As the South and Southeast seem primed for growth and expansion, the metals industry has turned its attention to this region. Fortunately for Independence Tube Corp., Chicago, its plans for expansion into the South began before the current interest took hold, and its third tube mill is right on schedule to begin producing HSS tube next month.
The decision to start operations in northern Alabama was made several years ago when it became apparent that a move into the South was the ideal choice. Manufacturing was growing in the region, it wasn't always easy or economical to ship products from the Midwest and the company had owned the land in Decatur, Ala., for more than a decade. It didn't take much of a leap. With the development that has taken place in the region since those initial efforts, the startup of the tube mill seems prescient.
At the same time, HSS tube has become one of the darlings of the construction industry. It has found growing applications in nonresidential construction projects ranging from office buildings and airport terminals to convention centers and retail shopping destinations. It has grown in this market while continuing to hold strong positions in bridges, highway signs, oil rigs, farm and construction equipment, and automotive.
A logical choice
"From a marketing standpoint it didn't make a whole lot of sense to go west," explains John Tassone, marketing manager for Independence Tube. "That market is already served by mills out there." Going north or east also didn't make sense for the same reason. The Southeast is probably the one part of the country that could absorb expanded tube production.
A southern location offered an ideal geographic placement for a new Independence Tube mill. Tassone says that the distances involved from the firm's Illinois locations hampered regional sales. Freight charges made materials more costly than those available from southern producers. An Alabama location adds flexibility and makes the company far more competitive on freight charges. "We will go up into the Carolinas and Virginia, the Southeast and probably into the Southwest," he says.
While construction and agriculture are the biggest markets for Independence Tube, close to 80 percent of production goes into distribution and there is no way to know where it ends up. "The construction part is mainly columns in nonresidential buildings such as Wal-Mart distribution centers and Home Depots," says Tassone. "All the tubes that are used to hold up the roof are structural tube.
"As a matter of fact, our manufacturing facility in Decatur is made out of tube," he adds. The columns and the roof structure were built using square tubing that was produced at the Marseilles, Ill., plant and shipped down to Decatur.
Once production gets fully ramped up, which should occur near the end of the first quarter, Decatur will offer a product line similar to what is coming from the company's mill in Marseilles. The 310,000-square-foot facility will produce square and rectangular steel tubing to ASTM A500 Grades B&C. Tubing will range from 2-1/2 square, 1/8th wall up to 10 square, 5/8th wall. "Of course we'll produce corresponding rectangles," says Tassone.
"At some point we'll have the ability to produce rounds in Decatur, which we don't do at either of our other locations," he adds. "But we are probably a year or so away from that."
Slit to size
The steel tubing produced by ITC is fabricated from 50-ton heavy-gauge flat-rolled coils. Wide coils are slit to widths determined by the as-welded tube size. The structural tubing is made from hot-band coils, which produce a surface finish ideally suited for painting and possess higher tensile strength properties, particularly yield strength.
A massive heavy-gauge coil slitting line produced by Braner/Loopco is the heart of the operation. The line is similar to a slitting line installed at the Independence Tube plant in the Marseilles mill a decade ago. "It's a big bruiser," explains Ray Kuch of Braner. "Probably 90 percent of the steel that is slit today ends where this line starts as far as thickness." The slitting line presents some interesting features that were specifically built to handle the heavy-gauge requirements.
The line is capable of processing 98,000 pound by 74-inch-wide by 5/8-inch-thick hot-rolled coils. The slitter employs a dual-cone uncoiler with two 100-hp DC drag generators and a freestanding hold-down that handles 24-inch through 34-inch ID coils. "One cone drives each side of the master coil," explains Kuch. "This allows them to accommodate a wide range of master coil IDs efficiently."
The dual-cone uncoiler requires the large coils to be brought in from the rear, as opposed to from the side on a conventional cantilevered uncoiler. "Fifty-ton coils are big," says Kuch. "And large coils are vital to a tube mill because of the time lost each time a new coil is loaded."
In addition to two sets of roller side guides, a five-roll straightener and a crop shear, the slitting line includes a quick-change two-head turret slitter with 14-inch diameter arbors. While a typical service center might change setups for virtually every coil, tube mills generally run multiple coils on a single setup. A single setup may even last more than one day. Still some quick-change features are built into the line. "It is important for Independence Tube to be able to make the setups offline," says Kuch, "even though they're not making a dozen setups a day."
The two slitter heads are on a turret and provide free access to the offline head for setup changes. All slitter setups are stripped offline and the next setup is built offline. The turret is then rotated and in only a moment the next setup is online.
Slit coils are rewound on a recoiler with a 30-inch diameter drum, powered by a 300-hp DC motor equipped with a holding brake and a two-speed gearbox. A coil tail hold-down safety assembly is attached to the freestanding floor mounted overarm separator to secure the slit coils prior to removal from the recoiler via coil car. The slitting line also includes a line diagnostic, automation, and production reporting PLC control package designed to assist in improving productivity and provide production data.
Once the Decatur mill is at full capacity, Independence Tube will be producing more than 300,000 tons a year out of all three locations. Production from the Decatur tube mill won't just add to the corporate totals but will be structured to run in sync with production at the similarly configured plant in Marseilles. Running the two plants on complimentary schedules will enable ITC to improve its response time.
Independence Tube already publishes its rolling schedule and makes it available online. Customers can log on to the company's Web site, consult the schedule and order products. "We are going to dovetail our Decatur rolling schedule with our Marseilles rolling schedule so that we can offer products to the marketplace more quickly," Tassone says.
If the Marseilles plant runs 4-inch, 5-inch and 6-inch squares this month, then the following month 4-inch, 5-inch and 6-inch squares will be run in Decatur. In addition, 8-inch and 10-inch squares and rectangles are rolled every month in both Decatur and Marseilles. What would have normally been shipped to the customer on an eight- or four-week cycle, every other month, can now be shipped out of both facilities every two or four weeks.
"It is still an eight-week cycle at each facility," says Tassone, "but it is a four-week cycle to the customer. Depending on how busy we are, we can make the decision whether we want to take an order out of Decatur and ship it north or take an order out of Marseilles and ship it south."
The initial crew at the plant was comprised of management and production personnel from the company's two plants in Illinois. The plant manager, John Helinski, had been running the Chicago mill for the past seven years. Maintenance people were in place at the end of last year to work on equipment installations, and by mid-January the interviewing process to fill the balance of the staff had begun. When fully staffed, the Decatur plant will employ close to 60 workers.
Focus on customers
As it expands, Independence Tube intends not to let company growth undermine customer service. The corporate culture isn't going to change. "We've been running ads that promote the philosophy that we are the same old Independence Tube, only we are a whole lot closer now," says Tassone.
Tassone says that even with the latest expansion, Independence Tube won't do away with its customer focus. "A lot of it has to do with how the company has been set up," he says. There aren't a lot of managers; the ones that are in place cover broad areas and are involved in every aspect of daily operations.
"We are very close to our customers," says Tassone. "It's a struggle sometimes because you have 20 hours worth of work that you try to get into a 10-hour day. It is important to us that we keep the same culture at all three locations that we have come to know at ITC. We are going to go through a stringent hiring process in Decatur to make sure we get the right people." MM
By Michael Chazin, from the February 2006 issue of Modern Metals.