Enhancing Composition to Deliver Solid SteelMon, 10/21/2013 - 12:07
Steel is essential and ubiquitous in mining processes, being as it is a key component in equipment and machinery used across all phases of the mining value chain. Though the properties required of steel vary according to its application, in general mining companies and manufacturers of mining equipment and machinery look for steel that is as resilient and wear resistant as possible. The way that steel is treated is central in deciding the hardness and durability of the final product. “You may think that all steel is durable, but it depends on the hardening process that is used,” explains Héctor Ruíz, Technical Manager at Astralloy Mexico. “During the hardening process, sometimes steel plates can become so hard that they can be broken relatively easily. In mining, you are always looking for a material that will withstand impact and abrasion – two things that mining machinery is exposed to in practically every process.”
Astralloy produces quality steel of different strengths and thicknesses, and has been developing steel patents since the 1950s. Having started out with one patent, the company now holds five, used in steel sheeting, piping, bushings, arrows and many other products that it manufactures for use in the mining industry. According to Ruíz, the strength of its steel lies in the hardening process that it is put through: it is cooled naturally in air without applying water, oil or salt to it. The result of this slower and more natural process is a unique chemical composition that makes the company’s products so durable. “Astralloy steel is malleable, and its particles move in such a way that the metal can even be folded without breaking; this brings a great many advantages in a wide range of different applications,” he explains. “Its particles are so small that they do not detach from each other at the moment of impact. Our steel is also a chrome-nickel composition, meaning that it is a stainless steel, so nothing sticks to the metal during ground flattening or crushing processes for example, which also helps to avoid accidents.”
Astralloy emphasizes that, because different applications will require steels of varying hardness and durability, companies and steel manufacturers should work together to find the most appropriate steel for their operations. The aim should be to find the most durable solution, thus maximizing product lifetime and in the process reducing operational costs and increasing productivity. “Mining companies should prioritize investing in quality products at all times, and avoid risking their processes by cutting costs,” warns Ruíz. “When a project is put into operation, the company should not need to reinvest for at least two to four years. By using cheaper products that do not offer a good cost-benefit, the company will not be making as much money as it could be in the long-term – the production cost per tonne will increase and the company will lose its competitive edge.”
While Ruíz acknowledges that Astralloy steel is more expensive than others on the market, he argues that the aforementioned durability and its subsequent impact on productivity make its steel a more worthwhile investment than the steel of its competitors. “We have witnessed our product lasting up to 10,000 hours of operation without the need for lubricant, compared to an average of around 1,000 hours for regular or oxidized steel. If you add up the costs a company would incur every time it needs to replace parts, and the value that would be lost in terms of tonnes of production, this provides a very strong argument for mining companies to use our steel,” he says.
These unique chemical compositions are complemented by the company’s lengthy experience in the Mexican mining industry, which helps it to better understand and tailor its products to the specific needs of its customers: “I started the mining sales division in the 1980s by visiting mines and getting to know their operational problems; looking at their costs, I could see there was a clear opportunity to use our product to minimize their operational costs and increase their profits.” Astralloy then turns to the laboratory in order to deliver the patents that will fulfill these requirements, putting great emphasis on the importance of testing processes, firstly in supporting its assertions regarding the durability of its patents and products, and secondly in continuing to develop and improve them. Tests are carried out in controlled experiments in its clients’ mines as well as in laboratories, in partnership with academic and technical institutions.
The company has long valued maintaining links both with its customers and with the academic world, with the aim of incorporating real mining requirements into its operations. “There exists a very close relationship between Astralloy and the academic world. In the universities they conduct analysis on the hardness of our product. It is through them that we support our technical analysis and prove our value.” This link is mutually beneficial – indeed, Ruíz has received the AIMMGM’s 2013 National Prize for Education.