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MCN Case Study: Stripco Inc.

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Stripco First to Take EPS Plunge Stripco becomes the first domestic service center to invest in EPS, an environmentally friendly alternative to acid pickling developed by The Material Works. Pulling the trigger on the purchase of a major piece of equipment is never an easy call for a service center. Jack Hiler, president of Mishawaka, Ind.-based Stripco Inc., faced an even more difficult decision as he pondered investing in an entirely new processing technology. In late 2011, Stripco became the first independent company in the United States to commission an Eco Pickled Surface “acidless pickle line,” the process developed by The Material Works, Red Bud, Ill., and sold through its sister company Red Bud Industries. The machine is only the third line built, and the only coil-to-coil line in North America. Serial No. 3, as Red Bud calls it, is up and running at Stripco, achieving the same scale removal on hot-rolled black material as conventional pickling, though in a much different way. Unlike pickling, which uses acid to remove dirt and scale from the steel, the EPS system strips the surface clean with a high-pressure spray of a slurry containing steel grit along with a cleaning agent and corrosion inhibitor. EPS is free of the environmental concerns posed by pickling with hazardous chemicals that produce harmful air emissions. The new line is capable of removing scale from hot-rolled black material up to 0.375-inch thick at 72 inches wide and coil weights up to 60,000 pounds. The EPS cell contains eight turbines, four on top and four below, that spray the slurry at equal pressures across the surface of the steel. The full line also includes an entry coil inspection, removal and banding station, entry crop shear, uncoiler, recoiler and filtration system, as well as a Braner precision leveler. Hiler downplays the risks inherent in his investment. While recognizing that TMW has created an entirely new process with EPS, the foundation of the system is a time-tested concept. “Blasting with shot or with grit is 100 years old,” he notes. Hiler initially thought he would purchase a conventional pickler for the Mishawaka facility, rather than sending material out to other picklers for processing. Such outsourcing added time and expense to the process, he said, and the logistics were challenging. “It was becoming a source of frustration.” Conventional pickling lines are expensive, require a lot of space and have about 400,000 tons of capacity. Stripco’s annual need for pickling is only around 100,000 tons. The company considered a smaller 200,000-ton pickler, but the price tag was still nearly 80 percent of the cost of the larger pickling line. Such an investment did not appear to make sense. In contrast, Hiler learned that Red Bud could build an entry-level EPS line with a capacity of 180,000 tons, a nice fit for Stripco’s current capacity while allowing some room for growth. The cost was less than half the price of a standard pickler. Still, the machine would only be useful if its output was comparable to a conventional pickler’s. Hiler was going to need solid evidence of that quality before making the investment. After inspecting numerous samples, and turning others over to large customers for their assessment, he was pleased with the results. “We think the marketplace will be happy with the product,” Hiler says. The test runs also offered another selling point for the EPS system. Stripco runs several high-carbon alloy products, which can be difficult to pickle. “There are items that can only run 10 percent of normal speed because the process struggles to remove the scale. EPS doesn’t differentiate between materials,” says Dean Linders, director of marketing for the Red Bud, Ill., equipment manufacturer. Stripco’s line was installed during 2011, with the first coil run on New Year’s Eve. It is not yet running at full capacity, as operators work to learn the idiosyncrasies of the EPS process. For example, they found that they need a defoaming agent due to some contaminants in the water. EPS proved to work best at a lower temperature, so they installed a cooling tank to chill the water for the slurry. Red Bud is eager to get feedback from Stripco, knowing it will inform their construction of future lines. “Each time you build one, you keep learning,” Linders says. The Material Works has been working since 2007 to perfect the EPS technology, conceived by TMW President Kevin Voges. A toll processor, TMW ran the original line for three years before selling it to a tubemaker in South Korea. By the time of the sale, TMW had learned all it could from the maiden line. Valuable information had been gleaned in the areas of throughput, wear and tear and operating costs, all crucial elements if the technology is to compete in the marketplace. TMW took the proceeds from that sale, and the knowledge gained from its operation, to construct another EPS line. The second line, which runs sheet but not coil, continues to operate at TMW. The company also brought in RBI, with its expertise in equipment manufacturing and relationships with expected customers, to help further develop and market the process. The machine in place at Stripco “is the first real outright sale to a customer,” says Linders. It won’t be the last. Red Bud already has orders from Steel Technologies for a line in Mexico, and Lee Steel for a line near Detroit. Other orders have been placed from China and India. Voges and his colleagues at Red Bud believe the benefits of the process are plentiful. EPS-treated material offers better paint adhesion, reductions in mill surface imperfections and, perhaps most important, corrosion resistance, the company claims. Pickled steel rusts quickly due to the caustic salts created by the chemical process. EPS blasting with a slurry containing a corrosion inhibitor prevents rust from forming even without subsequent oiling, Voges says. In response to skeptics who want their steel oiled “just in case,” TMW guarantees that rust won’t form for up to six months after processing, or the toll processor will buy the material back. Linders foresees the EPS technology finding a nice niche among processors like Stripco that want to offer a paintable product, but don’t have the volume to justify installing a standard pickler. Historically, the process has been restricted to mills, dedicated picklers and toll processors. “The structure of who can do their own pickling will start to change because of this type of system,” he predicts. Hiler holds no illusions about his market leadership as an early adopter. He may be the first into the EPS market, following TMW, but he knows he won’t be the last. “Eventually you’re going to see more of this technology for descaling the product. It’s growing,” he says.

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