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Aleris targets Asian aerospace growth

Keywords: Tags  Aleris International, aerospace, Zhenjiang, Boeing, Airbus, aluminum, aluminum plate, Johan Petry Asia-Pacific

NEW YORK — The Asian aviation industry is booming. As demand for air travel increases in step with the region’s growing affluence, so too does the need for new commercial aircraft.

Aleris International Inc., an aluminum producer with more than 40 facilities worldwide, is poised to take advantage.

“Asia is, at this moment, the big thing,” Johan Petry, Aleris vice president of aerospace, told AMM. “It’s a big change in the aluminum industry because at this moment there is no real state-of-the-art aluminum supplier for aerospace with operations in Asia. We have an investment in China that is coming on-stream.”

The company’s rolling mill in Zhenjiang, in China’s Jiangsu province, has been built to supply aerospace plate to the Asia-Pacific region, including the country’s domestic market as well as Singapore, Malaysia, India and Japan.

The $350-million hot-rolling mill, formally unveiled in April (, April 25), also is producing commercial plate for the U.S. and European markets. The Beachwood, Ohio-based company is waiting to receive all qualifications before it can supply aerospace plate.

“We received the AS 9100 qualification for our aerospace plate at the end of last year, which means now we can supply some aerospace materials that don’t go into structures, like seating. We have more qualifications to come by midyear, and at the same time we’re running qualification programs with our larger OEMs (original equipment manufacturers)—Boeing just confirmed this, for instance,” Petry said. “We are confident we’ll be ready to supply aerospace structural material by the middle of this year, when we expect the qualifications will have been finalized.”

For Aleris to position itself in China’s aerospace market makes sense; Chicago-based Boeing Co. expects the country to become the world’s second-largest aviation market over the next 20 years, with demand for civil aircraft projected to triple.

Petry said it isn’t when Chinese aerospace demand will take off, but how quickly. “China is a reality—it’s not like it’s going to come; it’s already here. Five years ago it was a question of what might happen in China; now we know it is happening,” he said. “Airbus and Boeing are both projecting high demand for planes in China, and they also want to have a share of that. They want to purchase parts in China, and to simplify the supply chain we built a plant there so we don’t have to transport metal everywhere to get it to China.”

But along with sourcing aircraft from international manufacturers, China and the broader Asia-Pacific region have been developing their own regional producers. While aircraft manufacturers such as Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China Ltd. (Comac) are not as large as Boeing or Toulouse, France-based Airbus SAS, the potential is there.

“The (Comac C919) will be in service in 2016, with the first flight in 2015; they’re building it right now with lots of global suppliers. Everyone is very interested in getting there. That definitely helped us kick off the business case for the rolling mill in China,” Petry said.

The mill uses just 35,000 tons of its capacity for commercial and aerospace plate, but it has a hot mill capacity of more than 250,000 tonnes.

A second-phase expansion could see the company either grow the plate capacity or step into other product lines, such as automotive, another booming industry in China and Asia-Pacific.

The cast house at the plant also will use aerospace scrap. Aleris has already held discussions with its customers about consuming aluminum scrap and retransforming it into aerospace plate. “Chinese plate users have limited experience in handling the aluminum scrap. ... China is aware that it has (scrap) that is valuable, so they will be moving to recycle more,” Petry said.

However, the company is not switching its attention away from its traditional markets in the United States and the European Union. Aleris recently signed a multiyear agreement with Boeing to supply aluminum aerospace plate and sheet from its facility in Koblenz, Germany (, Feb. 20).

“There’s still significant growth in the U.S. and Europe, and that is going to remain there. There is a need for new planes, more so than replacements, because (new models) are fuel efficient. We see ourselves as a global player, with an operation in Koblenz and now our first plant on the ground in China,” Petry said. “Ultimately the customer is going to decide where to buy, where it makes most sense for them, but we think we’re very well positioned to offer whatever he needs from wherever he needs it.”

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