Stainless Steel – Practical, Economical … Romantic

15 February 2017

On 31 March 1889, after workers had riveted the last of more than 18 000 iron pieces into place to complete construction of the Eiffel Tower, Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, climbed its 1 710 steps to unfurl the French flag from its pinnacle.

A hundred and twenty seven years later, at a Corrosion Seminar sponsored by the Southern African Stainless Steel Development Association and the Corrosion Institute of Southern Africa, the writer posed a question during his presentation on Life Cycle Costing (LCC) and Whole Structure Life Cycle Assessment (WSLCA) regarding public structures such as monuments and bridges: “While wending his way to the top, did Gustave Eiffel take in his magnificent structure with its newly hand-painted reddish-brown finish and ask himself why he had not chosen stainless steel instead of so-called puddle iron?”

At the time, I thought the stainless steel Eiffel Tower question hadn’t been posed before, but I later learned that both the International Stainless Steel Forum (ISSF) and the Nickel Institute had alluded to the Eiffel Tower in their presentations on Life Cycle Costing some years before (respectively, ‘Why Stainless Steels?’ and ‘Sustainability of Stainless Steels’). Credit where credit is due.

Artist’s impression of the Eiffel Tower constructed of Stainless Steel

Only one seminar attendee … an executive from the Aperam company … knew the answer (and received a bottle of very good Cabernet Sauvignon). Eiffel could not have questioned why stainless steel was not used. Stainless steel was not invented until 1913 when lead researcher at Brown Firth Laboratories, Harry Brearley, created a steel with 12.8% chromium and 0.24% carbon … 24 years after the Eiffel Tower was completed.

If Gustave Eiffel had had a choice, he certainly would have questioned the need for painting the Tower steelwork.

Just a decade after completion, the Eiffel Tower required repainting to keep her looking young. This time, yellow. Then, yellow-brown followed by chestnut brown, before the adoption of the current ‘Eiffel Tower Brown’ in 1968.

Every seven years:

250 000 square metres surface area to be painted

25 painters

18 months of hand-painting

60 tonnes of paint

1 500 brushes

1 500 sets of work clothes

1 000 pairs of leather gloves

20 000 square metres of protective netting
In 1889, the Eiffel Tower cost $1.5 million to build. Since then, this iconic landmark has been painted a total of 18 times.

What is completely clear is that if the Eiffel Tower had been made from stainless steel, the maintenance of this global symbol of engineering ingenuity would have been easier, more cost effective and the Tower itself even more staggeringly beautiful.

Practical Stainless Steel

Stainless steels have traditionally been specified in applications where the primary requirement is corrosion resistance. However, since their invention over 100 years ago, stainless steels (of which there are more than 200 different types) have also been recognised for other attributes such as durability, versatility, quality, sustainability, hygiene, aesthetic appeal and, with the advent of Life Cycle Costing (LCC), economy!

LCC is a technique developed for identifying and quantifying all costs, initial and ongoing, associated with a project or installation over a given period. It uses the standard accounting principle of discounted cash flow, so that total costs incurred during a lifecycle period are reduced to present day values. This allows a realistic comparison to be made of the available options. As far as material selection is concerned, LCC enables potential long-term benefits to be assessed against short-term expediency. Materials costs are assessed with their related implications, such as initial outlay, maintenance and its frequency, downtime effects and production losses, repair and replacement costs, and other operationally related costs such as manpower and energy consumption.

Generally speaking, the total LCC can be broken down into components:

LCC      =          Acquisition Cost

+          Fabrication and Installation Cost

+          Maintenance Costs (periodic)

+          Replacement Costs (periodic)

+          Cost of Lost Production (periodic)

–           Residual (Scrap) Value.

Each of these terms must be known if a realistic result is to be calculated. The environment and scope of usage are, therefore, crucial in determining the LCC benefits when choosing materials.

Economical Stainless Steel

A full Life Cycle Cost analysis thus enables the materials specifier to consider the implications of future cost in terms of both actual monetary value and inconvenience of future maintenance and replacements. Experience has shown that future maintenance and associated downtime costs can far outweigh the initial material costs.

Stainless steels are 100% recyclable without any loss in quality no matter how many times the process is repeated. When products reach the end of their useful lives, over 80% of the stainless steel is collected and recycled. Stainless steels are durable and have low maintenance costs due to their corrosion resistance. There is no coating or painting requirement and normal maintenance would simply be occasional cleaning.

Stainless steel may not always be the cheapest candidate material for an application when considering upfront costs. However, its durability and ease of maintenance compensate for the sometimes higher initial purchasing costs and it is often the least expensive choice in a Life Cycle Cost comparison.

Although Gustave Eiffel didn’t have access to such advanced measurement methods nor, in fact, much choice when it came to materials, his splendid Tower did seem to present a wonderful opportunity for 20:20 hindsight.

Thoughts turned to wondering how much would it cost to construct the Eiffel Tower in stainless steel? How much would it cost for annual maintenance of a stainless steel Eiffel Tower? And, what would the maintenance cost saving be … compared to the actual maintenance over the past hundred plus years?

With the development of its own Life Cycle Costing programme in the 1990s, the Southern African Stainless Steel Development Association (sassda) was able to determine the costs of using stainless steel in projects compared to alternatives based on realistic estimates of the total costs of products or structures across their full service lives.

Better yet, the recent launch of the programme in App for Android and Apple devices would enable anyone to undertake LCC exercises.

Romantic Stainless Steel

It didn’t take a quantum leap to realise that together the LCC App and the Eiffel Tower created a tremendous opportunity for a competition in which the determination of the Eiffel Tower’s cost in stainless steel (either a lean duplex or 3CR12) could reward entrants with a once-in-a-lifetime trip for two to Paris.

Simply download the sassda Life Cycle Costing Mobile application free from the Google Playstore or the Apple App Store, then consult the sassda website or STAINLESS STEEL magazine (First Quarter 2017) for competition details.

For one lucky couple, sassda’s advertising tag line “Stainless Steel. It’s Simply Brilliant” could take on a new dimension … “Stainless Steel. It’s Simply Romantic!”


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