increase over the line’s existing leveler, and can handle plate steel with yield strengths up to 200 ksi.

Other new features of the line include a mist cooling system, a test cutting and plate blasting process and an in-line plate priming stage after the material has been through the leveler. Upgrades also were made to the furnaces on the heat-treat side of the now-continuous line.

ArcelorMittal will run three products through the line: normalized plate for customers seeking a tough, fracture- and puncture-resistant material; quench plate for use in abrasion-resistant applications; and quench and tempered plate for high-strength applications.

With the new line, the mill’s annual capacity is expected to increase by at least 15 percent to more than 100,000 tons. Altogether, ArcelorMittal produces more than 2 million tons of plate product each year at its U.S. facilities. And now the product coming out of Burns Harbor will match or exceed the quality from the company’s other facilities, as well as competitors’ products, claim ArcelorMittal executives. Customers have already noticed the difference.

“We were almost getting to the point where we had to have a dual inventory, with the sub-par ArcelorMittal product that only certain customers would take and other products from some of the other U.S. mills that were superior,” says Denton Nordhues, president of Lisle, Ill.-based Leeco Steel, an ArcelorMittal customer. “It looks like they’ve gone from being a severely sub-par provider of quenched and tempered plate to being All-American.”

“Certainly, the old Burns Harbor product was not up to par with what was available in the marketplace. They have become a much more viable competitor in the commercial Q&T market,” adds Scott Pape, president of Kenilworth Steel, Warren, Ohio.

In fact, Nordhues wonders if ArcelorMittal’s painted product will become the standard for U.S. heat-treated plate. “It will be interesting to see how the market reacts to this painted plate. Do customers start asking or insisting on a painted product on any plate we provide them? We could be back to a dual-inventory situation, although the good news is that all of the plate we’d have in the warehouse would be a superior product.”

ArcelorMittal executives expect the mix of end-use customers to remain consistent even after the ramp-up to full production is complete. The company will continue to sell into the construction, agriculture and mining markets, with distribution to remain around 30-40 percent of the total.

“A lot of our customers have been getting heat-treat products from us for a number of years,” says Jack Biegalski, director of plate product control, sales and marketing for ArcelorMittal USA. “From a quality standpoint, this really helps us stay with those guys. A lot of investment has been made in this market by our competitors, and this enhances our ability to deliver our programs.”

Biegalski acknowledged that some of the company’s customers may have been doing the leveling that ArcelorMittal will now provide, but he isn’t worried about competing with them. “As an extra process, it is more efficient to do it here and provide our customers the product right out the door.”

Getting product out the door quicker is another chief goal of the project. The original heat-treat line, installed shortly after the Burns Harbor facility was opened in 1966, was inherently inefficient. The first order in tended to be the last order out because it ended up on the bottom of the pile and had to wait for the plate on top to be moved for further processing.

“Trying to hit shipment schedules out of a place like that was difficult, unless you just added time. And in this environment, that’s not good, because it’s inventory to somebody, whether it’s us or the customer,” says John Mengel, chief operating officer for ArcelorMittal plate.

Working within the confines of the existing building, the company was able to reconfigure the line into a continuous process. The product goes through the charge table and hardening furnace, onto the high-pressure spray roller quench and then into the tempering furnace. From there, a transfer car moves it onto the process line for mist cooling, test cutting and plate blasting, leveling and finally priming. In the new system, the plate never touches the floor.

“From the time the plate is charged to when it’s on its way down to shipping is somewhere around two to three hours,” says Mary Frankovich, an ArcelorMittal engineer who served as the project manager. The run time is a vast improvement from the week or more under the old system.

Speed through the system will be further increased by a more consistently sound product, says the company. Under the old line, delays often formed when material had to be rerun because of quality issues.

“It looks like they’ve thought through the space constraints pretty well,” says Pape, who was among many executives attending the ArcelorMittal open house in May. “Not only will the quality of the product be improved, but also the logistics of getting it through the plant.”

Getting material to customers was also important throughout the construction process, which began in July 2011 and took the Burns Harbor heat-treat facility off line. ArcelorMittal dealt with that issue by relocating employees to its nearby Gary heat-treat facility, while redirecting orders from its Conshohocken and Coatesville facilities in Pennsylvania. “The transfer of talent was absolutely crucial and the first important step,” Mengel says. “It provided a seamless transition for the market so our customers would not experience interruption.”

Altogether, the installation took nine months, with the first product coming off the new line in early April. The company is gradually moving up to full production, recognizing the importance of creating the best possible impression with its new material.

“This product is not only new to the customer, it’s new to everybody here,” Mengel says. “We need to ramp up slow enough that we’re not compromising the quality. Otherwise, we wasted the money.”

That appears unlikely. “The marketplace will be the ultimate decision maker, but I think they planned and executed the project pretty well,” says Pape. “John Mengel and his team should take some pride in that.”

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