Relatively minor changes can deliver major results at a fraction of the cost associated with teardowns and replacement as mills turn to smart solutions to satisfy the market’s mandate for quality.
Older can be better when steel producers face finishing end upgrades. Fine-tuning mills can save literally tens of millions of dollars versus the costly teardown and replace approach once in vogue. Today, steelmakers appear to be weighing the advantages of making relatively minor changes to produce major results, preserving precious capital to be applied elsewhere.
Just ask Dave Wagner who makes a living breathing new life into veteran mills. Wagner is the founder and a managing member of Control Design Solutions, Ltd., a Bowling Green, Ohio-based company, which specializes in customized engineering services, programming and design. His firm has worked with steelmakers that use repurposed equipment purchased on the secondary market which, when outfitted with the appropriate process control technology, can revitalize an existing mill to improve performance.
We are problem solvers and believe that integration, done right, can keep existing mills in production and with higher quality for a much longer time, Wagner summed up the companys mission statement and strategy.
Control Design Solutions points to quality as typically the key driver behind finishing line upgrades, particularly for facilities serving the automotive industry. One recent project involved upgrading a blanking line through the implementation of a new control system overlay using available machinery that was installed at a cost much lower than purchasing new equipment. Another project involved updating a laminating line with new edge-guide controls to coat the entire width of the steel while a third involved welded coils that joined different producers steels into a common coil. With this project we had to install coil mapping and tracking controls to spot defects and make sure that those defects did not become part of the blank, Wagner explained.
We did not invent a new idea but rather took an existing approach that had not previously been applied to these mills, he commented on the strategy employed at all three projects. It works for the customers and it makes us look really smart, Wagner said.
Integrated Mill Systems (IMS), Eastlake, Ohio, boasts a broad portfolio that includes both greenfield/brownfield projects and upgrades to existing mills. Jeff Mason, vice president of sales and marketing, said that his firm is focused on engineering services providing customers process strategy, implementation and improved operating solutions for myriad metals companies in both steel and aluminum.
We define our mission as providing customized solutions in lieu of the black box approach offered by many offshore technology providers that usually results in more solutions and costs than are really needed, Mason noted. About 25 years ago, there was no other option but to engage the original technology and/or mill equipment provider for a complete overhaul, he pointed out. However, the black box approach can be difficult for the end user to maintain and has a limited life cycle before hardware becomes obsolete.
Today there is an option in a more focused machine- or part-level and/or system-level approach using off-the-shelf parts that cost less, minimize downtime and produce the desired end result, Mason said.
For finishing applications, IMS typically recommends a strip tension study in combination with a control system review on process/finishing lines before an upgrade is undertaken. That analysis creates start-and-finish, single-line diagrams of the control system that also includes phase in diagrams to define the steps in the context of mill downtime and available outages.
A proprietary IMS development, the tension study provides before-and-after strip tensions for each zone along the entire process line. It highlights either horsepower or possible slip conditions and recommends changes in the control system from a regulation standpoint that the customer can use on the existing controls or with possible changes in either gage, width, yield strength or heating/cooling cycles.
The study allows the capability for two different gage, width and yield strength strips in the line to simulate product changes on process lines to check for problems on weld transition points. This is a precursor to an upgrade because it lets us make changes to motors or bridles and/or mechanical modifications on the line in combination with mill builders to help the customer best utilize capital while upgrading to address the required and/or proposed product mix, Mason explained.
By breaking out of the black box syndrome, IMS focuses on the technology tweaks and then brings them to life through open customized software solutions frequently involving off-the-shelf or repurposed parts. There are some mills that are 40 to 50 years old that are still going strong but parts are becoming more difficult to find, Mason acknowledged. Sometimes they are actually found on eBay. However, a rehab is generally less expensive and can be done in phases, thus minimizing downtime while saving moneyso much so that it can even justify a project that was on hold, he noted.
Global technology provider TMEIC, with United States headquarters in Roanoke, Va., recently completed a temper mill upgrade for CSN LLC in Terra Haute, Ind. Following the failure of a late 1990s control system in late 2015 that was no longer supported by the original suppliers, TMEIC and CSN replaced the control system with more reliable controls that were also more user-friendly. Included in the upgrades was the installation of a rewind mode to provide a high-speed rewind option, web-based reporting to provide nearly real-time data to optimize operations and more sophisticated diagnostics to quickly identify maintenance issues.
The benefits realized by CSN ranged from a 50-percent reduction in diagnostic time and increased production capability to a five-times faster rewind mode and greater mill availability. The joint project undertaken by TMEIC and CSN has been named a finalist in the Best Operational Improvement category for the 2017 American Metal Market Awards for Steel Excellence.
Just as technology providers collaborate with clients to find the optimum solution to day-to-day operating issues and challenges, the Auto/Steel Partnership (A/SP) of the American Iron and Steel Institutes Steel Market Development Institute was founded on collaboration between steelmakers and automotive manufacturers 30 years ago. Todays members are AK Steel, ArcelorMittal and Nucor from the steel side and Fiat Chrysler, Ford and General Motors from the automotive community. Together, they leverage the resources of their respective industries to pursue research, validation and education that have helped automakers enhance vehicle safety and fuel economy and improve design and manufacturing.
Through collaboration, the steel and auto industries have improved processes through manufacturing-enabling projects that have resulted in new grades to improve both in-vehicle performance and the stamping and tooling processes, Dr. Jody Hall, vice president, automotive market, Steel Market Development Institute, commented on the mission and tangible results of A/SPs activities. And by collaborating, we have been able to make these improvements in a much more cost-efficient way, she noted.
In addition to the light-weighting benefits realized by automakers in fuel efficiency, Hall cited improvements in the efficiency of supplying mills achieved through investing in the technology needed to make AHSS grades, including the newest third-generation materials. She pointed to the investments made by the partnerships members as focusing on thermo-mechanical processing, particularly in the steelmaking and finishing arenas.
One prime example, Hall noted, is AK Steels investment in both its new $36-million Research and Innovation Center that opened this April along with the Ohio-based steelmakers 2014 acquisition of its Dearborn, Mich., plant, which has long supplied the Detroit areas automakers and those beyond Michigan.
One of AK Steels newer product families, NEXMET high-strength steel is elevating the formability and ductility of steel but can still be cold stamped, which is essential to compete with aluminum, Hall explained. NEXMET 440EX has the high-quality surface to hold the sophisticated paint systems of today, she added.
A $35-million upgrade of the Dearborn plants galvanizing line has made possible the newest NEXMET 1000 and 1200 grades of AHSS and is helping AK further deepen its commitment to the automotive market.
A/SP member ArcelorMittal is also expanding its production of AHSS as is Nucor Corp., which has established a joint venture with Japans JFE Steel in Mexico, for galvanized steel that provides superior paintability for automotie applications.
We are also seeing some continuous annealing (CA) lines built with room for anticipated expansion as they grow their automotive share, Hall commented. CA lines are critical to enabling more complex microstructures for AHSS that allow for differentiation of alloying strategies based on equipment and cost concerns, she said.
Control Design Solutions Wagner sees a confluence of global forces driving the rising quality of American automobiles. Our services play an important role in helping to keep our customers lines up and running, he said. We need more and more services from equipment suppliers and integrators to help our auto plants remain competitive in todays global marketplace. We are all driven to survive by the requirements of the end user.