Latrobe Specialty Steel has been able to change with the times with new processes and technologies that have enabled the company to participate in some of the most critical aerospace programs in the world. Lorie Greenspan tells the story of a company founded in 1913 that has perfected the craft of melting steel.
The depths of winter are good for a few things: the Olympic games, for instance. Or sledding, or ice skating.
Not on the list: constructing a 65,000-square-foot, 70-foot-tall plant that entails digging 40 feet into the cold, hard ground. But that’s what Latrobe Specialty Steel undertook between December 2007 and spring of 2008. By September 2008, the new VIM-VAR facility was up and running and Latrobe was on its way to advancing its position and reputation as a premier specialty steel manufacturer.
“I joked to Dan Hennessy, our senior vice president of manufacturing, that this is why armies don’t move in the winter,” said Latrobe Manager of Engineering Neal Fenton, referring to the harsh winter they endured. During the course of 48 days of major excavation and construction, the crew braved rain, snow or sleet during 42 of them. Having to plan in between frigid temperatures often forced the pouring of concrete on a Sunday, and even then the area had to be covered with tarp and warmed with portable heaters to allow the concrete to properly cure.
Aside from the weather, the project was fraught with other challenges. One issue was to ensure the new building could house a 30-ton VIM (vacuum induction melting) furnace, which entailed digging 40 feet into the ground. The furnace’s chamber extends 25 feet into the ground and extends upwards another 40 feet from ground level, for a total height of between 60 to 70 feet.
To add to the workload, Latrobe was forced to order the building’s overhead crane ahead of time, even before knowing where the facility would be placed. “At times we had the crane operating with only a portion of the building completed. Sometimes the crane was exposed to the elements,” says Fenton, who was the project manager.
When all was done, Latrobe Specialty Steel’s VIM-VAR expansion won by unanimous vote the Association for Iron & Steel Technology’s (AIST) award for 2009 Project Excellence. In announcing the award, AIST cited how Latrobe and its partners (Continental Design and Management Group of Pittsburgh, Pa. and Consarc of Rancocas, N.J.) used a modified design-and-build technique “to construct the world’s largest vacuum induction melting furnace in record time starting in the snowiest months on a brown-field site.”
At the time the award was announced, Hennessy said Latrobe used “the most modern project management tools [and] cultivated unique relationships with the construction companies, anengineering firm, a key equipment supplier and the building trades.”
The construction project targeted the growing demand for premium vacuum-melted steel for the essential aerospace and defense markets. As a result of this expansion, customer lead times fell precipitously from 72 weeks to about 20 weeks. “I congratulate the team on an award they deserved,” adds Hennessy
Located in the town of Latrobe, Pa., in the Appalachian foothills, 40 miles east of Pittsburgh, Latrobe Steel’s VIM-VAR project was the latest initiative in a company history that dates back to 1913. Founded by Marcus Saxman Sr. with Charles Guttzeit and other Latrobe-area businessmen, the business was christened the Latrobe Electric Steel Company. It revolutionized American steel making with NorthAmerica’s first electric arc furnace, a six-ton Heroult model. Through the years, the company transformed the steel industry and, in the 1950s, made the decision to adopt vacuum arc remelting or VAR technology to produce high-purity steel for aerospace customers, which remains the company’s largest market.
“In the 1950s, the aerospace industry was in need of specialized alloys. As that industry has grown, demand has changed and we changed along with the times and developed different alloys,” Fenton says. In addition to the recent expansion, Latrobe maintains about one million square feet under roof along with a distribution business at several locations. The company employs about 800.
THE VIM-VAR ADVANTAGE
Latrobe’s hallmark, of course, is its VIM-VAR special melting processes. VIM is a process for melting metal under vacuum conditions using electromagnetic induction. It works by creating electrical eddy currents in the metal, which heats the “charge” to melt it. This process is used for the refining of high purity alloys. VAR, or vacuum arc remelting, is a secondary melting process for production of metal ingots with elevated chemical and mechanical homogeneity for highly demanding aerospace and defense applications. In addition to its two VIM furnaces, Latrobe maintains 17 VAR furnaces plus multiple overhead cranes.
Such capabilities have placed the company squarely in the supply chains of the biggest aerospace producers on the planet like Boeing and Airbus. To maintain its solid position, Latrobe has earned certifications that include AS/EN 9100, ISO 9001, ISO 9001: 2000, NADCAP and ISO 17025.
“We’re one of the few companies committed to specialty alloys that are iron-based,” notes Fenton. “That’s one of our core competencies, along with other high-performance alloys.”
Iron-based alloy meets certain tensile strength, wear resistance and fatigue requirements for critical applications, he stresses. Other alloys used by the company include nickel, titanium, manganese, silicon, chromium, molybdenum, vanadium and cobalt.
Latrobe’s alloys can be found on all military jets and rotor craft. It’s particularly fortuitous for the company that the Department of Defense plans to increase its use of helicopters in the military. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) says that in coming years substantial attention will be paid to helicopters. Vertical lift has been indispensable to counter-terrorism operations and demand will remain high in the future, the QDR states.
And that means that demand will remain high at Latrobe, whose expertise and craftsmanship at melting steel will no doubt continue to leave its mark in aerospace, defense, energy and other industries.