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Stainless Steel
Friday | 02 March, 2012 | 2:18 pm

Turn up the volume

By Nick Wright

Distributor sources specialty stainless steels for aerospace, oil field components

February 2012- In August last year, Universal Stainless and Alloy Products, Bridgeville, Pa., planted its flag 80 miles away in North Jackson, Ohio, when it acquired Patriot Special Metals for more than $125 million, adding the Western Hemisphere’s largest hydraulic radial forge to its capabilities. In doing so, the company not only reaffirmed its relationships with existing customers but strengthened its position in powerhouse markets.

Service Steel Aerospace, Tacoma, Wash., a specialty steel distributor to the aerospace and oil field industries, has sourced rectangular and round stainless steel bar from Universal for about 20 years, says Doug Nesbitt, vice president of sales for Service Steel.

“With Universal’s new facility in Ohio, they will now have the equipment to be competitive on those larger sizes, 4 inches to 12 inches,” Nesbitt says. Universal’s product selection for Service Steel will expand to include bar from 1⁄2 inch to 12 inches in diameter, a range of sizes Service Steel provides to machine shops serving aerospace and oil field customers. Much of Universal’s internal growth will come from increased demand in aerospace and oil field products, and “they’ll have a wider selection of products to competitively sell in those markets,” he says.

Along with the radial forge, Universal added an 18-ton vacuum induction melting furnace (VIM) at North Jackson to expand its melting capabilities to produce higher-end grades, according to Chris Zimmer, vice president of sales and marketing at Universal. In December, the VIM furnace melted its first trial heat, a key first step in its operation. The primary grades the company is starting with are 13-8, M50, 4340 and 9310, says Zimmer, referring to the VIM furnace.

Military aircraft and small to mid-size jets largely use 13-8, Nesbitt adds.

For years, Universal has been a supplier of specialty steel grades used to produce commercial aerospace components such as fasteners, thrust reversers, hinges, actuators and fittings.

“It’s the same materials, just more of it. The production rates are increasing, and aerospace has been increasing for the past year now,” Nesbitt says. “The other portion of that radial forge that’ll benefit us is custom rectangular forgings. I have seen some of this product and it looks great.”

Adding capabilities
Service Steel is expanding to accommodate an increase in orders for Universal’s products and other aerospace and oil field products. Service Steel is doubling its Tacoma facility to about 80,000 square feet and adding pulse saw cutting technology to improve cutting efficiency.

“When you’re a distributor, you need strong financial backing, dependable suppliers, good facilities, good equipment, product focus and a high level of customer service. If we have all of these in place, good producers will want SSA to stock their products,” Nesbitt says. “That’s why Universal is a big player at SSA.”

In addition to its headquarters in Washington, Service Steel has facilities in Connecticut, California and Massillon, Ohio, about 50 miles southwest of Universal’s North Jackson facility. The proximity is a key advantage for not only Service Steel but also its customers.

“SSA can receive product the same day it ships from Universal at our Massillon, Ohio, facility. In Massillon, we have massive storage and metal-handling capabilities for the type of product Universal produces,” Nesbitt says.

Currently, Service Steel is expanding into Asia in conjunction with its parent company, Los Angeles-based Reliance Steel & Aluminum Co., with a facility in Pudong, China. The company’s presence near Shanghai will enable it to work with aerospace machine shops there, Nesbitt says.

“We hope to have that facility open very soon. We are shipping Universal product into the Asian market and we expect this to increase as our distribution facilities expand and Universal’s product selection expands.”

New parts, new trends
Although the majority of Service Steel’s stainless steel goes to machine shops processing aerospace parts, components for the steadily growing oil field market are in demand—specifically, non-magnetic drill collars in downhole drilling on oil rigs. This is a product Universal currently is developing, according to Zimmer.

“A big part of the product that would fit that radial forge is very long drill collar material,” Nesbitt says.

Drill collars are long metal pieces that make up the front portion of the drilling strand. The collars are non-magnetic to prevent interference with the drilling electronics behind the drill bit. “The technology for materials, electronics and engineering of oil and gas drilling instruments is truly impressive,” Nesbitt says.

The stainless for drill collar applications is an area where both companies see opportunities for growth. Its highly engineered characteristics, such as grain structure, magnetic resistivity, dimension control, and chemical and mechanical properties, make it a valuable steel, Zimmer says. “We are developing drill collars that are used in highly specialized deep-hole drilling activities where the quality of the material has a direct impact on the speed, accuracy and safety of operation.”

Ultimately, much of the 15-5 stainless steel Service Steel sources from Universal becomes components for airframes, according to Nesbitt. Now, with Universal’s VIM capabilities, he anticipates “Universal’s alloy selection will increase this year in products like 13-8, 718, specialty bearing and alloy steel and nickel-based alloys,” he says.

Universal has supplied specialty steels to the aerospace, power generation and petrochemical markets, since the company began in 1994, Zimmer says. With the addition of the VIM melt shop in North Jackson, “our expanded product offering will primarily be sold to customers and markets that we already serve. Our new offering of grades will enable us to participate in new applications, and this has generated a lot of interest in the marketplace.”

Long-term outlook
Since the company acquired Patriot Special Metals’ greenfield facility, Universal has installed two vacuum-arc remelting furnaces (VAR), with two more slated to come online in the fourth quarter 2012. The company will have 11 total, Zimmer says. “We’ve been making real progress.”

That progress will directly benefit its customers who are looking to reduce lead times and increase supply as industries like aerospace grow.

Zimmer says Universal’s reliability, speed and technical support will foster opportunity with new customers.

“We’ve been reaching out to them, and equally, they’re reaching out to us. We have a lot of customers that are extremely eager, asking how quickly can we get our new facility up and running so they can qualify us as a supplier,” he says. “It’s an exciting time for our company, and the positive feedback from the market has been great.”

Even with a healthy stock of material in its facilities, Nesbitt says the aerospace market is cyclical—it ebbs and flows with demand, orders and material sourcing.

“Lead times are getting longer,” he says. “The key part of our business model is personal relationships with our suppliers and active business with those suppliers through all business cycles. We’ve got a track record of doing that with Universal, so naturally, we are able to solve material problems for our customers as lead times extend and material availability is strained.” MM

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