When stainless steel is incorporated into the manufacturing of automotive, foodservice, appliance and medical products, it is not just shipped on coils from the steel supplier to the manufacturer – steel service centers prepare the steel to the exact specifications required by the manufacturer.
This may involve precisely controlling the variation in thickness, improving the flatness of the steel, removing surface imperfections, slitting the steel to a particular width or winding smaller coils from a large one. But at Combined Metals of Chicago, it also includes nearly 300 finish variations for a multitude of end uses.
“Since restarting the polish/buff line in 2011, we have made great strides in making this a large part of our overall business,” Director of Sales Rick Soroka declares. “We’re a world-class polishing company. We have been qualified by many of the large appliance manufacturers in the U.S. Our coil-to-coil buffing line is second to none. We can match any finish in the industry. We’re one of the best in the country. We’re trying to get more and more of this business because it is one of our strengths.”
Combined Metals’ Bellwood facility offers precision slitting, leveling, polishing and buffing operations in 300 and 400 series stainless. It supplies many diverse industries including automotive, appliance, construction, petrochemical, roll formers, stamping and medical. The company also has facilities that can reroll metals that can hold extremely tight tolerances to a thinner thickness range. This process is called cold rolling.
“It is processed on a rolling mill with a cluster of highly polished and accurately ground rolls to produce the very tight thickness tolerance,” explains Mark Milie, general manager of Combined Metals of Chicago. “Following cold rolling, the stainless steel is annealed in a bright annealing furnace that will re-establish the mechanical properties of the metal. This heating or annealing is necessary because cold rolling elevates the metal’s mechanical properties, such as spring-back, and makes it harder. After the annealing process, the metal is typically tension-leveled for optimum flatness.”
Upgrading the Slitting
Technology at stainless steel service centers is not replaced often. “In the steel industry, equipment lasts forever,” Soroka declares. “But we maintain our equipment diligently and upgrade equipment on a regular basis.” In the next year, Combined Metals is considering an investment of approximately $1 million in improvements for its slitters.
“A million dollars’ worth of upgrades on slitters may seem like a lot of money, but it really is necessary.” Soroka maintains. “We want to stay competitive with our equipment. We put in an automated packing and shrink-wrapping line so every coil is protected from the elements. It’s made our packaging line a lot more efficient than it was two to three years ago. In terms of time, it’s probably improved our efficiency by 100 percent.”
Combined Metals processes many metals – such as aluminum and exotic nickel alloys – for other service centers and steel companies on a toll basis. “We do that for other service centers that are reselling to other customers,” Soroka notes. “One carbon steel service center doesn’t want to run stainless over their lines because of possible contamination from carbon steel.
“We do all their slitting of stainless steel and aluminum because that is all we run here,” he adds. “They are a very good toll processing account. We’re doing business for other service centers or even other mills. We have coils that come in here that have a poor finish on them. We will repolish those coils and make them look better than when they came in, and they can reuse them for another customer.”
Combined Metals carries approximately 5 million pounds of inventory. It receives computerized forecasts of its customers’ steel needs, approximately 65 to 70 percent of which is contracted. “I have my regular planning of inventory, but I have surprises,” Soroka concedes.
One recent surprise was increased demand from an appliance manufacturer who was raising its production for the replacement market after Hurricane Sandy. “There isn’t a day I’m not looking for a coil because some demand popped up we didn’t forecast or we have a new opportunity or prospect,” Soroka remarks. “That is what this market is all about, and the quicker you react, the better off you are.”
Combined Metals has a very experienced work force, many of whom have at least 25 years of experience. “We have the ability to slit from 0.002 inch up to 0.125 inch,” Soroka maintains. “Few service centers can do that.”
The company services all 48 states, Mexico and Canada, and has begun to export to Europe, especially Germany. AK Steel – which owns 40 percent of Combined Metals – is one of the company’s steel suppliers. Combined Metals has five plants in total.
“We’ve been growing incrementally over the last couple years, and we look at 2013 fairly optimistically.” Soroka remarks. “We are increasing our market share in many product lines. We’re going to be in pretty good shape in 2013 with some of the new business we have secured thus far.”