Operations: Special Products
In order to be a price-maker and not a price-taker, a metal company has to produce something unique, with a value above the commodity price of metal. This is the reason that Inco has been involved in making special products from nickel since 1944, when it made its first nickel powders in quantity. Product and market research continues at its nickel refineries in Clydach (Wales) and Copper Cliff (Sudbury), as well as Inco’s research centre in Sheridan Park (see p.61)
The Clydach refinery was built in 1902 by Ludwig Mond, and is still known as “the Mond”. He built it to commercially recover nickel using the carbonyl process that he and his chief engineer Carl Langer had developed. In 1929 the Mond Nickel Co. became a subsidiary of Inco. The Clydach refinery still uses essentially the same carbonyl process developed 113 years ago, although the technology continues to evolve. A modified form of that process is used at Inco’s nickel refinery in Copper Cliff (see p.38).
Granular nickel oxide is the feed, shipped to Clydach from Inco’s integrated mining operations. The carbonyl process has three key advantages: it produces very high quality product, consumes relatively low energy levels and produces no polluting waste products.
The main product at the Mond is nickel pellets. However, the carbonyl process lends itself well to making specialty nickel products. A portion of the nickel carbonyl is decomposed under different conditions to make nickel powders to a variety of specifications. Some of the powder is used to make coated products such as nickel-coated graphite.
Incofoam, a relatively new product, is a nickel foam product aimed at the rechargeable consumer battery and electric automobile industries. The process uses Ni-carbonyl gas that is decomposed to plate nickel onto polyurethane foam. The product is then passed through a furnace to remove the polyurethane. What is left is very high purity Ni as a foam that is shipped in coils to customers.
The Copper Cliff nickel refinery began the commercial development of Incofoam in 1994. A US$14-million expansion at Clydach completed in 2000 resulted in a new plant with capability for up to four Incofoam lines, as well as additional nickel powder decomposer units and improved capability to produce extra fine powders.
Product development to suit customer needs has increased the range of densities of the Ni foam products. High-density foams are suitable for application in fuel cells and electrolyzers. The nickel refineries produce foam with densities ranging from 250 to 5,000 g/m2, providing Inco with value-added products for a market that can only expand.
The Clydach operation has adopted a cross-functional approach to problem-solving.
A recent project team–the “Waste Busters”–has gathered representatives from technology, production, procurement, accounting and engineering. The purpose is to systematically identify waste in the systems and facilities, and determine how it can be eliminated, reduced, recycled or more cost-effectively managed. Comments Allan Bale, production director of Inco Europe Ltd., “The cross-functionality allows for the identification of overarching and systemic causes of waste generation that can arise from the horizontal nature of our material and work process flows.”
To date the refinery has six waste survey teams that are finding cost-saving opportunities. Some breakthrough thinking is already evident as the various functions pool their collective perspectives and views.
Clydach Village Regeneration Initiative
The Clydach refinery is adjacent to the small village of the same name, which was first built to accommodate employees. The provision of employee housing was a groundbreaking step in looking after employee welfare a century ago.
The operations have maintained a strong ongoing community profile, and employee loyalty has remained a key strength. However, as numbers of employees have significantly dropped over the past 25 years (from 1,500 to 268 today), the community infrastructure and commerce base have declined.
The Clydach operation management works with the local people on many supportive fronts, and in recent years formed a Community Liaison Committee made up of management and employees alongside village representatives. This group communicates about business conditions and provides a focus for donations to local needy causes such as schools, youth groups, hospitals and other groups.
Recent European grants have been earmarked for regeneration of communities affected by loss of employment and a declining local business environment. This part of South Wales is eligible for such grants, and with the active support by local business and political will, Clydach has been targeted for funding for regeneration projects. The refinery was able to provide office space and lend office equipment, and redirect some of the existing donations budget. This has provided a solid and well-funded base for regeneration work around the community.