Because of its lightweight, durability and malleability, aluminum is becoming a highly used metal in consumer goods, electronics and vehicles. According to Statista, an international research and analysis firm, 62.4 million metric tons of aluminum are expected to be consumed in 2021. Use of the metal is projected to grow at an annual compound rate of 2.6 percent through 2029.
Aluminum consumption is expected to grow to 71.14 percent by 2025, according to Statista. A large contributor to this growth is the use of aluminum as frames for electric vehicles.
A company looking to capitalize on aluminum’s growth is the Ellwood Group, an iron castings company based in Ellwood, Pennsylvania. Recently, the company opened a $72 million factory in Hubbard, Ohio, dedicated to processing and manufacturing aluminum for clients in the automotive, aerospace and construction industries.
“We’re always looking to reinvest in our company,” says Patrick Callihan, president of Ellwood Aluminum and Ellwood Engineered Castings. “In the last five years, we invested $500 million back into our company to improve operations and expand our company’s reach.”
The first cast
Brothers David and Jonathon Evans founded the Ellwood Group in 1910. The company started out by forging iron, which is something it still does. In 1980, the Ellwood Group began expanding its operations with the formation of Ellwood Quality Steels, New Castle, Pennsylvania.
Today, the company employs more than 1,800 people across 10 business units ranging from scrap processing to manufacturing. The organization creates products for several industries, including defense, automotive and locomotive. Some of the products include crankshafts, rolled rings and steel.
The privately owned company is run by Bentraum D. Huffman, who assumed the role of president and CEO in 2019, the Ellwood Group says.
Ellwood Aluminum (EA) is the organization’s newest company. Its plant involves a two-phase expansion project next to Ellwood Engineered Castings in Hubbard. The 120,000-square-foot factory can process between 100 and 120 million pounds of aluminum scrap annually. The second expansion, which is now in the engineering and design phase, will add 180 million pounds of melting capacity, Callihan says.
“This plant was built with the aerospace industry in mind,” he says. “So, we produce a lot of aerospace quality material for planes and rocket ships.”
The factory employs 30 people and hopes to add an additional 20 to improve and maintain operations in its first phase. It also keeps seven metallurgists on staff, including Callihan, to ensure quality.
Running a 12-hour day shift and 12-hour night shift, the factory uses an automated charging car and skimmer designed by RIA Cast House Engineering, a foundry equipment manufacturer based in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to ensure the safety of the workers.
The factory produces a wide range of aluminum products, including 2,000-, 3,000-, 5,000- and 7,000-series aluminum direct from scrap yards nationally. Using aluminum scrap grades that range between 1,000- and 7,000-series, the factory makes aluminum castings from 80 percent scrap and 20 percent primary aluminum.
A rocky start
In 2018, the expansion was approved by Hubbard township, and work began on the project’s first phase in 2019.
During that time, one of the company’s biggest clients, Boeing, halted production of its 737 MAX. The aerospace industry is one of EA’s biggest clients, according to information provided by the company.
On top of that, the pandemic began just before the facility was completed, which delayed production by three months. A saw the company uses to cut the aluminum castings did not arrive at the time of the plant’s opening because it was made by Sermas, a company based in France, and shipping was delayed to halt the spread of COVID-19. This delay forced Ellwood Aluminum to rely on other businesses in the area to cut the aluminum castings to size.
When the saw did arrive, operators had issues putting it together and with troubleshooting those issues because a representative of Sermas did not come to oversee the assembly, Callihan says.
As demand for aerospace aluminum rapidly declined in light of the pandemic and its effect on air travel, demand for different grades of aluminum from different sectors sharply increased. Extrusion companies such as Zarbana Industries in Columbiana, Ohio, were EA’s primary customers during the pandemic because of an increase in over-the-road shipping. EA’s extrusions are used to make trailers or and tractors, Callihan says.
While production demand for aerospace aluminum has increased as air travel rebounds from the lows seen during the pandemic, EA still faces some obstacles.
“One of the biggest issues we’re seeing right now is how hard it is to find laborers,” Callihan says. “We have 30 skilled workers, and that’s still below where I would like this plant to be operating. It’s hard right now to find workers, though.”
Callihan says proposed policies such as the Green New Deal also concern him. This is because he's unsure of the impact it would have on his industry and what changes would need to be made.
Picking up steam
While the company works on staffing its factory, Callihan says operations continue to expand. The factory’s second phase includes adding a second furnace and casting equipment to more than double production.
Callihan says Ellwood Aluminum also is looking into developing new partnerships in the various industries it serves. He says the company is looking into developing aluminum sheeting for the automotive industry as electric vehicle production expands. Right now, it is unclear what companies EA will partner with, Callihan says.
EA also is looking into developing new alloys for aluminum to improve material quality for its clients.
“We’re an engineer-driven company,” Callihan says. “We pride ourselves in investing in new equipment that gives us the edge over our competitors.”