Producing stainless steel, building South Africa
It’s not possible to overstate the impact Columbus Stainless has had on South Africa’s economy.
For more than half a century, the company has built its success on a policy of investing in its people and its facilities, and an unwavering faith in stainless steel.
Columbus Stainless supplies about 70% to 80% of all stainless steel flat products used in South Africa, but that volume represents less than 30% of its colossal annual output – the rest is exported to some 54 countries around the world.
IN THE HEART OF MPUMALANGA
The location of Columbus Stainless’ manufacturing operation might at first glance seem unconventional – most stainless steel plants globally are built next to major waterways, lowering the cost of exporting the finished material.
But any disadvantages Columbus Stainless faces in transport logistics are far outweighed by being based in Mpumalanga, a rich source of ferrochrome and coal. The company has easy access to raw materials, and consequently can operate on very low material stocks.
This focus on low cost operation is shared by Columbus Stainless’ partners.
For example, Samancor Middelburg’s plant is literally on the other side of the fence, and it transfers ferrochrome directly into Columbus Stainless’ furnace, reducing logistics issues for both companies.
“Our plant is a technologically advanced, fully integrated, single-site operation,” says Lucien Matthews, Columbus Stainless CEO. “This gives us flexibility to adjust quickly to changes in the market.”
BUILDING LOCAL INDUSTRY
Columbus Stainless, due to its size and productivity, has a significant impact on the economy of Mpumalanga and this is responsible for approximately 3.5% of its gross domestic product (GDP). But its total contribution is trickier to judge because its presence directly feeds a wide range of manufacturing and fabricating industries downstream, for whom stainless steel is an essential material.
Not content with merely producing, Columbus Stainless also actively works with local and national government bodies, offering any assistance possible to help attract new stainless steel consumers to South Africa. For example, Columbus Stainless remains an outspoken proponent of stainless steel in auto manufacturing, and was instrumental in the birth of the catalytic converter industry, which saw many international downstream manufacturers setting up operations in the country.
INVESTING IN PEOPLE
Columbus Stainless is part of the international Acerinox group, which holds a 76% share in the company, the balance being held by the South African Industrial Development Corporation (IDC). But even so, Columbus Stainless’s commitment to development isn’t limited to stainless steel products – the company spends considerable resources developing people, and it does so in a very South African way. It not only implements the requirements of the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) Act, but supports its intentions, too.
Columbus Stainless already employs more than 1 200 people, but in the last two years alone has spent more than R50 million training 240 school leavers from the local community in Middelburg. Some of these have entered the company as steelmakers, but others have become artisans and technicians, such as electricians, fitters, turners, and boiler makers.
In some ways, this is simply responsible corporate citizenship, but it also speaks to a corporate culture of continuous education. Columbus Stainless invests in regular training for its staff because it believes that a large part of its success stems from having the best minds available, from those who operate equipment, to those who lead.
Alongside its responsibility to develop people, Columbus Stainless also seeks to assist in developing South African businesses. To this end, it seeks out blackowned local suppliers and black-owned new enterprises, and has spent R4.8 million in this sector during 2015.
It’s no great secret that the South African economy as a whole has been under pressure for some time. Steel production has suffered, in part because of factors like labour unrest and the recession, but also because stainless steel plants with massive capacity were coming on line in China, and flooding the global market.
Consequently, Columbus Stainless had some tough years between 2009 and 2013.
Ultimately, they made the hard decision to restructure the business, matching their production capacity to the “world oversupply” situation.
As part of this process, Columbus Stainless fully committed to and implemented the Acerinox Group “Excellence Plan” strategy, which improved efficiency of processes across the board.
The Excellence Plan is based on sustained profitability, and has been successful – 2015 was a very good year for Columbus Stainless indeed, a trend that seems set to continue as the company looks to development in Southern Africa as a focus for future growth.
IT BEGINS WITH SCRAP
“Stainless steel is the greenest of materials, with 78 % being recycled at the end of a stainless product’s life,” says Matthews. “In our process, we melt scrap, then add some chromium and other metals, according to the alloy recipe being made. Eventually, this is converted into sheets and strips that are stamped, pressed and welded to make a host of different products: for hygienic preparation surfaces and storage systems; utensils and containers for almost everything that we eat or drink; stainless steel components in critical areas of motor vehicles, such as exhausts, airbag gas cylinders and catalytic converters; and for decoration, signage, shop fittings, architecture, furniture, appliances and modern technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells.
“Goods manufactured in stainless steel have a life of 15 years or longer. Then, after this time, the steel comes back into the plant for reprocessing into new sheets – and there is no limit to the number of times this can be done,” he reveals, adding that this is not just hearsay: the lifecycle of stainless steel has been well documented through studies at Yale University (leading experts in the world), More information can be obtained from the ISSF website.
Therefore stainless scrap metal is a high value commodity for all stainless manufacturers. Columbus Stainless sources as much as it can locally, but the demands of its production means it also has to import significant quantities from abroad – there simply isn’t enough local scrap metal to keep pace with the company’s output.
“We also make stainless steel by melting carbon steel scrap metal – sourced from within South Africa – and then blending that with chromium and nickel as required,” Matthews adds.
Ferritic stainless steels mostly use iron and chromium, but when making austenitic stainless steels, nickel is added to the mix.
“Our compositional control is among the best in the Acerinox Group,” says Matthews, “and we’re also able to switch between different material grades several times per day, giving us the flexibility to respond to urgent or special requirements from anywhere in the world.”
Columbus Stainless grades its scrap metal, and melts it in a 100t Electric Arc Furnace (EAF), adding ferrochrome as required. From the EAF, the molten metal is transferred to an Argon-Oxygen Decarburiser (AOD), where it’s refined by bubbling oxygen, argon, and nitrogen through it. Reducing agents, such as silicon and aluminium, are added to recover some of the chromium from the slag, and lime is used to desulphurise and to manage the slag fluidity and volume “Refinement in an AOD takes time, particularly with complicated grades such as duplex stainless steels,” says Matthews. The fact that Columbus Stainless has two 100t AODs is clearly an advantage.
From the AOD, the stainless steel is transferred to a continuous casting machine, where it flows into copper moulds up to 1,600 mm wide. The mould creates a skin on the molten slab as the metal flows vertically into it. As it leaves the mould, a set of rollers guides the solidifying slab along a curve and onto a horizontal table.
“The slabs, if required, go through a surface grinding process to remove any possible surface defects, and they can be cut to lengths of between 4m and 12m. This is our first saleable product,” says Matthews
Depending on the grade of stainless steel being manufactured, the slabs are then reheated to between 1 100 and 1 300°C, and rolled on a reversing four-high mill to gauges from 65mm down to 25 mm. This phase represents Columbus Stainless’s second saleable product.
When it reaches this stage, the steel can either be cut into plates and shipped, or put through a Steckel mill to achieve thicknesses of between 8mm and 3mm, and rolled into 30t “black coils”.
Columbus is currently the key supplier of black coil to Bahru Stainless, Acerinox’s new Malaysian rolling mill.
From here, the steel can be annealed and pickled in acids to produce a number of finishes, including :
- No 1: A light grey stainless steel with a matt surface
- 2B: A much smoother surface
- BA: A bright, shiny stainless steel
These stainless steels can also be cold rolled and coiled in much thinner gauges, from 6mm all the way down to 0.2mm.
“We have created a modern, efficient stainless steel production facility that meets the changing demands of users in the domestic market and around the world,” says Matthews. “Because of the boundless potential for stainless steel as the metal of the future, we at Columbus remain dedicated to becoming one of the leading suppliers of stainless steel in our domestic market and the global arena.”