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Aluminum

Commanding connection

By Gretchen Salois

When providing a solution is part of the product, it pays to have a reliable ally

July 2013 - Often, pinpointing how to approach a problem is the hardest hurdle to overcome. Once a possible answer is uncovered, it must be thought through, researched and tested. A company in this position must be able to cohesively link the solution to all departments involved, a feat accomplished only if communication lines are open. If one area of the business finds the answer doesn’t work, it’s back to the drawing board. Rather than waste resources, it’s best to get it right the first time. A collaborative effort is how one company offers products that can resolve specific customers’ issues.

MM-0713-aluminum-image1Wood Dale, Ill.-based Clayton Metals Inc. serves a number of industries. “The markets you serve differ depending where you are,” says Brian Cleveland, president. Clayton has locations throughout the United States with customers in the transportation, electrical, lighting, housewares, and residential and nonresidential building construction sectors. 

Aluminum increasingly is used because it is lightweight, recyclable, formable, durable and resistant to corrosion. Each industry’s use of aluminum is different, and Clayton’s ability to provide the aluminum alloys needed is due in part to its partnership with Novelis Inc., headquartered in Atlanta. The relationship between the two companies spans 22 years. Novelis provides Clayton with non-heat-treatable aluminum coil products. “We’re a little different than the average service center since a lot of what we buy is customer specific,” Cleveland says. 

Clayton’s fabrications include a lot of close-tolerance work, specific dimensions on thicknesses, and important surface and forming characteristics that the company must adhere to. “When it comes to consumer goods, appearance requirements are key. Whereas with automotive, dimensions and formability are the focus because their products have deep-draw-type parts,” he says.

Novelis specializes in the transportation, automotive, electronics, lighting, and building and construction markets, including high-end architectural sectors. Novelis and Clayton have a unique relationship. When Clayton needs to service an automotive customer, Novelis sells Clayton the aluminum coil that Clayton then fabricates into different configurations, providing services such as slitting, cut-to-length and inventory management.

“If they have an automotive customer that needs metal to perform in a certain way, we can help Clayton provide the expertise on what type of alloy the customer needs and determine how to process the metal to meet aesthetic finish requirements or mechanical properties,” says Andrew Auns, director of sales and marketing for North American specialty products at Novelis.

Collaborative control

Clayton and Novelis aren’t just selling a commodity product; they provide customers with a solution-based interaction. “Customers come to us with problems to solve or they’re looking for something new and different,” Cleveland says. “Novelis is very user-friendly when it comes to product development.” Specifically, Novelis is willing to work on smaller projects as well as modify existing products to meet a customer’s individual needs. MM-0713-aluminum-image3

“They’re also willing to look at alloys that may not be readily available, such as deep-draw products for our automotive customers and high-purity aluminum for our lighting customers,” Cleveland says. “They have a willingness to work on product development, and their communication and technical/operation people work together and stay connected on these projects—there are no disconnects.” 

A lot of times collaborating can be problematic if communication is lacking, Cleveland says. “At Novelis, they talk to each other, and they go to the customer with a solution that has been thoroughly thought out and worked through,” he says. “There’s an awareness, so when Clayton works with Novelis, we feel comfortable they can develop it.”

“We want our aluminum to be used successfully,” Auns says. “If we start on a project working with Clayton and one of their customers, we stay in contact with the actual end user of the product to make sure they are satisfied with the material. It helps them achieve commercialization of the end product.”

Industry specific

As the automotive industry looks to manufacture more environmentally friendly vehicles with better fuel economy, other industries also are choosing aluminum to make more efficient products. Clayton’s commercial lighting customers need high-purity aluminum. One situation called for a product Novelis wasn’t making at the time but the company was able to get technical people on the ground and work with the customer upfront to find an alternative solution. “They gave the customer something to trial and it ended up working out. Novelis was able to produce that product to meet their needs,” Cleveland says. “Novelis is willing to do those things, and while other mills can meet needs as well, we have a comfort level where we know Novelis’ strengths and where they can help us.”

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For automotive customers that require high formability or low earing, Novelis has provided Clayton with products a standard alloy couldn’t achieve. “They were able to push the product beyond application,” Cleveland says. In this case, the customer needed the ability to draw the part or stretch the material. It couldn’t accomplish what it needed with a standard alloy so Novelis analyzed the issue and made a modification and tested the results. “Once they’ve tested the modifications and are able to provide results on a consistent basis, then we have something meaningful for the customer in the long-term,” Cleveland says.

Keeping consumer concerns in mind, Novelis is making an effort to innovate and reduce its carbon footprint. Novelis’ goal is to have 80 percent recycled content by 2020, and the company has invested significant resources to recycle more than just aluminum cans. To achieve this goal, Novelis is working with customers to recycle their scrap. It also is investing in research and development through a new state-of-the-art Global Research and Technology Center. 

The low-carbon aluminum maker offers customers the ability to make products with a smaller environmental footprint. “If you think about the energy you save by reusing instead of mining bauxite, you’re using 95 percent less energy when using recycled material,” Auns says. “We’re working with customers to promote closed-loop recycling across a number of industries.” MM

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