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Navy contracts potential boon for shipyards, producers

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The U.S. Navy's award of contracts for the first of 55 Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) to two U.S. shipyards could prove to be a major boost to marine-grade aluminum during the upcoming decade.

The ships—10 all-aluminum trimarans to be built by Australia's Austal Ltd. and 10 conventional steel mono-hull vessels with aluminum superstructures to be built by Lockheed Martin Corp. in partnership with Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri Cantieri Navali Italiani SpA—will be the largest aluminum vessels ever built, dwarfing the all-aluminum ferry produced by Austal in Australia five years ago.

The major aluminum producers all have versions of the 5000-series aluminum alloys that have been the main pillar of aluminum shipbuilding since the 5083 base alloy was registered with the Aluminum Association in the 1950s. The market for marine-grade aluminum is still a drop in the bucket for aluminum use nationwide, however. The Aluminum Association said that automotive and light truck applications represent the largest market for aluminum in North America, accounting for as much as 6 billion pounds of aluminum per year prior to the onset of the recession in 2008, although that rate of consumption has dropped back in the wake of a considerable decline in U.S. automotive manufacturing.

But marine-grade aluminum holds promise for significant increases in usage, particularly if Austal USA LLC, the Mobile, Ala., subsidiary of the Australian shipbuilder, wins the final contract for the rest of the 55-vessel fleet. What a local Alabama newspaper once called "an obscure Australian ferry builder" is now one of the largest employers in south Alabama, with more than 1,800 workers on the payroll in the port of Mobile. According to the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, Austal USA this year will employ more people in the county than Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and more than ThyssenKrupp AG's new steel mini-mill in nearby Calvert, Ala. BILL BECK


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