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Refractories Review: More About Industry Changes

September 28, 2000
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The refractories industry has always been a “work in progress” because of the countless ongoing changes in response to many internal and external factors. The subject of change in the refractories industry was briefly introduced in my June column, “Adjusting to the Changing Refractories Industry,” with mention of some practical issues related to consolidation/downsizing (“right-sizing”), field problems and cost-cutting requirements of the industry. Certainly the times are different than past years when the industry convened every fall for “Refractories Week” at the Bedford Springs Hotel, Pa., for wide-ranging interaction that promoted camaraderie and lifelong friendships. This column addresses several additional changes and issues that are affecting the refractories industry.

The Steel Industry’s Impact

The critical need for refractories will remain, and the steel industry—its major customer—“will continue to grow strongly in the 21st Century.”1 This prediction is well supported by the initial figures for 2000, which indicate that steel production in the U.S. and Japan has increased 15% and 18%, respectively, for the first five months of the year.2 However, the trend of decreasing refractories market volume can be expected to continue on a long-term basis. According to Ian Christmas of the Iron and Steel Institute, steel companies will focus on several target areas, like profitability, growth and innovation, with emphasis on value and value-added products rather than volume. So steel companies will make continued (and probably increasing) efforts to lower refractory expenses.

But there may also be increased recognition of the value basis of refractories. Vert3 stated that “refractories are moving from a commodity bought by the pound to an engineered material that must be designed for every single customer.” And the purchasing efforts likely will become increasingly competitive and global, based on the e-commerce options available for obtaining raw materials and consumable supplies.4 A conference on “The e-Commerce/e-Business Revolution in the Steel Industry” is being offered by Gorham Conferences (207-892-5445, www.goradv.com), October 16-18, 2000, which seemingly could provide useful insights into the future direction of business dealings with the steel industry. And concerning the technology of steelmaking, Simmons has predicted that steel industry changes will be mostly evolutionary and not revolutionary in the next decade, i.e., no blockbuster technologies are looming on the horizon.

Educating the Industry

All of the traditional (smokestack) industries—including refractories—with generally negative public images are experiencing problems in attracting and retaining quality personnel at all levels. The current employment situation with so many attractive options, rewards and unlimited opportunities for today’s students makes it very difficult for the traditional industries to compete. In addition, we’ve actually seen a decrease in refractories education in academia, which is a result of the shift to materials science programs and other factors.

Many of the ceramic engineering programs have been eliminated or merged into materials science programs, which involve coverage of a range of subjects (ceramics, metals, polymers). As a result, the number of university students who acquire a knowledge of, or get any laboratory or field experience with, refractories has decreased significantly. Another trend is the employment of graduates from other scientific and non-scientific fields, such as geology, chemistry, history, business, etc., to fulfill technical staffing needs.

Whatever the case, the need for expedited refractory-specific training has increased, and is more commonly being filled by on- or off-site workshops and short courses (introductory and advanced), in-house mentoring, textbooks, videos, CD-ROMs, websites and combinations thereof. But the continued advancement and success of any technical/manufacturing industry requires a supply of energetic, creative, qualified and capable people—the lifeblood of industry. So it is important to take the necessary steps to lobby and employ the best people possible.

Given the success and worldwide attraction of the Unified International Technical Conference on Refractories (UNITECR), the premier refractories congress, the six proceedings provide an excellent resource for learning about and monitoring the state of refractories technology. The next UNITECR meeting, sponsored by ALAFAR, is scheduled for Cancun, Mexico, November 4-8, 2001.

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