On Oct. 21, 2014, TimkenSteel ran the first heat of metal through its jumbo bloom vertical caster (JBVC) at its Faircrest Steel Plant in Ohio. The $200 million investment will enable the company to increase capacity and improve the breadth of product offerings to its customers. By 2017, the company plans to run up to 85% of its Faircrest melt volume through the vertical caster.
TimkenSteel’s Faircrest Steel Plant, located near Canton, Ohio, is nestled into rural Ohio farm country. Cows graze only a short half-mile away, but they have had some company since Faircrest opened its doors and poured its first heat of steel on Aug. 5, 1985 – 30 years ago. The plant is located on 450 acres and houses individual steelmaking, ingot and continuous casting, and steel-processing facilities.
Late in 2014, TimkenSteel unveiled its new jumbo bloom vertical caster (JBVC), an impressive $200 million investment in construction and equipment. The very first heat was run on Oct. 21, 2014, and the crews working this three-strand JBVC started their training long before that. Not long after that first heat, FORGEgot its first look at the operation, which was impressive enough to prompt us to request a second visit, to which TimkenSteel graciously consented. So we went back in early April for a closer look and met up with Jim Sanders, the company’s senior manager of steelmaking strategy, who was very generous with his time and gave us some views we didn’t get on our first visit.
On our way from the office area out to the JBVC, we ran into another interested party, who paused briefly to talk with us. This was none other than Ward J. “Tim” Timken Jr., the chairman, CEO and president of TimkenSteel. It was his great-great-grandfather, Henry Timken, who founded the company.
The Back Story
In 2007, customer demand for TimkenSteel’s (at that time, it was just Timken) specialty steel outpaced the company’s ability to make product. The company’s executives started considering ways to increase production, and this was the conceptual birth of the vertical caster project. This got company executives to start working out the details of the concept and equipment designs, which eventually became part of the business case presented to the company’s Board of Directors.
Then, in 2008 and 2009, the economic bottom fell out of the steel market and product demand was drastically reduced. This caused the JBVC project consideration to be shelved, even though work continued on the process design and equipment specifications. This work finally paid off when, in the third quarter of 2011, the massive project was approved by the Board. Approval was contingent, however, on a favorable labor contract with the United Steel Workers (achieved in 2012) and state job-retention credits.
The vendor selection process began in earnest and a contract was signed with SMS Concast in March 2012. Put simply, the contract called for SMS Concast to design and supply all the major equipment for the project. Anything that touched or moved steel was part of this contract, which comprised about 25% of the total project’s cost.
The equipment contract commenced at a kick-off meeting in Zurich, and ground was broken at the Faircrest Plant in June 2012. Four months later, all the excavation, which went 100 feet below ground level, was complete and foundation concrete started flowing in December 2012. About a year later the foundations were all completed and concrete pours had reached ground level. Steel erection began in July 2013.
As the structure was being framed in steel and completed, equipment began arriving and was installed as construction permitted. Some equipment installation began in 2013, but the highest level of the structure – the casting floor – was completed in early 2014. By May, all the equipment was installed and the pipefitters and electricians could complete their work. In late June 2014, all equipment installation was completed and individual pieces could be tested, but coordinated commissioning of the entire line began in August, leading to the first official heat processed on Oct. 21, 2014. Through the end of March 2015, a total of 289 heats of metal had been processed.
It all starts in the adjoining melt shop, from which filled ladles are brought into the vertical-caster facility, one at a time, every 90 minutes. From the ground-floor staging area, the roughly 275-ton ladle (125-ton tare weight, including refractory), charged with about 150 tons of molten steel, is hoisted by cable 100 feet up to the casting floor. Once at height, the ladle is gently maneuvered into place and nested onto a receiving cradle, whose twin is located 180 degrees opposite and has been emptying its contents as the fresh ladle is hoisted into place.
When the ladle being cast has been emptied and the ladle with the fresh steel charge is in place, the ladles’ positions are switched by a large pivoting turret mechanism. The empty ladle is then lowered to the ground floor for a return trip to the melt shop and re-charging with steel. The full ladle, now in position, is opened over the tundish – a large refractory-lined receptacle that receives the molten steel – and begins the process of forming the three vertical strands that will become steel blooms as they solidify. The caster uses an optimized tundish design for cleanliness, and the advanced operating technology of the caster includes electromagnetic stirring, dynamic soft reduction, air-mist cooling and thermal treatment for optimized surface quality.
Just below the tundish a proprietary mold powder is added to protect the melt from oxidation and lubricate the metal as it descends vertically as strands through the system. During casting, metallurgical samples of the metal are taken and sent via a pneumatic-tube system to the lab for chemical analysis of the alloy in real time. From here, the metal passes (vertically) through water-cooled copper molds that form the strands, which are rectangles of 18 x 24 inches or 11 x 17 inches. Significant water is needed here for cooling, any interruption to the supply of which would result in the molds melting from the heat of the steel.
There are three strands of molten metal being formed into rectangular shapes at full-system capacity. As it passes through the molds, the molten metal becomes a solid shell with a molten core. The skin is thick enough to support the molten center, but as the strand travels downward through the molds it is squeezed – a process called soft reduction – before it fully solidifies, minimizing center porosity in the process. As finished blooms, some of the metal will go through TimkenSteel’s large forging press for further densification and some will just be rolled, depending on customer specifications.
Once the strands are fully solidified, a torch cuts through each, turning them into specified processing lengths. The cut sections, called “blooms,” are received by a “finger” on the bloom elevator. This is a mechanical platform that comes up to meet the cut bloom and lowers it onto a specially designed rail cart that transports the newly cut bloom into position for further processing or transport. Each bloom is bar coded to indentify it with the metal heat number, strand, etc.
The blooms are cut in lengths ranging from 7-22 feet. They are eventually processed into rolled sheets, billets, tubing and bars of various cross-sectional shapes.
TimkenSteel has upped its competitive ante through this $200 million investment. According to the company, the Faircrest Steel Plant now offers the world’s only jumbo vertical bloom vertical caster and an in-line forging press. The JBVC improves the company’s efficiency and flexibility, effectively expanding its product range and increasing its capacity to serve its target markets, among which are bearings, military hardware and heavy-machinery components.
TimkenSteel is gradually ramping up the amount of Faircrest’s melt that is going through the caster. The steelmaker has already cleared nearly all of the technical qualifications that it has pursued for the caster and is working through customer qualifications. The quality of the steel continues to exceed the company’s high expectations and those of its customers.