Pro-Tec invests in auto technology

Ohio firm puts $400 million toward processing lightweight, workable steel

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LEIPSIC, Ohio -- Officials with Pro-Tec Coating Co. say they are now able to process new grades of steel here that will play an integral role in helping the world's automakers meet the challenge of building cars that are lighter and stronger, providing drivers with better fuel economy as well as better safety.

Knowing the challenges automakers are facing as they work toward meeting government standards for fuel economy, the owners of Pro-Tec recently invested $400 million into the Putnam County plant to add a new continuous annealing line that can process especially lightweight, workable steel that retains superior strength.

The annealing process changes the physical properties of steel with precise heating and cooling.

"There's the chemistry of making the steel, and then there's the magic of the control of the temperature -- heating, cooling, and heating back up," said Bryan Vaughn, president of Pro-Tec. "That's giving us that really high strength and the good formability."

The line just recently began processing limited quantities of steel. On Monday, officials hosted a ceremony to officially commission the line and show off the process to media, government officials, and -- most importantly -- potential customers.

"We think advanced high strength steel is an answer to their challenge," said John Surma, the chief executive officer of United States Steel Corp. "We hope that they agree."

Pro-Tec is a joint venture of U.S. Steel Corp. and Kobe Steel Ltd. of Japan. The two major steel companies started Pro-Tec in 1990 as a way to help automakers fight corrosion by developing a special treatment process for steel. The Leipsic facility was completed in 1993. The company went from producing 600,000 tons of treated steel a year to more than 1 million tons a year with the addition of a second line in 1998.

The new line will produce 500,000 tons of high-grade, high-strength steel each year.

Officials said the expansion added 80 jobs to the facility, which now employs 317 people. It also created about 500 construction jobs.

Leipsic, a town of about 2,100 people 45 miles southwest of Toledo, is far from an industrial hub. Pro-Tec's building conspicuously rises from the ironing-board-flat farm fields on the north side of town.

But company officials say there couldn't be a better location for the plant.

Two major railroads intersect at the site, and Leipsic is centered among four U.S. Steel plants that supply its raw steel. Mr. Vaughn said it's also a central location for the company's customers.

Steel comes into the plant predominantly by rail in coils weighing an average of 25 to 30 tons. They're unloaded and stretched out, snaking through the new 1,300-foot-long processing line. The steel makes several passes through a natural gas-fired furnace that heats it to temperatures as high as 1,650 degrees. The steel then moves to an area where it is cooled, either by cooling jets or by a quick bath of water, depending on the grade. Induction heaters reheat the steel to finish the process.

It takes a coil of steel 20 to 25 minutes to complete the process.

The result is steel that can be formed into important structural supports for cars, trucks, and sport utility vehicles.

"These parts will be lighter than parts that are produced today, and they will also be higher strength to protect the passengers for safety purposes," Mr. Vaughn said.

Mr. Surma said in some applications, weight savings of 30 to 40 percent are possible.

Officials couldn't say Monday when the processed steel would first appear in automobiles. Each part has to be individually certified before it can be put into production. Mr. Surma said discussions are ongoing between Pro-Tec and customers.

"It didn't start today," he said. "Our technical groups have been having conversations about this type of product development for quite some time. And in fact, if we hadn't had those conversations, we wouldn't have built this line."

Pro-Tec is already a supplier to most major automakers that have manufacturing operations in the United States, and officials said they intend to reach those same customers with their new product.

Pro-Tec was awarded a $500,000 rapid outreach grant from the Ohio Department of Development related to the project in late 2010. At the time, the company said the new jobs would pay an average of $20.50 per hour.

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Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Tyrel Linkhorn is a reporter for The Blade.


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