Thursday, September 14, 2017

AK Steel/Armco Works

(AK Steel web site)
When I saw a huge steel works in Middletown, OH, that was not near a river or a lake, I dug into the history to learn why it would be built where it could not use modern water transportation for the raw materials such as iron ore and possibly coal. (I added the adjective "modern" because the land was on the Miami and Erie Canal.)

George M. Verity owned the American Steel Roofing Company in Cincinnati that made the steel sheets used to build roofs. To solve his supply problem for rolled steel, he formed the American Rolling Mill Co. in 1899. The community of Middletown offered money and land to Verity to build his new rolled steel plant in Middletown in 1900 [video].

Verity soon quit the roofing product business and concentrated on meeting customer demand for rolled steel created by automobile and appliance manufactures. In addition to expanding the facilities in Middletown in 1911, he bought plants in Zanesville, OH  and  Ashland, KY and merged with Columbus Iron and Steel, which supplied a large amount of pig iron. They also expanded their product line to include stainless steel and a variety of galvanized steel products (thus the metalZinc label).

The following showed how steel was rolled into sheets until the 1924 perfection of continuous roll stands and coiling.
Inside Middletown Armco factory, photo from "Armco in Pictures and Fact," published by the American Rolling Mill Co., 1921, from armcosteel-home
Each stand rolled a slab down to a sheet by passing the steel back and forth by reversing the rotation of the rollers. For each pass, the rolls would be screwed closer together to reduce the thickness of the steel.
In 1904, John B. Tytus applied for a job with the American Rolling Mill Co., hoping to work in a steel plant to understand the mechanics of industry. Verity gave him the difficult job as a spare hand, dragging heavy steel sheets to the shears. “When I first visited the steel mill,” he was recorded saying, “I counted sheets being handled 22 different times. Right then and there I figured that a business, which had so much lost motion, had plenty of future for a young man.”
Tytus began studying the flat metal rolling process, analyzing various blueprints, including a process developed by Leonardo Da Vinci. In 1919, he presented his first continuous rolling mill blueprints to Verity, and Verity subsequently appointed a committee to consider the installation of Tytus’s new mill.
About $10 million dollars was needed to invest in the new machine – an amount that could destroy the company if the idea failed. Still, when Armco acquired a plant in Ashland, Verity took the opportunity to attempt to build Tytus’s continuous rolling mill.
“In all, 14 stands of rolls were envisioned in a straight line, which would reduce red-hot five inch thick slabs into thin steel sheets. Five factors controlling process were essential: temperature of rolls, composition and springiness of rolls, the screw pressure applied to roll necks; and the shape, composition and temperature of the piece.”
In 1924, after years of fixing problems and struggling with the machine, it was in full operation. In the first full month of operation, the continuous rolling mill produced 9,000 tons of sheet steel. Three years later it was producing 40,000 (the original steel mills only produced 130-135 tons a week).
All other major steel companies quickly adopted the invention and between 1927 and 1940, 26 continuous rolling mills were built.
Source:George C. Crout and Wilfred D. Vorhis, “John Butler Tytus: Inventor of the Continuous Steel Mill,” p. 132-145. From Ohio History V. 76. Copyring 1967 by Cincinnati Historical Society. [armcosteel-home]

In 1989, Armco entered into a limited partnership with the Kawasaki Steel Corporation of Japan. That is why the name became AK Steel in 1994 during another reorganization using the first letter of each former company. The company had over a $1 billion of revenue, but it had very little profit because of high operating expenses. So it persuaded Tom Graham to come out of retirement at age 65 to lead the redirection efforts. Erlier Armco had participated in the diversification fad that caused companies to acquire other companies that had little or nothing to do with their core business. So the first thing Graham did was divest more than ten of the company's subsidiaries and operating divisions. Another change was the replacement of 75 of the company's top executives and managers! Then he worked on improving its operations and service. [encyclopedia]

Just as Verity risked the company's survival by investing $10 million on Tytus' design of a continuous roll mill, Graham risked the company by investing $1.1 billion on a greenfield, start of the art steel production facility in Rockport, IN. Graham insisted that the increased efficiency and lower energy consumption would lower their operating costs. And it would produce 80-inch rolls instead of the then maximum 72-inch rolls. [encyclopedia] The new plant focused on cold-rolled steel, and its efficiency helped the company survive the price crash of hot-rolled steel caused by a global oversupply. (That is, China dumping steel on America because its economy went into a slump.)  [I can't find where I read this :-(] 80-inch rolls has become the industries standard for the maximum width.


Every web page for one of their locations that I checked (e.g. Rockport, IN) makes a big deal about safety:
Safety First and First in Safety
Our safety programs are the most comprehensive in the steel industry. In fact, AK Steel leads the industry in safety.
This is because they had some serious safety issues that they finally addressed. (Too bad British Petroleum still refuses to address its safety issues.)
The company had one of the worst safety records in the U.S. industry in 1996 with ten fatalities since 1993 and nearly $2 million in fines paid out to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
By 1998, however, management was able to turn the safety issues around by focusing on eliminating workplace injuries, revamping its safety and health programs, and getting employees as well as contractors involved in safety awareness. Its positive safety performance was rated by OSHA and the American Iron and Steel Institute, and the company claimed that it had the best performance out of the eight largest integrated steel firms in the United States. [encyclopedia]


AK Steel was listed #1 on the Mother Jones Top 20 polluters of 2010; dumping over 12,000 tons of toxic chemicals into Ohio waterways. 
In early 2015, the EPA listed the Ohio River as the most contaminated body of water in the U.S. According to the EPA's Annual Toxics Release Inventory, of the 23 million pounds of chemicals discharged into the river in 2013, more than 70 percent came from AK Steel. [Wikipedia]
Considering how polluted the Chicago river is, the Ohio River being worse is a rather scary thought. The Tribune had built their new printing plant by the river so that they could continue to receive rolls of newsprint from big boats. But they were told the river could not be dredged down to the needed draft because it would stir up the pollutants in the river's bottom. I wonder if this pollution issue is why they shut down the blast furnace at Ashland, KY in 2015.

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