Aluminum builds a community

By Lauren Duensing

November 2009 - On the New York shores of Lake Ontario sits a town with a total population of 18,096, according to the 2000 Census Report. Despite its size, Oswego, N.Y., has several claims to fame. It’s home to the State University of New York at Oswego, and its annual Harborfest brings in approximately 200,000 spectators for a long weekend of entertainment.

It’s also the location of Novelis’ Oswego Works, which was first commissioned in 1963. The plant sits on 500 acres with 1.4 million square feet under a roof and has approximately 700 employees. It’s part of the Specialty Products Business Unit, which provides products to the beverage can, building and construction, and automotive markets, among others. Oswego is an ideal location for a large aluminum mill. Peter Sheftic, manager, human resources, for Novelis’ North American Can Business Unit points out, "To make aluminum, you need three things: You need power, a good workforce and water. We have all of those here."

A bit of history
Novelis was created in 2005 as a spinoff from aluminum producer Alcan Inc., now Rio Tinto Alcan, Montreal. Despite its relative youth, the company inherited the benefits of a 90-year history in the aluminum rolling industry. In 2007, Novelis was acquired by Mumbai-based Hindalco, India’s largest integrated aluminum producer. Hindalco represents the metals business of the Aditya Birla Group, Mumbai, India, a large conglomerate with $28 billion in revenue and 100,000 employees all over the world.

Novelis has operations in North America, Europe, South America and Asia, with more than 13,000 employees in 11 countries. The Specialty Products Business Unit consists of the Cleveland headquarters, the Oswego Works and the Kingston, Ontario, operation.

The collaboration among the global entities helps with best practices. Luc Boivin, Works Manager, Novelis Specialty Products, says, "We can share good practices and learn from our friends in Germany or Brazil. In fact, we have a meeting every six months, and instead of reinventing the wheel, we can copy the wheel."

Focusing on R&D also helps the company improve. "Right next to our sister plant up in Kingston, Ontario, is one of our two R&D centers; the other one’s in Europe," says George Pursey, market director, distribution and OEM specialty products. "It’s a fully staffed R&D center, and they do all kinds of research. They’re able to simulate a lot of processes."

He notes that the convenient location of the center helps facilitate the development of new technologies. "We’ve spent a lot of time developing new products and trying to get into new markets, and the R&D center helps us to design solutions for customers."

Fusing new alloys
One of the company’s newest innovations is a process, trade named Novelis Fusion, which has the capability to create a multi-alloy aluminum product that’s specifically engineered for a particular application. Novelis Fusion uses a conventional direct-chill mold, which allows multiple metals to be cast into a single ingot. The resulting product consists of several distinct layers--a core of one aluminum alloy and outer layers of a different alloy. For example, it can create an alloy with a high-strength core and a corrosion-resistant outer layer.

When this ingot is rolled into a sheet, it combines complementary characteristics in the same product, which provides limitless possibilities for architects and automakers to make lighter-weight products without sacrificing quality.

Novelis has four facilities that are designated for the Fusion technology. Future investment is planned in Ouro Preto, Brazil; Sierre, Switzerland, began casting in August 2008; Ulsan, South Korea, began commercial volume production in 2008; and Oswego installed a new melting furnace in 2008, which increased the global footprint for the process.

Pursey says it’s important to remember that Novelis Fusion is a technology, not a specific product. "It can enable us to do a variety of things to help a customer solve a problem or get in to some new products that they couldn’t have otherwise."

New products mean new markets. With Novelis Fusion, the company can create a stainless steel substitute--free of nickel surcharges--as well as clad surfaces that easily bond to steel for cookware applications.

As a result, the technology creates excitement among everyone involved because "breakthroughs like this come around fairly infrequently in this business," says Pursey. "There’s a lot of innovation in process where you find a better way to roll on a hot mill or a better way to cast. There’s always incremental innovation, but there are few breakthroughs where you’re creating an entire process that’s never been done before."

"It was really neat to have it here first," says Remelt Manufacturing Unit Manager Larry Ogorchock. "Our people embraced it. It was so different. They wanted to be a part of it. They’ve all played a part in developing the process through subtle process changes and subtle equipment changes. The beauty of being first is you’re first. The downside of being first is you’re first."

Employees form a community
Always eager to improve their skills, the Oswego Works employees exude Novelis pride. And that stems from the role they have in the company’s success. Sheftic points out that the workforce is very engaged. "We’re a team-based organization. We don’t have clocks and punch cards and turnstiles. We don’t believe in those, and we find them distasteful. Our employees manage themselves, and they learn the business. If there are quality issues, they can make those quality issue determinations as they operate their equipment. If they need to stop their equipment, they stop their equipment. They don’t ask other people to do that; they have the factors in front of them, and they dictate as they go."

Employees also help the company fulfill its goals of being a safe and great place to work. "We have a program called the tower program," Sheftic says. "From a safety perspective, it’s cutting-edge, and we’ve received many awards for it. Basically, employee involvement is at its highest level. Our employees are working together, and they’re trained to help other employees. They observe their peers in a respectful manner and try to correct them if they’re making an error, stepping out of bounds or doing something unsafe. We don’t take this observation as a negative; we’re trying to keep our facility safe."

He says this program is employee-driven, from the shop floor up, and is "one of the hallmarks of the facility. It’s proactive; it’s not reactive. We’re looking for our people to take the initiative to tell us what they see up front with either our equipment or our people.

"Currently, we’re at about 4 million hours since our last lost-time accident," Sheftic continues. "Those are world-class numbers. We’re a safe facility, and we take great pains to ensure it stays that way."

Boivin says, "This is the model we are using: If we, as a manager, take care of our people, they will take care of our business. We have to provide them with training, skills and processes. It’s the best way we can take care of our customers."

Despite its long-standing reputation for excellence, it’s not all business all the time. The Oswego Works functions as a small community within the city of Oswego. There’s a bank on-site and a medical center, which provides health care services to employees and their families. The company even has its own fire department and fitness center.

"About 10 years ago, we built a medical facility on-site that cares for our employees--about 1,600 families," says Sheftic. "It has doctors and nurses, and we’ve integrated it with our wellness center. It’s a family practice, and it’s low-cost.

"Our wellness center is fully equipped with aerobic and strength-training equipment," he continues. "It has a full three-quarter-length basketball court, and retirees are allowed to use it, as well."

Novelis partners with the local YMCA to staff the facility, and Sheftic says it’s well-attended. The wellness center works in partnership with the health care facility, and the doctors and nurses can write prescriptions to go to the wellness center for rehab. As a result, "our long-term disability and our short-term disability are low," Sheftic says.

He points out that the Oswego Works functions "like a small city. It’s a large community of people with a large infrastructure. You have your medical, and you have your fire department. We have trucks and ladders and an ambulance on-site. Our firefighters not only take care of the risk of our facility, but if there’s a fire outside in the community, we’re able to handle those, as well. It’s a symbiotic relationship with us, our community and our employees working together."

A sustainable future
Whether it’s giving back to the community or the planet, Novelis has set stringent goals for the future. It aims to improve energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 16 percent from 2005 through 2012. It also plans to reduce landfill waste 25 percent from 2005 though 2010.

In addition, "We’re a voluntary member of the U.S. EPA Climate Leaders program," says Pat Persico, manager, corporate communications/media relations. "We signed on as an early member, and we have committed to reducing 1 percent of our greenhouse gas annually. We have an energy program to help us get there. And, in addition to the U.S. facilities, we signed on all our North American facilities."

A sustainable future ensures longevity for the company and its community.

"It’s about being here in 25 years," says Boivin. "It’s about being here for our community. It’s about being here for our grandchildren. It’s what we can do today with our people, our costs and our quality. We have a long story in this community. We need this community, and this community needs us. We are the largest employer in [the area], and we need to be strong enough to be here in 25 years." MM

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