Steelmakers strive for a flawless finish

2013-10-22T17:30:00Z 2013-10-31T14:42:11Z Steelmakers strive for a flawless finishJoseph S. Pete joseph.pete@nwi.com, (219) 933-3316 nwitimes.com

HOBART | In recent years, local steelmakers have made major investments in automated systems that scan the metal's surface for any flaws, to better meet the increasingly exacting standards of automakers and other customers.

U.S. Steel has installed the technology in its Gary operations in the past few years. Cameras record the surface of the steel as it rolls through the line, and a computer uses a sophisticated algorithm to compare the footage to a database of potential flaws.

Quality control is crucial. Steelmakers stand to lose money if they ship out a steel coil and more than an inch of it has roll marks, slivers or gouges.

Steel industry professionals from across the world gathered Tuesday at Avalon Manor in Hobart to talk quality control at the International Surface Inspection Summit, where the latest products and developments were exhibited.

Representatives from more than 120 companies participated in the annual summit, which was held in the United States for the first time after previously taking place in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and China.

More than 170 people from across the U.S., Europe, Latin America and Asia descended on Hobart for the two-day conference. Germany-based company TEMA Technology Marketing coordinated the event, where vendors, professors and engineers shared the latest innovations in the field of steel-surface inspection.

"We chose the U.S.A. and the greater Chicago area because it's fully recognized as one of the top three manufacturing countries, with a growing reputation as one of the leading steel-producing countries in the world," said Grant Mahmutovic, a TEMA board member. "Secondly, especially in these days of the economic cycle, experience shows us quality is essential. Leaders in quality survive best in a crisis."

U.S. Steel has been investing in automated surface inspection systems for the past 15 years, said Anthony Bridge, vice president of engineering and research and development.

Automakers and other customers have become more demanding about the quality of the steel's surface, Bridge said. Defects in steel used to be measured as a percentage of the total surface but now are quantified in the parts per million. The expectation is that less than 1 inch out of every 16 miles of steel coil is flawed.

"Fewer imperfections results in reduced costs, better controls and easier detection," Bridge said.

Automated surface inspection systems typically cost at least $500,000 and can take up to a year to install, said Hal Long, manager of processing and control for ArcelorMittal.

The global steelmaker has installed 85 automated systems globally since 1994, including at its Indiana Harbor Mill in East Chicago and most of its U.S. operations.

"That's $40 million-plus in hardware," Long said. "There's also the installation, and having the people to run it. It's a major commitment to provide quality."

Many of the automated surface inspection systems in steel mills will need to be replaced or upgraded in coming years, Long said. The current systems have limitations, such as that they cannot detect flaws that are too small, are on surfaces that are too rough, or are on a line that is moving too fast. They also do not work in some operations, including plate and temper mills.

They can get confused in hot mills, when water is spraying everywhere. A system might report thousands of defects when in fact it's recording thousands of water droplets on the steel's surface.

"In real life, there are lots of challenges and great improvements that could be made to the current technology," said Liwei Zhang, a team leader with ArcelorMittal's global research and development center in East Chicago.

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