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issue: August 2006 APPLIANCE Magazine

Metals and Metal Service Centers
Getting Through the Easy Times and the Hard


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by David Simpson, Contributing Editor

Suppliers offer new choices in metals as appliance companies contend with price rises and volatility.

Precision-slit, surface-critical stainless steel coils are processed at Macsteel Service Centers USA in Syracuse, New York, U.S.

Against a backdrop of historically high, unstable commodity prices and sometimes-spotty availability, appliance producers have had to cope. On the London Metals Exchange, aluminum pricing at one point in May was up 48 percent from its price in January. Copper more than doubled from the beginning of the year through late May. Zinc too has been up, and AK Steel (Middletown, Ohio, U.S.) hiked its zinc coatings prices three times in 3 months.
The litany could go on, but the bottom line is that appliance producers are going to have to live with the situation now and in the immediate future. Given that metals are commodities, appliance companies are restricted in their responses. This is especially true since plastics and other alternatives are also under pressure.
For sheet metals, downsizing metal gauges is one tried-and-true method to cut costs. “I recently removed a 20-year-old GE range from a relative’s house and replaced it with a new one,” recalls Peter Recchia, manager of sales and service at United States Steel (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.). “I couldn’t believe the difference - the new one seemed half the weight of the one being replaced. Companies continue to look at, and use, lighter gauges of steel wherever it makes sense. We run simulations for them in our Detroit tech center to see if designs will be efficiently formable and will have enough rigidity. We especially work with them on their new designs.”

Heat treatment adds strength to parts such as these. Heat treating can be done before or after parts have been formed. According to Blue Blade Steel (Keniworth, New Jersey, U.S.), working with pre-hardened material can be no more demanding than working with non-hardened metals. Shown here is a door bracket and motor brackets.

Stainless Choices

Stainless steel is of special importance for many major, commercial and medical appliance producers, not to mention makers of grills and even electric housewares. In the U.S. and elsewhere, the stainless steel look is hot. Stainless has gravitated from high-end, professional-style major appliances to more mid-priced products. But giving consumers the look they prefer at an attractive price has become an issue.
One culprit in pricing has been stainless steel’s nickel content. Nickel is at or near its highest price point since the 1980s. The 301 and 304 stainless steel grades commonly used in appliances contain from 6 percent to 8 percent nickel.
Alternatives to these high-nickel grades do exist. One choice is 201HP. With about 4 percent nickel, it is less costly than 304, while properties and appearance are said to be similar.
“There is still interest in coated 430 stainless steel products,” adds AK Steel’s Lee Price, principal engineer, Applications Engineering. “This has been especially true this year. Type 304 stainless has 8 percent nickel while 430 has no nickel addition. Surcharges for 304 stainless are U.S. $0.71/pound, but just $0.12/pound for 430 as of June 2006.”
However, 430 corrosion resistance and formability are reportedly not as good as 304’s.
Some appliance producers market steel with painted or film finishes that mimic the look of stainless steel or other metals. Vinyl film advantages might include lower cost, resistance to fingerprints and magnetic properties. This could permit the easy attachment of notes to a refrigerator door, for instance.
A recent market addition is PLADUR M, a coil-coated steel whose surfaces have the appearance of high-quality metals such as stainless steel, titanium or copper. The material comes from the Color Profit Center of ThyssenKrupp Steel AG (Ferndorf, Germany), and is now in use at a major home appliance manufacturer. The look is provided by a metalized film that is laminated to a readily formable coated sheet (electrogalvanized sheet or hot-dip coated GALFAN sheet) in a coil-coating process. The new product family is insensitive to fingerprints and can be supplied in both glossy and matte or brushed metallic finishes. The surface is also available in various colors.
An important point is that this system of steel, adhesive and film is suitable for all manufacturing technologies commonly used in the appliance industry. For instance, the material is amenable to deep drawing, folding, roll forming, and punching.
It also complies with relevant environmental and waste disposal requirements. Hexavalent chromium-free systems are used exclusively in the pretreatment of the coated sheet, and the material is halogen-and PVC-free. It is available in coil or cut lengths, with or without a strippable protective film.
Another stainless steel alternative is, perhaps surprisingly, porcelain enamel on steel, as David Fedak and Charles Baldwin of Ferro Corporation (Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.) wrote in the January 2006 issue of APPLIANCE. In their paper, “A Comparison of Enameled and Stainless-Steel Surfaces,” they wrote, “since the consumer preference is for the color, porcelain enamels with the appearance of stainless steel have been developed.” Beginning in 2005, stainless-steel-colored porcelain enameled steel has been used in Mexico and the U.S. in cooking appliances and grills.
Aluminum is also being billed as a stainless steel substitute. “In a response to the volatility of stainless, the aluminum industry has been active in proposing its own possible material solutions or substitutes where the product may fit component design,” John Dobek, president, Stainless & Aluminum Products, Macsteel Service Centers USA (Newport Beach, California, U.S.) tells APPLIANCE. “Aluminum is available in many alloy and temper combinations. It offers superior strength to weight when compared to other metals. Aluminum is available in a rolled-on finish (brushed), which gives it the appearance of stainless at one third of the weight, making it a cost-effective alternative.
“Clear coat appliance grade paint systems that are USDA approvable offer resistance to stains, chemicals and fingerprints. They are comparable to other appliance grade paints,” Dobek adds. “Currently there are no monthly surcharges in aluminum, and prices can be fixed forward or can float on an index with the market. If a customer so chooses, it can lock in costs for an extended time period, and avoid the price volatility that is commonplace with other metals.”

The Newest Steel Giant

In late June, the 6-month tug-of-war between steel giants Mittal Steel and Arcelor seemed to be settled: Arcelor’s board backed the latest merger offer from Mittal. Mittal already has European and U.S. antitrust approval for the merger, but the closing date of the merger transaction had not been announced as of press-time.
The new steel company that would result from the merger, Arcelor-Mittal, will be headquartered in Luxembourg and will be listed in New York, Paris, Madrid, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Luxembourg. The new company’s industrial and corporate governance model will be based on Arcelor’s model.
While Arcelor opposed the sale of Dofasco, its steel producing business in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, that sale appears likely as Mittal’s U.S. antitrust approval was contingent on the sell-off of Dofasco.

High-pressure die-cast (HPDC) parts made of aluminum are now reportedly able to have their strength doubled through a heat treatment process invented by Australian light metals researchers. While heat treatment is commonly used to strengthen wrought and other cast aluminum parts, it has previously not been practical for high-pressure die castings. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (Canberra, Australia) has developed a heat treatment procedure that reportedly provides large strength improvements and an excellent surface finish, without blistering or distortion. The added strength means parts need not be as heavy as they currently are to do the same task. A builder’s nail gun casing might be one appliance industry application. The organization reports that basically anything that requires cost-effective mass production of fairly complex high-strength aluminum castings can utilize this process.

DFLs Improve Metalworking

One area of growth seen by Macsteel is the wider use of coil-applied task- or function-formulated dry film lubes (DFLs) that can eliminate the use of oils during part/component processing.
“These have made manufacturing areas more efficient, quality proficient, as well as potentially cleaner and safer,” says Aaron Small, vice president, Coil Coated Services Group. “DFLs can improve the quality and efficiency of the drawn product, extend the die life of a properly aligned die set, improve the cleanliness of the work area, positively promote a safer work area, and reduce or eliminate disposal costs as a DFL relates to previously oil-soaked products and waste treatment areas.”
Coil applied dry film lubes have been around for many years, Small notes. “However, all DFLs are not created equal nor are they individually efficiently suitable for every combination of challenges,” he says. “Several companies have formulated and marketed DFLs and many of them have been successful for particular challenges. However, it is important that one takes into consideration the processes from receiving, through processing, through cleaning, through waste disposal, before choosing a DFL or a DFL supplier. We have been able to present a cradle-to-grave support team that can address in-plant issues that formerly presented manufacturers with road blocks and bottlenecks that kept them from reaching achievable success in this area.”
In some steel parts, heat-treating is used to provide added strength and ductility. A common approach is to form the parts, then heat treat them either in-house or at an outside operation. But recent improvements in metal lubricants and tool steel have been a factor in a growing market for pre-hardened high-carbon and alloy strip steel, according to Blue Blade Steel (Keniworth, New Jersey, U.S.). “Since it is pre-hardened, the steel requires a little increased tonnage,” points out President Jeremiah Shaw. “But with today’s improved tooling and lubes, metal workers are getting more hits and longer wear life. Given the right application and product, metal forming can be no more demanding with pre-hardened steel.”
Shaw observes that sending parts to an outside heat treater requires transportation and inventory control. There is also the risk of heat-caused distortion of treated parts. In contrast, working with a pre-hardened steel eliminates this post-forming step. Since the steel is continuously pre-hardened, there is a consistent grain structure, for good stamping properties.
“We have one appliance customer that was getting failures on washing machine brackets,” relates Shaw. “It wanted a part that had more strength, and could take a 90-degree bend. It considered using a high-carbon steel and heat-treating afterwards. But instead, it decided to go with a pre-hardened high-carbon steel. By doing so the company eliminates rejects that come about through distortion when post-hardening. Almost as important, it gets a finished part right off the press, with no need for secondary operations.”

A free-wheel steering system axle assembly containing 16 powdered metal (P/M) parts weighing 5.9 lb won the grand prize at the 2005 International P/M Design Competition sponsored by the Metal Powder Industries Federation. Used in a snowblower, the assembly, from Burgess-Norton Manufacturing Company (Geneva, IL, U.S.), consists of a stamped steel frame, bronze and plastic bearings, and a wrought steel axle. It functions as an on-demand operator-controlled differential traction system. The operator manually activates the system by pressing a hand lever mounted on the handle bars of the machine. The P/M parts range from single-level parts to intricate multi-level parts. The clutch pawl is produced to a net shape peripheral geometry that is said to be impractical or uneconomical with other manufacturing or material processes. All parts are close to net-shape and have a density range of 6.7-6.8 g/cm3. Secondary operations are limited to vibratory deburring and honing. The clutch pawl is sinter hardened, which allows oil impregnation. Because the sinter hardened material is quenched in atmosphere rather than in the liquid medium, the porosity can be filled with liquid lubricants. P/M reportedly provided a minimum cost savings of 50 percent over machine castings and wrought materials.

At War with Germs

One need look no further than antibacterial hand soap or ozone air purification to see that there is a market for germ-fighting products. Even in large appliances, antibacterial properties are finding a place. Earlier this year Samsung Electronics (Ridgewood Park, New Jersey, U.S.) introduced a new washer that uses silver ions to sanitize laundry. Two silver plates in the washer are acted on by electrical currents, which inject silver ions into the wash. Some 99.9 percent of odor causing germs are reportedly killed or removed. Other products in Asia, North America and Europe, including refrigerators and vacuum cleaners, incorporate silver linings.
Silver is not the only metal reported to have antimicrobial properties. Recent studies by the Copper Development Association Inc. and the International Copper Association, Ltd., have shown that uncoated copper and copper alloys can inactivate the more virulent strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria associated with hospital-acquired infections. The study shows that many common disease-causing microbes, including E. coli, Aspergillus niger (black mold), and Influenza A, die within hours on copper surfaces.
Anti-microbial protection is part of a line of metal coatings from Horizon Business Group (Northbrook, Illinois, U.S.). The metal coatings, called SureShield, include Ultra-Fresh antimicrobial protection and fingerprint resistance. “Ultra-Fresh compounds protect coatings from germination and outgrowth of microorganisms by changing the coating from one that is conducive to microbial replication to one that is non-conducive for replication,” explains Michael Jacobs, Horizon president. “Simply put, the finish provides a long-term solution for microbial protection and product cleanliness by inhibiting the growth of bacteria, fungi and a range of other microorganisms that can cause odors, staining, deterioration, and corrosion.”
The finish can be pre-applied via solvent-based baking enamel to one or both side of an aluminum, stainless or carbon steel coil. It can also be post-applied. One company that chose the latter option is Carter-Hoffmann (Mundelein, Illinois, U.S.), a commercial foodservice equipment producer. At customer request it will include the finish on its Nacho Chip Warmers.
“This has been an option since last September,” says Kim Aaron, marketing manager. “Most commonly, the door and integrated handle are coated. We can also have the interior coated, and even the exterior. When we have a customer request, we send the stainless steel parts to the finisher. The finish can come in any color. There is an upcharge for providing the coating.
“With this particular piece of equipment, there are people going into and coming out of it all the time,” Aaron explains. “On the inside, there can be food debris. Naturally, there may be concern about bacteria. However, we point out that the coating is not a substitute for good hygiene.”
“Anti-microbial coatings appeared to be ready to shock the world several years ago,” recalls Macsteel’s Small. “However, the growth didn’t necessarily meet the expected promise. Nonetheless, the coatings make perfect sense. Everyday the public is touched by more and more anti-microbial products. As the world gets smaller in terms of boundaries of travel and interaction, microbes (particularly bacteria, mold and mildew) are transported at incredible rates. Anti-microbial coatings inhibit the growth of microbes. This is a great adjunct to routine good-hygiene cleaning practices. Many higher-end product marketers are already including anti-microbial additives with their products. As the public invests in its environment more aggressively as it relates to the reduction of microbes, this type of coating on metal surfaces will take off.”

Motors with copper die-cast rotors, following years of research, are finally finding their way onto the market in greater numbers. Compared to motors with aluminum rotors, those with copper rotors can either increase electrical efficiency when motors are held at the same size, or reduce size and weight when horsepower and/or efficiency are held constant. In addition, according to the Copper Development Association, Inc., motors with copper rotors can cost less to produce. Siemens AG (Munich, Germany), has optimized the rotor design and recently introduced three new motor product lines to the North American market through its U.S. operating company, Siemens Energy & Automation, Inc. In addition to Siemens, Germany’s SEW-EURODRIVE GmbH & Co. KG (Bruchsal, Germany) currently offers its DTE and DVE series of high-efficiency motors with copper rotors. FAVI S.A. (Hallencourt, France), is producing die-cast copper rotors for use by other motor manufacturers, including ITT/Grundfos in Europe. FAVI has communicated with European appliance companies about appliance motors, and with Embraco (Joinville, Brazil) about compressor motor applications.

Teardowns Spark New Steels

Dofasco Inc. (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada) has developed an approach to customer service focused on cost reduction and improved efficiencies for customers. This approach is called Early Vendor Involvement. In this program, the integrated steel supplier works with a customer’s design team from the initial design stage to the finished product, employing its metallurgical, material science and manufacturing expertise to help customers achieve high performance with Dofasco-supplied material. This gives the customer access to knowledge and information that can lead to improved manufacturing processes, better quality materials, improved designs for future products, and significant savings through reduced costs.
The steel company pioneered this approach beginning in the late 1980s, when it took it upon itself to purchase customers’ products and systematically disassemble them in a rigorous, step-by-step process. The company then approached its customers with findings from this teardown approach, and suggested improvements that achieve a better product at a reduced cost. In many instances the steel company created entirely new steels. In fact, most of the specialty steels it makes today did not exist 10 years ago. This was a direct result of the Early Vendor Involvement program.
One of the success stories of this program is the Electrolux range manufacturing plant in L’Assomption, Quebec, Canada. “We have been conducting teardown sessions in L’Assomption since 1999, and each successive year we were able to improve on the amount of implemented cost savings,” says Stan Lipkowski, Dofasco projects manager - manufacturing, market development and product application. “In 2005 we had a record year. The implemented ideas from our teardown sessions resulted in reduced steel purchase costs for the customer.”
“We have joint tear down sessions with Dofasco representatives at an Electrolux Major Appliances facility,” confirms Rupesh Page, purchasing agent, steel and metal/stampings at Electrolux Major Appliances Canada. “We identify cost saving ideas during tear down, and after analysis the feasible ones are taken up as projects that are owned by both organizations. Resources are allocated accordingly.” A key benefit? “We get ‘out of the box’ ideas as we get access to good practices of the industries where Dofasco is supplying steel.”
Dofasco has conducted teardowns in conjunction with various North American appliance OEMs for virtually all major home appliances. By conducting a step-by-step teardown process and evaluating each part, its specifications, and its critical-to-quality parameters, it is able to determine whether any changes in steel grade or thickness, for example, could be implemented to reduce the overall unit cost. Past teardown sessions have generated several ideas pertaining to material utilization. Coupled with the company’s steelmaking capabilities, these have increased production yields for the customers’ steel parts.
At a time when appliance companies can no longer take their metals for granted, enlisting this kind of guidance from metals suppliers or metal service centers would seem to make sense for appliance companies eager to keep costs under control.

 

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