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HarbisonWalker scaling up US refractories output to meet higher steel demand

Pittsburgh — As steelmakers undertake a wave of expansion and investment in the US, refractory products supplier HarbisonWalker International plans to increase its own capacity by 25% this year to support the greater demand from domestic steelmakers, HarbisonWalker CEO Carol Jackson said Monday.

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Much of HarbisonWalker's investment will be focused on its White Cloud, Michigan, facility, which supplies brick refractory products for the steel industry, Jackson told S&P Global Platts in an interview on the sidelines of the AISTech Conference in Pittsburgh.

"We are truly investing across our entire company," Jackson said.

Last year the company built a new, state-of-the-art monolithic production plant in South Point, Ohio, marking a $30 million investment and the first new plant built by HarbisonWalker since the 1970s.

"This was a big deal for us, and also supports the steel industry," Jackson said.

HarbisonWalker's demand for refractory products to serve steelmakers is up roughly 15% year-over-year, though not all of that increase is directly attributable to the Section 232 tariffs on steel imports introduced in March 2018, Jackson said.

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"Our steel customers are experiencing a demand increase for a variety of reasons," she said. "Certainly 232 has been helpful. Our steel customers have benefited, and what's good for steel is good for us."

In addition to expanding its physical capacity, HarbisonWalker is also focusing on expanding the use of big data, Jackson said. While the traditional method for determining when to pull a ladle for a reline has largely relied on the experience of the workforce, with the addition of sensors, lasers and thermal imaging, steelmakers can now use the data gathered to make those decisions.

"We're moving more toward data-driven decisions where we can actually, based on sensor data, fully appreciate what is happening with that refractory lining and make smarter decisions about when to pull that ladle out of service to be relined," Jackson said.

To support the greater demand they are seeing for the company's products and services, HarbisonWalker is also hiring throughout its operations to grow its workforce, Jackson said.

"We are one of the largest service organizations in the industry...and our applications engineers are collaborating with customers to understand where their technologies are going to ensure their refractory products are compatible," Jackson said. "The more we can have a conversation and collaboration on delivering technologies, the better off everyone is going to be because we can support their needs more quickly."

-- Justine Coyne, justine.coyne@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Tom Balcerek, newsdesk@spglobal.com