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Bilstein Cold Rolled shines bright in its new Kentucky home

Aug 31, 2017 | 08:00 PM | Dom Yanchunas

America’s most modern cold-rolled strip mill is out of the starting gate and primed to start serving the automotive mart.

Bilstein Cold Rolled Steel (BCRS), a 107,000-square-foot greenfield complex on the outskirts of Bowling Green, Ky., is in the commissioning and trial phase and steadily ramping up production. The division of Germany’s Bilstein Group is eager to see its $130-million investment pay off for customers, namely Tier I and Tier II manufacturers supplying U.S. automakers.

The western Kentucky mill produced its first coil on May 19. Cold-rolled strip production is on pace to hit 80,000 tons this year, with plans to grow to 140,000 tons and the potential to expand to 300,000 tons by 2027. 

The mill’s debut brings Bilstein Group’s technological and engineering know-how directly to the growing cluster of auto makers and suppliers in the U.S. South, Mark Loik, Bilstein Cold Rolled’s president and chief executive officer, noted. 

“It’s a watershed moment for the organization,” Loik told AMM during a June visit at the mill. “It’s the company’s biggest investment outside of Germany.”

This summer, the mill’s rolling, finishing, annealing, storage, slitting and logistics operations are hard at work producing and handling cold strip for customer certification. Bilstein promises that it will deliver steel with higher tensile strength and tighter tolerances, serving the automakers’ light-weighting objectives better than rival formulations.

“This is ultra-advanced, high-strength steel ... exceeding 1,000 MPa that can be used to substitute for thicker, lower-strength material in vehicles, allowing the ability to use less steel and reduce weight,” Loik said.

Ultimately, the cold-rolled strip will be stamped into auto components ranging from seat tracks and side impact beams to clutch plates. Although most of the stamped parts are seldom seen by the car-driving public, they are vital to driver and passenger safety.

Besides safety, automakers are constantly in search of ways to improve fuel efficiency, a quest that challenges automotive manufacturers to reduce the weight of their vehicles without compromising the well-being of the occupants.

“We have the capability with our technology to provide better tolerances when compared to standards,” Loik claimed. “We have great resources in Germany as well as in the U.S. from an engineering point of view, to do a full analysis of customer problems and give them options.”

The Kentucky mill can produce wider-than-normal dimensions—up to 1,350 mm, or about 53 inches. Strip thicknesses range from 0.5- to 5-mm (0.02- to 0.2-inches). Coil weight can reach 20 kg per mm (1,120 pounds per inch of width). Grades include mild steels; high-strength, low-alloy steels; Bilstein ZE grades; high-carbon steels, and alloy steels.

Bilstein Group established its’ initial foothold in North America in 2009 when it opened a small sales office in Chicago. Loik said the Hagen, Germany-based company had been increasingly successful at winning orders from the U.S. stamping plants and recognized the potential for making greater inroads.

“We had some very large programs in the 2000s where we were initiating some bulk shipments into North America on a weekly basis,” Loik recalled. “We had a gradual momentum of activity, but there was the currency challenge and there was an inventory challenge and we were eight to 12 weeks away, and (customers) needed local content in their product.”

Substrate material for the trials being conducted of BCRS’s cold-rolled consists of hot-rolled coil from at least five steelmakers. The mill’s business model is to be a loyal customer of North American substrate, using “85- to 90-percent U.S. and Canadian hot-rolled coil,” Loik pledged.

“The grades we would procure from Europe are the grades that are physically unavailable here,” he noted.

The company broke ground on the Bowling Green mill in October 2015. During its development, Bilstein relocated a number of its German employees to Kentucky and invited many of its newly hired American workers to Germany in an exchange program of sorts. Loik said the bi-national nature of the work force has resulted in some interesting cultural conversations and life experiences, and the “integrated shifts” have proved to be harmonious.

“We have the Germans and the Americans working side by side now,” said Loik, who is originally from Canada. “We think it has been a great success with the two different groups coming together and saying we can build something really special here and become a major player in the cold-rolled steel market.”

Bilstein Cold Rolled currently employs about 40 people, with additional production and sales staff on the way. The job count ultimately may grow as high as 100 if the company follows through on all expansion phases.

Each and every one of the company’s current employees knows he or she is making a high-strength product that must be reliable for the manufacturer, automaker and the people who will drive and ride in the vehicle. As an example, Loik noted that the cold-rolled strip that will be stamped into seat tracks must be as close to perfect as possible. Seat tracks secure automobile seating to the floor, even in a severe crash.

The products that we produce need to be reliable from the beginning of our process to the end,” Loik said. “Our quality is critical for safety and for the market that we’re trying to penetrate.”

BCRS’ Kentucky cold-rolling mill boasts a capacity of 140,000 tons annually. It was designed with automated coil transport and roll-change equipment and is capable of running at a maximum speed of 800 meters per minute, or about 2,625 feet per minute. The mill can produce cold-reduced as well as temper-and-skin-passed material with minimal changeover time.

The Georg slitter’s capacity is rated at 200,000 tons annually. The unit has the ability to build multiple slitting setups with an automatic head-change system. The integrated scrap-removal system is coupled with a highly advanced packaging process.

In the batch annealing area, Tenova supplied the heating and cooling bells. Each bell can process four coils stacked one on top of the other. BCRS’ batch annealing process has been designed to provide extremely productive heating cycles through the deployment of high-efficiency, hydrogen furnaces and rapid-cooling furnaces.

Ultimately, the stamping customer benefits when the consistency of the cold-rolled steel makes its manufacturing process more efficient, with less material discarded as scrap. 

“It’s all about monitoring the surface condition and thickness,” Loik said. “Providing coils of the highest quality, with next-to-burr-free material, leads to operational value at the (customer’s) production facility,” he added. You get less rejections, less rework and higher production output.”

On the mill floor, Bilstein Cold Rolled has installed a novel air-circulation system that ensures optimal heat and humidity levels. Not only is the air good for the quality of the cold roll, it’s more comfortable for the workers. A visually bright atmosphere is maintained.

“This building has as much natural light as possible. It’s not dingy. It’s not gray,” Loik said. “We really (designed it) to make the work environment as pleasant as possible. The atmosphere is critical.”

While the new mill was under construction, U.S. auto sales surged, with an unprecedented 35-million vehicles sold in the 2015-16 two-year period. Vehicle sales have slipped a bit from that record pace, suggesting that demand either has plateaued at a high level or may face further weakness. With full-year 2017 forecasts now generally projecting around 16.9-million to 17.2- million vehicles sold, this year would mark the fourth-highest total ever.

Bilstein expects auto sales to continue at “a healthy pace that everyone will be satisfied with,” Loik said. “Everybody is still relatively pleased. 2016 was a special year, and I think we all understand that now,” he said.

“We’re still on pace for (about) 17.1 million, even under these current economic conditions,” Loik noted. “Everybody would sign up for that. Those are still excellent numbers.”


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