Investing in Ceramics: Abrasives Merger Secures Domestic SiC Source
Washington Mills sees the move as a logical next step in its demonstrated long-term commitment to the electro minerals business. “We believe our customers’ interests are best served by having a strong and financially secure North American electro minerals supplier with modern fusion and processing plants, supported by active R&D and customer service groups,” says company president, Peter Williams.
The merger includes all of Exolon-ESK’s state-of-the-art crushing, processing and furnace plants in Thorold, Ontario, Canada; Tonawanda, N.Y.; and Hennepin, Ill.; as well as its 50% share of the Orkla Exolon silicon carbide operation in Norway. Every facility is ISO 9002 certified, consistent with Washington Mills’ emphasis on quality in service and products.
Washington Mills was already reportedly North America’s largest supplier of electro fused materials for worldwide markets. Its product line was considered the broadest in the business in terms of chemistry make-up, including monoclinic zirconia, zirconia mullite, nuclear grade boron carbide, chrome aluminas, mullite and a diverse range of other specialty fused minerals. This was the result of a policy of continued reinvestment in plants, equipment and new product development. Until the merger, however, Washington Mills only processed silicon carbide—putting the company at the mercy of having to buy it from other suppliers. “As a manufacturer, we are now the controller of our own destiny,” says Williams.
A Shared History of ExcellenceBoth companies supply silicon carbide, aluminum oxide and specialty electro fused materials for abrasive, refractory, metallurgy, surface finishing, electronics and optics applications. Both have long-standing reputations for high quality products, advanced manufacturing capabilities and application engineering expertise. And both have engaged in strategic mergers that contributed to their becoming world leaders within their industry.
This most recent acquisition brings together well-known Exolon-ESK products, such as Carbolon™ MA (a premium metallurgical silicon carbide), Tecepol (cerium oxide based polishing powders), FASTBLAST™ abrasive grains (fused aluminum oxide) and micro grit powders with Washington Mills lines such as DURALUM™ and BLASTITE™ (aluminum oxides), DURAMEDIA® (ceramic media), and Silcaride™ (silicon carbide), as well as a diverse group of advanced specialty electro-fused minerals.
Efficient, Environmentally Friendly OperationsExolon-ESK’s Hennepin, Ill., facility is believed to be the most advanced, environmentally safe silicon carbide plant in the world. The installation in 1998 of a $13 million Dow Sulferox™ process for the removal of sulfur gas byproduct has created a virtually pollution-free SiC furnace operation, assuring the U.S. of a domestic SiC furnace plant that will meet all federal regulations for decades to come. The plant produces 45,000 tons of high quality metallurgical and crystalline SiC annually.
In addition to making Washington Mills a self-sufficient, environmentally responsible, domestic supplier of silicon carbide, gaining Exolon-ESK as a wholly owned subsidiary brings other advantages, such as additional well-established products to complement its own; additional aluminum oxide furnacing capacity to help keep prices down; and potential value-added niche lines in specialty fusion furnaces.
The Exolon-ESK Thorold, Ontario, plant boasts a computer-controlled Super-Tilt, one of the most cost-effective, state-of-the-art furnaces in North America, capable of producing 40,000 tons of high quality aluminum oxide per year.
Washington Mills operates highly efficient fusion, crushing and grading plants in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Its 12 computer-controlled electric arc fusion furnaces include lab, pilot and production scale units, allowing testing of new specialty products and fusions of exotic materials in samples ranging from 5 lbs to 30 tons, as well as production of standard lines in multiple thousands of tons. Its lab services offer analytical capabilities for determining the chemical composition, phase, particle size distribution and particle morphology of any fused product—ensuring precise, predictable qualities to match end users’ needs.
The company’s goal is to be the best domestic supplier in the industry. “We still have many formidable competitors in North America, and none of the many Chinese suppliers have gone away,” admits Williams openly. “We simply have to continue to be better than they are at servicing our customers—which we are, and will be.”
By combining the strengths and resources of Exolon-ESK with its own, Washington Mills is now well positioned to provide convenient one-stop shopping to all end users through a huge but local distribution network throughout North America. Additionally, the company says that it offers a major advantage over off-shore suppliers: the ability to address short-term needs—one pound or one million pounds—in the packaging of the customer’s choice.
This flexibility provides savings for the end user. “The grinding wheel guy who wants to buy from China because it’s cheap has to put together a full container, even if he doesn’t need that much,” points out Williams. “With us, he can buy what he needs and not have to tie up money or space inventorying huge bulk purchases far beyond his current or short-term needs.”
With U.S. consumption of SiC now exceeding 250,000 tons per year, Washington Mills’ acquisition of Exolon-ESK means the continued existence of a reliable, domestic producer of premium grade SiC—an option that should be of considerable comfort and value to the U.S. industry.