Acciaierie Valbruna SPA, the Italian steel industry giant, is forging a strong identity in the United States, through its subsidiary, Valbruna Slater Stainless, Inc. This Indiana-based branch takes imported ingots and turns them into round cornered square billets and round bars, among other products, for its forging customers’ applications.
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While the identity is strong; it’s still a work in progress. The parent company makes ongoing investments necessary to development, reports Dan Harvey.
Based in Vicenza, a city located in northern Italy (near Venice), Acciaierie Valbruna SPA is a steel industry leader – producing and supplying stainless steel and special metal alloys for customers throughout the world. When the family-owned business wanted to increase its North American presence, it seized an opportunity and created Valbruna Slater Stainless Inc. in 2004.
“The family has always sought to enlarge its business by creating branches across the globe,” says Denis Benetti, special product marketing manager for Valbruna Slater. “Currently, it has nine branches in North America and more than 28 branches worldwide.”
As far as North America, the company recognized a need to open a production facility in the United States. That’s why it purchased Slater Steel in 2004. According to Benetti, Slater was a very important presence in the US steel industry, but a combination of circumstances forced it into bankruptcy. But that’s jumping ahead of the story.
100 YEARS OF COMBINED EXPERIENCE
All organizational elements considered, Valbruna Slater Stainless Inc. boasts a heritage of more than a century.
Parent company Acciaierie Valbruna SPA was founded in 1925 by Ernesto Gresele. Reportedly, Gresele was a businessman who decided to expand his metal trading activities by manufacturing his own forgings for agricultural usage, and other equipment in general, all obtained by the recovery and revitalization of disused or discarded manufactured items. (Today, we call this recycling; Gresele was ahead of his time.)
By 1939, his company began special steel production by establishing a melting shop and a rolling mill for bars (to accompany the traditional ironworks).
By the end of the 1950s, the company shifted focus from specialty low alloyed steels to high alloy steels, stainless steels, high-speed steels and specialty alloys. Meanwhile, the company remained family owned (as it is today), and that translates into continuity: It continually revitalizes its systems and renews its technology to maintain its hallmark high level of quality in finished product. Further, it continues serving niche markets.
Today, Acciaierie Valbruna – an organization that records about $ 1.2 billion in annual sales and employs about 2,500 people – produces stainless steel long products that include wire rod, wire, billets, ingots, round, square, hexagonal and round bars, angles and channels, in addition to stainless steel reinforcing bars.
Meanwhile, Slater Steel was going through its own evolution, with roots dating back to 1895 and a rolling mill. In 1928, the mill was sold to the Chicago-based Joslyn Manufacturing and Supply Co. The mill began producing stainless steel in 1939. By 1971, it was producing a variety of alloys. Ten years later, the plant was purchased by the Canada-based Slater Steel Industries (which expanded the enterprise; implementation of a $20 million bar mill in 1988 proved a major milestone).
But factors such as imports from competition compelled the company to file for bankruptcy. That’s where the Valbruna organization stepped in. “Slater Steel ceased production in 2003 and, in 2004, we bought the company. That same year, we restarted production,” recalls Benetti.
It was a strategic purchase. But at the same time it posed a big challenge for Valbruna, as the company restarted at the very beginning with only four employees. In its heyday, Slater Steel produced specialty steel bar products of stainless carbon and alloy steels, as well as various grades of hot-rolled round and flat bars, forged steel grinding balls, and billets, mold steels used for plastic injection and tool and die steels for metal forging.
When Valbruna restarted production in 2004, it transformed the site into a leaner operation, by making bars by melting metal ingot imported from Italy. Specifically, it produces stainless steel and nickel alloy round bars in a variety of sizes, grades, finishes and heat treatments that serve the aerospace and energy industries, among others.
But the story doesn’t stop there. “When Valbruna started it back up in 2004, we only had 34 employees,” recalls Benetti. “We restored and revamped everything throughout the abandoned facility. In particular, we didn’t start the melting shop, but we started to use the rolling mill. That is the core part of this plant. We are shipping our material from Italy, the cast ingot, to Fort Wayne. Here, we roll the ingot and build it into round, hexagon square bars or RCS billets. Once we started producing these forging products, we started growing. Today we have 110 employees.”
The new enterprise remained true to its parent company’s purpose – technology and system renewal to maintain high quality – and this it did through continued investment. “In every year of the eight-year existence, the company invested in new equipment and new product development,” says Benetti. “This, in turn, helped Valbruna Slater Stainless develop our market presence while supporting American Industry.”
This Valbruna Slater Stainless did, even in the toughest years in the first decade of the 21st century. “For us, 2009 was not a very nice year, but company ownership continued to hire and to develop the Fort Wayne facility, and to build the market,” says Benetti. “For instance, round production improved dramatically in 2009 when we invested in a new straightening and peeling line.”
This greatly improved productivity, he reveals. Further, he describes current output: “We produce round bars that range from 2.5 to eight inches. The RCS billets range from four-by-four to 16-by-16 inches. All size ranges are manufactured in Fort Wayne, and we transform the material with technology such as hot rolling. We also finish the material.”
In its eight years, the Fort Wayne site added a finishing line and a test controlling line, which involves phased-array technology. “It’s the latest available technology for ultrasonic testing of materials,” describes Benetti.
Other important investments include furnaces. These include two vacuum arc remelting (VAR) furnaces and an electroslag remelting furnace (ESR). The ESR process entails gradual melting of the lower end of a cast or forged electrode, through a layer of molten slag that’s metallurgically active. It goes into a water-cooled copper mold, and the result is extremely important in industries that require high-quality applications, aerospace for instance.
“All of the furnaces we’ve invested in lead to safer applications for the end user,” comments Benetti.
This is all part of an expansion project that started in 2006 and had an initial price tag of $20 million. In fact, the company has already invested $50 million into the Fort Wayne facility.
UP TO THE TEST
Valbruna Slater Stainless Inc. also enjoyed an additional investment that significantly expanded its testing laboratory – transforming it into a two-story, 16,000-square-foot building.
Testing is important for the company, to confirm product strength. Testing ensures that the metal, which can weigh up to 200 pounds a foot, will react predictably at various temperatures and altitudes. Again, this is very important for customers in the aerospace industry.
“It’s for chemical analysis,” relates Benetti. “Previously, we had to send our chemical testing to outside companies. Now we can do it internally.”
This leads to enhanced on-time delivery, and it led to Nadcap (the National Aerospace and Defense Contractors Accreditation Program) certification. “It’s one of the highest material testing lab certifications that anyone can acquire,” Benetti points out.
Valbruna Slater Stainless is also ISO 9001:2008 certified.
“So those are the major investments and accreditations that we’ve achieved in only an eight-year period,” says Benetti.
That should be enough for any company, but not for Valbruna. “We’re always looking ahead, seeking ways to expand our production capability,” says Benetti. “We’re well supported by our parent company, as it fully believes in the Fort Wayne long-range plan. After all, we were established for the purpose of strengthening the US market.”
This has made the company nimble. “The Fort Wayne plan demonstrates excellent flexibility,” comments Benetti. “We have to. We’re improving productivity at the same time that we’re focused on product quality, but we realized that we have to do it fast, because forgers require a short lead time.”
Indeed one of the things that differentiate Valbruna Slater Stainless Inc. is its ability to churn it out fast without sacrificing quality.
So what’s next? It’s in a very tough market, but it has no fear about doing what it needs to do to increase market share – or even venturing into new markets.
“Our owners aren’t afraid to invest. When they see an opportunity, they pursue,” says Benetti. “And they want to invest even more into the US branch, in terms of production capability and productivity.”
Where will this lead the company?
“Expansion of product size range,” answers Benetti. “We serve the power generation and aerospace industries, but we want to establish a stronger presence in the automotive industry. Fort Wayne is not that far from Detroit. We also want to expand into the medical sector.
“We’re already versatile, but we want to increase our versatility and establish long-standing relationships with new customers, no matter the market. Sure, these are long-term goals, but investments in this direction have already been made. Investments will continue.”
Prognosis? “We’ll achieve our goals,” says Benetti.