A new day is dawning for the Norwegian metals industry. For a while, it appeared as if the industry was becoming a massive, outmoded dinosaur, heading dangerously towards extinction. But recent upgrades in expertise, productivity and performance have helped the industry turn the corner and lead it in a direction of promise and profitability.
Recent plant closures across the country, such as Elkem's works in Mo i Rana, Fesil Lilleby Metall in Trondheim, Globe Hafslund Metal in Sarpsborg and a Hydro Magnesium facility at Porsgrunn painted a gloomy picture for the future of metals in the country. When one added these facts to the overall depressed market for the industry's products, along with increasing capacity in China and other low-cost competitor nations, it appeared to signal the industry's demise in Norway.
Norwegian producers, with their high labour costs, were finding it difficult to compete in an increasingly globalized marketplace. Despite a highly skilled workforce, plentiful electricity supply and world leadership in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it seemed too tight of a market for Norwegian companies such as Norsk Hydro and Elkem to be competitive as producers.
|Norsk Hydro's aluminium works at Sunndal are the largest in the world, part of a NOK 15 billion investment the company has made into its metals infrastructure in Norway.
In the course of the past few years, however, this downward trend has proven itself to be little more than a temporary slump, as Norwegian companies have taken measures to upgrade expertise, productivity and performance. For instance, Norwegian metals facilities have been significantly upgraded and modernized. Hydro has invested NOK 15 billion into domestic facilities in the past decade. The major project in that effort was the NOK 5.5 billion aluminium works in Sunndalsora - Europe's largest. Elkem has also invested heavily in its future. An extensive modernizing and upgrading of the aluminium factory at Mosjøen came at a price tag of NOK 1.8 billion. And the investments in increasing capacity are already producing results. Exports of Norwegian metals increased by over 10 percent from 2002 to 2003, to a total of almost NOK 40 billion. And, in the first five months of 2004, the export of Norwegian metals increased by nearly 30 percent.
Hydro Leading the Way
Norsk Hydro, the leading Norwegian metals producer, feels confident that it will continue to lead the resurgence of the Norwegian metals industry. As the third-largest light metals producer in the world, the Oslo-based company produces 1.47 million tonnes of primary metal annually. It also supplies the market with 3.3 million tonnes of aluminium, including 1.2 million tonnes of remelted and recycled metal. While investing heavily at home, Hydro has also internationalized much of its metals operations. The company produces alumina in Brazil, Jamaica and Germany, plus primary metal in Australia, Canada, Germany and Slovakia. Hydro also has casthouse operations linked to the metal plants, and specialized remelt plants in Europe and the United States that upgrade scrap and lower-quality metal.
The complexity of running plants in the new marketplace of increased environmental regulation will take its toll on some of Hydro's facilities, however. Citing a need to comply with environmental regulations, the company has decided to close down the oldest production lines of the Høyanger and Årdal plants, and the Søderberg potlines, at the end of 2006.
Automobiles Driving Success
Significantly, Norsk Hydro manufactures automotive components in Europe, the United States, Mexico, Brazil and China. This extensive network is not surprising, since it has been the automotive market that has been the star performer for Norwegian metals companies. The reason is that automakers are increasingly turning to light, strong aluminium to create a new generation of fuel-efficient, more agile cars.
But it is the plasticity of the metal that is getting the most public attention. In fact, 007 drives an Aston Martin Vanquish in the James Bond film "Die Another Day", and is able to dodge the bad guys thanks in part to Hydro Aluminium Automotive's body structure. The structure is a combination of aluminium and carbon fibre, bonded with high-strength adhesives for a strong, light and durable result.
|Along with the BMW Z8 shown here, Hydro Aluminium Automotive also delivers aluminium spaceframe solutions for Lotus and Aston Martin.
Not everyone drives as recklessly as Mr. Bond, thankfully, but for those times when an accident does happen on the road, Norwegian metal producers are industry leaders in crash management technology. The Renault Mégane II - the 2003 European Car of the Year - sports a Hydro bumper beam. "The bumper beam solution from Hydro had to perform well at both low and high impact at once, which is a complex engineering challenge. Hydro has played an important part in helping Mégane II achieve both of these key requirements," says Bertrand Rochette, head of Body Advanced Design and Structural Engineering at Renault.
An advanced bumper beam on your car may never be noticed in everyday life, but metals innovations are taking on an expanding role in more visible, everyday situations as well. Norsk Hydro's Automotive Structures business unit now produces a two-piece folding wheelchair access ramp that helps disabled passengers get into taxis. The ramp fits flush with the passenger compartment floor and can be unfolded to the curb or ground level by the driver, if the situation calls for it. The metal is light enough to be easily handled by the driver, yet strong enough to support 300 kilograms in weight. "It had to be light and obviously the strength had to be there," says Matthew Cheyne of LTI Vehicles, manufacturer of the British taxis that will make first use of the ramps. "And it had to be as thin as we could get it because of tight space. It's very easy to open, with simply a turn of a screw."
Even products as commonplace as a pack of gum are often a result of the industry's innovations and creativity. Metal foils can now be delivered in gauges of down to 6.35 microns (each micron is 100 times thinner than a single strand of human hair). This super-thin foil stock is supplied by Hydro to Brand Packaging Ltd. of Manchester, England, which in turn supplies paper-backed foil to chewing gum giant Wrigley. What's more, metal foils are being put to work for customers in the food, pharmaceuticals, tobacco, toiletries and household goods markets.
World's Largest Ilmenite Deposits
Aluminium is not the only part of the Norwegian metals industry that is enjoying success. The world's largest ilmenite deposit is utilized by Titania A/S, a mining company headquartered in Sokndal with nearly 250 employees. Titania's large-scale open pit operation is centered at the Tellnes ilmenite deposit, which stores reserves of 400 million tonnes of the ore.
From the raw material, Titania produces ilmenite concentrate through a complex ore dressing process. Magnetite and sulphide concentrates are also produced as bi-products. All the output is then shipped in bulk to customers from Titania's loading pier located in Jøssingfjord.
|Titania's Tellnes open pit ilmenite deposit, which was discovered in 1954 by an aeromagnetic survey, is the world's largest.
Ilmenite, an oxide of titanium and iron, is the main raw material for the titanium dioxide pigments industry. Customers for this product are primarily European pigment plants as well as the ilmenite smelter in Tyssedal in western Norway. In terms of Norwegian processors, Kronos Titan AS in Fredrikstad (a sister company of Titania) produces titanium dioxide pigments from the Tellnes ilmenite. The applications for these pigments are incredibly wide-ranging, as they can be found in everything from house paint to toothpaste to instant coffee, from milk cartons to novel pages and almost everything in between.
Silicon Shining Brightly
Norwegian silicon metal has been put to exciting new uses by ScanWafer, which is now one of the world's largest suppliers to the solar energy industry. The company, which was founded in 1994, has become a world leader in the production of polycrystalline wafers, a key component of solar panels. In recent years, ScanWafer has accounted for about 20 percent of all deliveries of these types of wafers to the world's solar cell producers. It currently holds the position of the third-largest wafer producer globally.
The quality of a solar cell is measured by its efficiency. Only a portion of the sunlight that hits the cell is converted to electricity. The greater the percentage of light that is converted to electricity, the more efficient the cell is considered to be. Today's best polycrystalline wafers have an efficiency rate of 15 to 16 percent, and ScanWafer delivers wafers in this top-quality category. Thanks to significant investment in the latest technology, the company now operates with a capacity of 87 million dm2, and is able to produce super-thin wafers from raw material sliced as thin as a mind-boggling 280 microns.
|ScanWafer has become a world leader in the production of polychristalline wafers, a key component of solar panels.
Competence is Key
Innovations like the bumper beam, the Bond car body structure and super-thin foils come from creative thinking, which in turn calls for fresh ideas from a new generation of engineers and designers. Norwegian companies are relying on NTNU to supply the skilled workforce needed to drive the revival and resurgence of the Norwegian metals industry. Established in 1996 as a development of the University of Trondheim, NTNU traces its origins to a merger of the Norwegian Institute of Technology (NTH), The College of Arts and Sciences (AVH) and the Museum of Natural History and Archaeology (VM).
Adding to the cultivation of improved Norwegian metals competence is The Foundation for Scientific and Industrial Research (SINTEF). Working in partnership with NTNU, SINTEF is the largest independent research organization in Scandinavia. Most significantly, the Research Council of Norway, SINTEF, NTNU and the industry have launched a major competence development programme under the title NorLight.
The programme, financed jointly by the Research Council (60%) and the industry (40%) is a five-year, NOK 20 million effort to ensure Norway's continued expertise in the next generation of metal working. According to SINTEF's website, NorLight's goal is to "provide the necessary competence required for increasing the Norwegian light metals industry's turnover on finished products and components from NOK 3.5 billion in 1999 to NOK 10 billion in 2010, which corresponds to 10% annual growth and approximately a 70% increase in number of employees". NorLight's portfolio includes projects in the areas of metal forming, surface science, structural response, fatigue & durability, capacity of multi-stiffened plates, crashworthiness, design & production, shaped castings, and heat treatment fundamentals.
The expertise and problem-solving acumen of the faculty at NTNU and SINTEF is receiving worldwide praise. In fact, the 2004 Light Metals Award, presented by America's Metals, Minerals and Materials Society (TMS), was awarded to a group of NTNU and SINTEF engineers and doctors. "Field Study of the Anodic Overvoltage in Prebaked Anode Cells" was a paper authored by Dr. Sverre Rolseth, Hank Gudbransen, Nolan Richards and Jomar Thomstad. The TMS called it an "outstanding paper, meeting the criteria of exemplifying the application of science to the solution of a practical problem". If carried out, the group's findings in the area of anodic overvoltage in aluminium electrolysis could help save companies acting in this area of aluminium production up to $70 million/year combined.
Growth and Opportunity in the Future
Much of this competence will be focused on aluminium, as Hydro and other companies expect continued growth in this sector over the coming years. One reason for the growth is that aluminium is a very good recycling candidate, as it takes only five percent of the energy originally used to create the metal to remelt and recycle it. And the end result shows no loss in strength or pliability. Worldwide aluminium consumption has increased by an average annual rate of three percent, and experts think this growth will continue, probably at a rate of more than four percent per year, in coming years.
With a growing aluminium market, a steady supply of creative thinkers and skilled technicians from the nation's technical schools, and newly upgraded production facilities, the Norwegian metals industry is prepared to meet the array of challenges which the upcoming generation of metals opportunities will bring.