Steel is the backbone of the region's economy, and there are signs of back pain again.
The steel industry is under pressure on multiple fronts, its executives say.
We could see another wave of consolidation in the industry, predicts Mark Millett, recipient of the Association of Iron and Steel Technology's Steelmaker of the Year Award.
All it takes is a look at Northwest Indiana's Lake Michigan shoreline to see the effects of the earlier wave of consolidation. A series of bankruptcies in the early part of this century wiped out Bethlehem Steel, Ispat Inland, National Steel Corp. and LTV. Now only ArcelorMittlal and U.S. Steel own major steel mills here.
"It's not easy to make money in the steel industry, but it's not impossible," said Millett, president and CEO of Fort Wayne-based Steel Dynamics.
Making that profit more elusive is a glut of foreign steel, the result of excess steelmaking capacity worldwide.
The domestic steel industry needs protection from steel dumping by foreign steelmakers.
Industry leaders said at a recent Indianapolis conference that the domestic steel industry is "under assault" from subsidized imports being sold below market rates. That's the definition of dumping — a way for foreign steelmakers to knock out U.S. competitors.
"We need a full-court press to educate policymakers and the customers who write the purchase orders," said Douglas Mathews, U.S. Steel's senior vice president for North American flat-rolled operations. "They need to comprehend this affects the whole supply chain, from our manufacturing operations in Indiana and Ohio to our pipe and tube mills in Texas."
Trade regulators must take appropriate action as well.
"Publicly traded steelmakers are facing the harshest operating environment in years," Mathews said.
Maintaining a strong domestic steel industry is a national security imperative.
The weapons of war require steel, and the prospect of a world at war requires the ability to produce sufficient steel to meet U.S. demand.
Assistance from Purdue University Calumet and others to help improve the steelmaking process is appropriate, too. As an example, PUC's Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation can produce 3-D models to show the steelmaking process more easily.
The use of university resources to help industry is a time-honored tradition, but more can be done — and must be done.
Steel remains the backbone of the region's economy, so assistance to level the playing field is vital.