Tuesday | 15 March, 2011 | 3:52 am

Reliable rail

By Lauren Duensing

February 2011-In an industry where there is no need to reinvent the wheel, companies challenge themselves to improve upon the basic structure of their products. Producing bars and beams seems straightforward, but Steel Dynamics Inc., Fort Wayne, Ind., proves it is possible and essential to the industry to recondition its production methods, improve processes and maintain high-quality products-all while conserving current customer relationships and acquiring new ones.

"Steel Dynamics is the first and only domestic rail manufacturer capable of producing 240-foot rail lengths, reducing the number of welds required on a continuous welded rail project," says Samuel Fisher, senior vice president of rail products at L.B. Foster Co., Pittsburgh. "Steel Dynamic's weld plant, which is adjacent to the mill, is the newest and most up-to-date weld plant in the country." Fisher adds it's attractive to have the producer of rail also be the service provider of welding.

Another Class 1 railroad customer notes that because the industry is very capital-maintenance intensive, it is required to replace more than 100,000 tons of its rail infrastructure each year. It also believes Steel Dynamics has "one of the most modern rail manufacturing mills in the world," largely in part because the company is newer to the industry, employing innovative technology to its products.

According to Paul Kotsenas, manager of rail and special products at Steel Dynamics, rail is an engineered product with strict metallurgy and dimension control and specific internal grain structure that undergoes very rigid final testing and inspection criteria. "The product is then welded into 1,600-foot strings of rail track by Steel Dynamics for use by the railroad industry for their new construction and general maintenance requirements," Kotsenas says. "The product is held to an extremely high standard of manufacture."

Inspiration behind Class 1 rail product
Steel Dynamics' inspiration behind its Class 1 rail product is the belief that it would fit perfectly into the company's greenfield shape mill that started in 2001. It is a facility that employs the latest manufacturing technology, which is necessary as rail lines continue to be built, old lines are upgraded and "North America begins to embrace a higher speed passenger rail infrastructure," Kotsenas says, adding Steel Dynamics is the only North American rail producer with the latest rail bloom casting technology and equipment, testing and inspecting equipment, longest rolled rail (240 feet) and newest, most technologically modern continuous weld plant. "Currently, we are in the process of building a $17.5 million rail-processing facility that we believe will be the best in this hemisphere," he says.

"Steel Dynamics' ability to produce 240-foot lengths, compared to the industry standard of 80-foot lengths, reduces the number of welds required in a 1,600-foot continuous welded rail string," Fisher says. "Reducing the number of welds reduces the number of potential failures at a weld, which is very attractive to all railroads." Fisher believes Steel Dynamics eventually could produce 320-foot rails, further reducing the number of welds. "Their rail straightness is excellent, and Steel Dynamics' state-of-the-art weld plant gives us confidence not only in their rail quality but also the welds," he says.

The confidence in Steel Dynamics' product quality and longevity is essential to potential customers. "You're buying and putting the rail in and expecting to leave it there for decades," says another Class 1 railroad customer. "Sometimes you don't find out until much later how good or bad the performance is, which is why you wade into these decisions." This Class 1 railroad customer purchases rail products from a variety of manufacturers and decided to try Steel Dynamics' products due to its "modern manufacturing steel-making and the manufacturing equipment" it employs during the steel-making process.

Easy to navigate
When developing its latest Class 1 rail product, Steel Dynamics worked with customers to ensure it was meeting their needs. "Without being specific [when developing the new rail product], there was some customer contact, equipment supplier contact and a review of worldwide rail manufacturing technology," Kotsenas says. "Most Class 1 railroads want a clean, inclusion-free steel with a fine grain structure and consistent hardness." Kotsenas also notes customers want longer and straighter rails and a mill with the ability to weld and ship long rails. "We've given the railroad community those features," he adds.

"All rails pass through the best and most modern test and inspection equipment available," Kotsenas says. "This feature allows the residual benefit that the chance of a defective rail being shipped is dramatically reduced and virtually eliminated."

L.B. Foster works well with the Steel Dynamics management team, Fisher says. "We have a very good partnership. Steel Dynamics makes doing business simple, and I really enjoy the way we make decisions quickly while moving forward aggressively.Ó L.B. Foster has been in the rail distribution business for 108 years, and Steel DynamicsÕ flexibility and back-and-forth communication makes it a valuable addition to L.B. Foster's repertoire of go-to manufacturers.

"They work very well with us," says another Class 1 railroad customer, noting it is aware of Steel Dynamics' recent facility upgrades and capital improvements. "The conversations [between this Class 1 customer and Steel Dynamics] and accepted industry specifications" are what make it worthwhile for this Class 1 railroad customer to expand the list of manufacturers it utilizes for the company's needs.

According to Kotsenas, Steel Dynamics provides some unique offerings for customers, including a new bloom caster allowing an 11:1 reduction ratio, which employs a "dynamic soft reduction" feature that significantly reduces the probability of center segregation in the finished rail. Its finish rolling and tandem mill is a universal mill; all surfaces are rolled simultaneously, allowing for symmetrical rails.

Steel Dynamics continues to seek ways to revamp its product lines and boasts some of the most current test and inspection equipment available. The company recently received customer feedback comparing it to "anything they've seen in the Japanese rail mills." As Steel Dynamics continues to construct its newest rail finishing area in North America., it hopes to continue its presence as a dynamic figure in the railroad industry. MM

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