The uptick of demand for locally manufactured steel was clear last week by the deafening booms and the glowing orange spray of flames shooting from the 100-ton electric arc furnace inside Warren Steel Holdings' melt shop in Champion.
The scene, coupled by the scurry of workers on the day shift inside the mill, was a far cry from the recent scaleback of hours and reduced production here. Workers on all three shifts - about 185 overall - are back to working 40 hours a week after being temporarily reduced to about 32-hour work weeks earlier this fall due to reduction in orders.
"Right now we are steady and stable," said John Scheel, chief operating officer at the mill just north of Warren. "We are out of the 32-hours-a-week, and what I can tell you is we have three crews working a steady 40 hours a week."
It was just October when workers gathered at an employee meeting to hear company officials discuss the outlook for the mill and the industry. Workers at the time had expressed concern because of the scaling back of hours and elimination of overtime. Scheel had stressed at the time the mill's future appeared bright, despite hitting a slow period for orders.
A rare tour last week through the mill located on part of the site that formerly housed Copperweld Steel showed the facility is back to a hotbed of activity as workers were filling orders for high-carbon steel that would be shipped to a sister plant in Kentucky to mold the newly manufactured 2-ton rectangular billets into steel snow plows and industrial chains for things like roller coasters.
About a half-dozen economic development leaders taking part in the tour were steered up and down open stairwells and through the mill's dark corridors, often lit by the still-glowing freshly made orange steel billets that were winding their way through the mill to cool. A peek through special glass lenses allowed the visitors to catch a glimpse of swirling liquid steel being kept at closely monitored temperatures, this day at 2,777 degrees Fahrenheit.
Tribune Chronicle / Brenda J. Linert
The furnace is ‘‘charged’’ inside the melt shop at Warren Steel Holdings in Champion. An uptick in orders has all three shifts back to working 40 hours a week instead of the 32-hour-a-week schedule this fall.
Gary Cvitkovich, steel making division manager, explained the highly technical and often stressful process of ensuring the steel is maintained at the proper temperature and that proper levels of alloys are added to create the correct grade of steel that has been ordered by the customer.
"You take a lot of tests of the chemistry level before he ships it," Cvitkovich explained as he held up a clipboard with the day's "billet recipe" reflecting proper levels of things like carbon, phosphorus and manganese. "Once it's in a hard billet, it's too late."
In the melt shop, the group stood behind protective glass and metal shields as electrodes were lowered to "charge" the furnace. The six-minute process, which is done every six hours, set off powerful booms and an amazing spray of glowing orange sparks and towering flames. The process is used to increase power to melt scrap that is ultimately recycled into new steel.
This day the mill was turning out 5-inch-by-9-inch rectangular billets that would be shipped to the sister plant in Ashland, Ky.
The Kentucky mill, Scheel said, also is "running full," recently adding a fourth crew. In Warren, Scheel said he is working to fill some salaried positions, and expects to add hourly workers in the future.
"Is business expanding enough to put another crew on? No, not yet," Scheel said. "I would guess before too long there will be hourly (hiring) as well."
Warren Steel Holdings has operated since 2006 in part of the former Copperweld Steel facility along Mahoning Avenue. The company manufactures billets, or solid tubular products, among other products that are shipped other facilities, like the one in Ashland, Ky., to be hollowed for use in the oil and gas industry, automotive, heavy equipment, rail and other industries.