Steel on the other side of the world

JAMSHEDPUR, India – The fully integrated steel mill that has been operating since 1907 in this eastern part of India is very different from the cold-rolling mill and annealing lines inside Thomas Steel Strip, a Warren mill that also has operated since the early 1900s.

Operations at the India mill start from iron ore and coal mined not far from the mill, creating crude steel in multiple blast furnaces, before ultimately rolling it into giant flat rolls or long products, including reinforcing bars used in construction.

The Warren mill does not pour its own steel, but instead utilizes flat-rolled steel brought in from a sister mill Apollo, in Bethlehem, Pa. or purchased from other nearby American mills, then uses a unique process to treat and further flatten it for use in the manufacture of household alkaline batteries, automotive fluid lines or shell casings for ammunition.

Recent visits to both mills, on opposite sides of the world, revealed clear similarities, however, beginning with ownership. Both mills are owned and operated by Tata Steel, the global conglomerate based in India. The company sprung from the first major business investment of company founder Jamsetji Tata, the Jamshedpur steel mill utilizing technology created and perfected in America. Even today, the Indian mill is modeled after technology pioneered in the United States, including hot rolling casters operating in a Jamshedpur shop that is more than a mile long.

Today, flat-rolled products being produced at that Jamshedpur mill are shipped out by rail for use mostly in the Asian automotive sector, to customers like Suzuki, Hyundai, Tata Motors and Ford. Beginning next year, General Motors plants abroad are expected to begin purchasing Tata Steel products. About 80 percent of the products are used in the Asian market, Tata executives said on a tour of the India mill earlier this month. Tata Group had invited several U.S. journalists, including one from the Tribune Chronicle, to visit its operations in India.

In an interview inside the Tata Steel India’s headquarters, T.V. Narendran, managing director of Tata Steel India, said he sees a bright future for steel manufacturing.

“Steel continues to be the metal of choice for many applications, construction, automobile industry, oil and gas (drilling) and the list is many others,” Narendran said. That’s despite the growing use of aluminum alloys in auto manufacturing and other sectors.

Likewise, William Boyd, president and CEO of Tata Steel’s Thomas Steel Strip Corp. in Warren and Apollo Metals Ltd. in Bethlehem, Pa., sees a bright future for steel production and manufacturing in general, particularly in the United States.

That has a lot to do, Boyd said, with falling energy prices triggered largely by America’s exploitation of unconventional petroleum sources.

“Shale gas reserves have given us a positive outlook for energy. Anything that is energy intensive, like steel production, we have to be highly competitive, not only in productivity and quality. We need to be sharper than our competitor,” Boyd said. And efficient use of lower cost energy from shale gas may just give U.S. manufacturers the competitive edge they need, he explained. That also may help trigger more reshoring of jobs previously operating overseas.

Both Narendran and Boyd spoke about the demands of very discerning customers.

That demand, Narendran said, is driving up the quality of steel.

“The automobile industry consumes about 15 percent of the steel, and the auto industry is a very discerning industry,” Narendran said. “Very difficult customers.”

In Warren, Boyd also noted challenges that come with increasing customer demands.

“In terms of how do we stay competitive, the customer is always demanding higher and higher quality and lower and lower cost,” Boyd said. That’s when management at Thomas Steel Strip sometimes look to the employees who have high levels of expertise on exactly what the equipment can produce.

“The guys that operate those machines eight hours a day, five days a week, for 30 years, there isn’t very much they don’t know about what those machines can do,” Boyd said. “They have very clear views of how we can improve performance.”

When asked, Narendran was slow to make a prediction on the long-term effects of changing technologies, including additive or 3-D manufacturing, like the experimental work being done at America Makes, the public-private partnership formerly known as National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, in Youngstown.

“Sometimes we specifically design parts. With additive manufacturing you can customize and design parts, you can get it much easier,” Narendran said. “It’s both an opportunity and something we also should watch out for.”