By Andrea Svendsen, Managing Editor.
Editor’s Note: This is a slightly extended version of an interview that first appeared in April 2017 issue of Light Metal Age, as part of a longer article on the the current status and outlook of the aluminum billet industry in North America. The original article included interviews from executives at Alexin, Hydro, Matalco, Nanshan America, UC Rusal, and Service Center Metals, each of which will appear online over the coming weeks.
Bob Katsiouleris joined UC Rusal in 2015 as director of European Sales, and was promoted to export sales director in November 2016. In his current role, he is responsible for the company’s regional sales strategies, working to meet and exceed expectations in the areas of quality, delivery, and competitive market offerings. Katsiouleris has more than 15 years of experience in senior operational and commercial roles in the areas of base metals and industrial minerals. Prior to joining Rusal, he worked for companies such as Nyrstar Zinc and Rio Tinto Minerals.
What is the current status of Rusal’s aluminum billet business? What are the main geographic markets that the company serves?
Rusal is one of the world’s largest producers of primary billet. We currently manufacture more than 450,000 tonnes of billet annually and have casting platforms that can produce billets of all sizes. The majority of our production is 6xxx series alloys and we also produce hard-alloyed billets, which are 6061, 6005, and 6082. Those are unique products in their applications and segments, thanks to their quality and specifications. We sell 25-30% of our billets in Europe, and the Americas (including Mexico) capture another 30-35% of our billet business. Russia and CIS domestic markets absorb 25% of our production and Asian markets make up the rest at 10-15%.
How much of the company’s aluminum billet is made from prime versus remelt/recycled material?
Currently, Rusal does not use scrap to produce billets.
How does Rusal add value to its aluminum billet operations?
First of all, we do the majority of our business by selling to our customers directly. Second, we are very focused on providing customized products where we can. We do a variety of sizes, cut billets to length, and follow various specification requirements from our customers. Across all of our products globally, more than 70% of our sales are handled directly — something we are proud of as we strive to meet our customers’ expectations.
Has the company implemented any new technology developments recently to improve production efficiency, quality, and specification of the billet produced? Does it plan to make such improvements?
In June this year we are going to introduce our new billet production facility at Krasnoyarsk aluminum smelter, one of the largest smelters in the world and our company’s key site for testing and introducing new cutting-edge technologies. The plant is focused on high quality products and it has a technological capability to cast hard alloyed products. The capacity of the new casting line will be 120,000 tonnes of billet per year and it will focus on the production of a new size range of billet, including an option to produce large diameter billets of 19 inches. All those new products will be available to be sold globally.
How has the manufacture and supply of billet changed over the past decade? What do you predict for the future of the worldwide aluminum billet industry?
Over the past decade the market has changed significantly. Recently, we have seen more new origins on the supply side. The amount of primary billets available in the market has substantially increased, notably from India and Malaysia; and we have also seen the growth of the secondary billet market — notably in the Turkish, Czech, German, and Eastern European markets.
Along with the increase in supply, we see a very healthy growth pattern for billets led by the building sector and the automotive extrusions market, as hard alloy billets are gaining a wider acceptance for structural and body-in-white applications. We have just returned from the Geneva Motor Show where it’s clear that extrusions are going to play a much bigger role in the design and manufacturing of cars in the near future.
How stable would you say the North American aluminum billet industry is at the moment? What are the challenges it is currently facing? What are the growth opportunities?
The industry is very stable and it will experience relatively good growth in terms of demand. The only concern for us is a slight slowdown in the U.S. automotive sector and in the U.S. housing. However, we are expecting interesting opportunities in North America due to the infrastructure plan that the new administration has announced. We believe that it could drive demand for aluminum in the U.S., as it represents the biggest infrastructure spending in the U.S. since the 1950s. Meanwhile, automotive still has a lot of room for growth for billet and extrusions, especially for structural components.
How much has the growth in the use of aluminum extrusion for automotive impacted the aluminum billet industry?
The increasing usage of aluminum extrusion by the automotive industry is the biggest trend in the industry today. We are seeing that it drives our domestic business, as well as our European business in terms of batteries, crash management systems, panels, and structural parts. Extrusions are not only replacing other aluminum parts, but they are also replacing steel parts, plastic parts, and high purity iron parts and are quickly becoming a material of choice in the automotive sector.
One of the things to mention here is that we’re seeing an enormous amount of growth potential in what we call “hard alloys.” Such billet has a much better strength and hardness for automotive and other applications. Rusal has the ability to cast and supply the entire range of hard alloys, which is essentially 6061, 6005, and 6082 alloys. Importantly, we will be able to cast these alloys in the new line at the Krasnoyarsk smelter in large diameters, that may also allow us to enter the large forged parts (wheels) sector.
Andrea Svendsen has been with Light Metal Age for over ten years. In her role as managing editor of , she addresses all areas of the magazine’s editorial focus. She works with authors, participates in industrial plant tours, performs interviews with industry managers, and writes feature articles to ensure relevant information is featured. Her editorial experience, along with her attention to detail, is critical in the production of the magazine.