Always Something New

The key to success in the steel business (as in all business) is quality. In steel, quality is measured in consistency from heat to heat. Like most alloyed steels, the Ugima brand of free machining stainless produced here is a recipe. Getting the ingredients exactly right from heat to heat is how one stays in business. I was impressed during my visit at the attention to detail paid to this at each juncture of the production process.

 

During my recent visit to the Simodec Show in France (see Similar Tale, Different Languages), I took advantage of an invitation to visit Ugine, France, home of Ugitech’s mill for producing stainless bar and wire rod. Truth be told, it was my first visit to a working steel mill. Previously, the closest I had been was a stint working in a gray iron foundry early in my career. Therefore, my observations here are pretty much straight reporting, because I don’t have a base of comparison. It was both interesting and educational, which, at my age, I always consider a bonus.

My first thought upon driving into the steel works for Ugitech (Ugine-Savoie) was “what a beautiful place for a steel mill.” I’ve seen Gary and Hammond, Indiana, and I made visit to Pittsburgh long ago, when the “Steelers” name made sense. But put those images out of your mind when you picture Ugitech. Oh sure, it’s a steel mill—primary metals production is still a pretty dirty business—but this place does a very good job of keeping house. And that’s fitting when you realize where they put this mill a century ago.

The town of Ugine is nestled in a valley that itself is nestled in the French Alps. It’s a beautiful place, not far from Albertville (think winter Olympics 1992). In one of the test facilities (this mill is set up like a campus with numerous building for various purposes), the front of the building is glass, which allows an inspirational view of the snow-capped mountains. It’s nice work if you can get it.

I asked our guide, “Why put a steel mill here?” Like many countries, most of France’s steel industry is concentrated near cites like Lyon. Ugitech’s founder, my guide says, was from this area and with adequate water for power and a ready market for barstock nearby, it seemed to make sense. A century later it still does.

That ready market our guide referred to is the reason we found ourselves in France in the first place. The Simodec show, an international trade fair dedicated to screw machined products, is held not far from Ugine. The show is held in this part of France because of the large number of shops that grew up a couple of valleys over to serve the Swiss watch industry. At one time, I’m told, there were more than 2,000 shops (there are still around 1,000) all located in a single valley—literally lining the streets—churning out millions of parts a year. If location is everything, the mill makes good sense.

As I said, this was my first steel mill; however, I have visited many production facilities and that is, after all, what they do here. Stainless bar and wire are the products that come from this mill. This Ugitech mill is part of a much larger steel producer, Arcelor Group, which has additional plants around the world. Altogether, this group employs more than 100,000 people worldwide on four continents with sales of more than 30 billion Euros. As bucolic as the Ugine mill location is, the company is a global player in the stainless steel market.

The plant uses a continuous cast method to produce stainless steel blooms 205 mm square by 3 m. Each is one metric ton of stainless. The blooms are processed through various departments in the mill, resulting in a product range in round bar from 22 mm to 130 mm in diameter. This mill makes wire from 5.5 mm to 32 mm in diameter.

The key to success in the steel business (as in all business) is quality. In steel, quality is measured in consistency from heat to heat. Like most alloyed steels, the Ugima brand of free machining stainless produced here is a recipe. Getting the ingredients exactly right from heat to heat is how one stays in business. I was impressed during my visit at the attention to detail paid to this at each juncture of the production process.

Each heat is tested, retested, analyzed, documented and generally obsessed over by a team of technicians who have the power to reject any heat that isn’t up to snuff. That’s how a company plays globally, and that’s why Ugitech is a global player.