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Thursday | 31 May, 2012 | 11:28 am

Power delivery

By Nick Wright

The growing monopole fabrication industry relies on Superior Supply’s just-in-time service

May 2012 - An active mix of upgrades and new transmission requirements is driving steel monopole construction across the United States. As development of renewable energy generation progresses, the infrastructure for established sources, like oil and gas also is evolving.

Electricity conducted on power lines strung along freeways and countrysides is lofted on components often fabricated from steel plate—from octagonal pole shafts and baseplates to arms, flanges and ladders.

The Energy Policy Act, passed in 2005 by then President George W. Bush, provides incentives for renewable energy such as wind, which needs methods of transmitting generated electricity, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. This has helped encourage the replacement and renewal segments of the monopole business, benefiting the steel plate and fabrication industries.

Power transmission recently has accounted for about a quarter of total volume for Tulsa, Okla.-based job shop Ozark Steel LLC, says Jim Welch, general manager. Ozark sources a significant amount of plate from Superior Supply & Steel, Sulphur, La., which it processes for monopole parts.

“There are a number of steel plate products in most of those towers, and just about any steel component in those towers we will make for one customer or another,” says Welch.

On the more visible side of monopole production, steel plate comprises the tall, octagonal shafts that carry conducting wires. The heights vary from 40 feet to 120 feet, and the poles are fabricated from 60-foot-long plate sections, according to the operations manager at a large power transmission hardware manufacturer. The company relies on Superior Supply’s timely delivery of high-quality plate so it can fill its utility customers’ orders.

“Integrity is huge for us and has to be for Superior because we’ve gotten good service from them,” he says. “It’s one reason our partnership has worked so well.”

mm0512-plate-lead2From the ground up
Ozark’s relationship with Superior spans almost a decade. During that time, Superior has seen more diversified plate processors gravitating toward the energy sector, specifically in monopoles.

The markets those job shops might have been involved with, such as HVAC, commercial or industrial fabrication, have been fairly soft, says Scott Sandifer, vice president of Superior Supply’s plate division in Houston. “Just recently, we’ve seen oil and gas come back a bit in the last year. But the energy-related markets, power substation, octagonal pole, transmission power lines, have been really good for the last five, six, seven years.”

At Ozark Steel, the goal is to keep about a 30-day supply of heavy-use material on the ground at any given time. This is approximately 500 tons of working inventory at its 55,000-square-foot facility. The inventory includes 3⁄16-inch to 5⁄8-inch-thick weathering steel and carbon grades (A36/572/516/514) from 1⁄4 inch to 7 inches thick, says Welch.

The plate goes into the many industries that make up Ozark’s client base, including petroleum and refinery products, gas and oil pipeline equipment, OEMs, industrial HVAC equipment and assorted steel fabrication.

In the transmission pole industry, the plate parts Ozark creates include hand holds, internal brackets, baseplates and connecting plates where two pole sections would connect. It also makes vangs, which are plates that stiffen as they pass through the pole. Although the company maintains a large inventory, occasionally it needs a short-notice shipment, which can arrive within a day from Superior’s distribution center in nearby Catoosa, Okla., the Arkansas River town where Tulsa’s port is located.

“If we order in the morning, we can get same-day deliveries out of them if not next-day,” Welch adds. “One good thing about them versus their competitors around here, Superior will bring steel to us even if we don’t have a full truckload.”

Quality certified
The company that manufactures monopoles and accompanying hardware, on the other hand, forms much longer parts with plate. Depending on the project the manufacturer receives, it will form and fabricate monopoles to replace existing ones. But most of its transmission structures are for new construction, the operations manager says.

Most of what the manufacturer buys from Superior is decoiled plate material also in the 3⁄16-inch to 1⁄2-inch range for the monopole shafts. However, not all monopoles are identical. Utility customers often will request an array of pole features, such as ladder clips or flanges.

“They deviate quite often depending on where it’s going, who it’s for. Not only that but the grade deviates quite a bit,” the operations manager says. “We do a lot of weathering products sometimes.” Superior supplies the company with A572 grade 65 as well as A36 that it uses to manufacture light-duty substation structures, for example.

After decoiled plate shipments arrive from Superior’s regional facility, the manufacturer will plasma cut the plate, form it in its 60-foot press brake, then join pieces in its submerged arc welding station. Separate pole sections or support structures for substations typically have tapered sections with a different OD on the top and bottom. The press brake, a recent addition, has boosted the manufacturer’s capacity.

“When you get quality material, a lot of your processes run smoother,” the operations manager says, noting Superior consistently produces high-quality plate.

The requirements for steel transmission poles are not much different from specifications for monopoles constructed 10 to 15 years ago. But nowadays, more of the manufacturer’s end users require mill test reports (MTR) supplied with shipments to ensure compliance with ASTM specifications, according to the operations manager. Although plate chemistry and composition is generally the same, the mill test reports have become more prevalent. Superior has been regularly on top of delivering those documents as well as providing tracking information.

“One thing we started grading our vendors on is how quickly we see those MTRs,” he notes. “[We] won’t unload a truck that doesn‘t have an MTR for material it’s carrying because we don’t OK taking material off a truck that doesn’t meet our specs or meet industry standards.”

Shipping lanes
Monopole manufacturing is one of the biggest market sectors for Superior Supply, second to the ship and barge building industry, according to Sandifer. About 35 percent of Superior’s business comes from the monopole sector.

In addition to its Houston and Tulsa facilities, it has a Chicago presence. This has helped the company align itself with its customers in monopole fabrication.

“Most of the pole manufacturers we would sell to or plate processors for the monopole industry are in Tulsa, Dallas and Houston, which are all main shipping lines for us,” Sandifer says.

Superior’s existing relationship with Ozark, due in part to its proximity in Tulsa, helped align the two companies. The convenience allows Ozark to get plate quickly if needed, even if it’s one piece for a small part.

“We try to mutually take care of one another and make it worth their trip to come to us,” Welch says. “We’ll buy in truckloads if we can. If not, we still can get next day. We’re always watching the market to see if steel futures are going up or down, and we’ll lay in inventory if it looks like prices are going up, like anyone does, try to look into the foggy crystal ball and figure out what’s coming next.”

Similarly, it’s essential for the utility manufacturer to obtain plate in time for orders—not too early, not too late.

“One thing our customers are stringent on is making sure we deliver on time. We’re known as a company that’s going to deliver on time,” the operations manager says. “For energy and utility companies, if they’re having outages or [the] type of schedule where they have crews waiting, it’s important to get it out.” MM

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