South African smelter engineering firm Metix does not predict any major expansions in the South African ferroalloys industry in the next two years, owing to major industry challenges.
The company, which forms part of global steel processing technology supplier SMS Siemag, notes that these industry challenges include power supply constraints, the high price of electricity, labour costs and unrest, the worldwide recession and a reduced global commodity demand.
“The building of new plants is essential to our business, but, with the power constraints and a lowered interest in investing in South Africa, we now need to diversify our offering in terms of products and technologies and increase our geographical footprint” says Metix projects director Wynand Moolman.
He notes that the company’s integration into the SMS Siemag group, since the end of 2011, has enabled Metix to access products and technolo- gies that were not part of its business before.
These include products and technologies in base metals, platinum smelting, power generation, cogeneration, direct current (DC) furnaces and rectangular furnaces.
Recently, Germany-based engineering company Paul Wurth also joined the SMS Siemag group, bringing with it its products and technologies focused on the engineering, construction and modernisation of complete blast furnaces, sinter plants and pre- reduction plants, which Moolman says has accelerated Metix’s introduction to new markets.
“This diversified offering enables us to provide flexible services and technologies for our clients, and to remain competitive despite challenging market conditions,” says Moolman.
In line with this diversification, Metix is currently in the construction phase of its first copper matte settling six-in-line rectangular furnace, in Zambia, which is being built for mining and metals company First Quantum Minerals. The furnace includes various forged copper equip- ment, such as slag launders and taphole blocks.
Meanwhile, Metix technology equipment manager Ivan Holl notes that the company also recently installed forged water-cooled copper roofs and feed chute tips for clients locally and abroad.
He notes that the challenging market also requires Metix to develop alternative core furnace equipment, such as lower-cost slipping devices and air-cooled roofs.
“This proves we are striving to develop in new markets and technological applications,” he says.
Metix marketing director Pat Davies notes that the challenges facing the industry in South Africa resulted in a shift of a large portion of the world’s 2012 ferrochrome production to China.
“China, for the first time in history, produced more ferrochrome than South Africa, using ores imported from South Africa. This has had a major effect on South African producers, who will need to lower the costs of production to keep producing. One way of achieving this is through self-power-generation.
“Through the SMS Siemag group, Metix has access to technologies that allow offgas from various furnaces to be turned into power, reducing the amount of power the plant draws from the grid,” he explains.
Despite the depressed market, Metix recently completed two significant projects for the mining industry.
The first was carried out for global mining giant BHP Billiton, for its Metalloys M14 project, in Meyerton, in the Midvaal.
“The new 81 MVA furnace is the biggest in South Africa for the ferromanganese industry and can produce 120 000 t/y of high carbon ferromanganese.
“Metix’s scope of work on the project involved the design and supply of elec- trode columns and ancillary equipment for the M14 furnace, which was also Metix’s largest electrode column supply ever, measuring 1.9 m in diameter,” says Holl.
Metix carried out a preliminary basic engineering study for BHP Billiton early in 2011 and was given notice to continue with the detailed engineering on the elec- trode columns in February of the same year. Full contract signing for the supply of equipment was completed in August.
“Our supply was delivered to site on time for installation, which was carried out by another company under Metix’s supervision. The furnace started production on December 31, 2012.
“As it was our largest installation, the large electrode columns were a chal- lenge. Possibly, the biggest challenge was that, unlike designing equipment for a new installation, the equipment had to be designed to fit into an existing building, which was built in 1978,” explains Holl.
He adds that the furnace is now up and running and Metix recently received its handover certificate.
Meanwhile, Moolman notes Metix also carried out a project for mining giant Xstrata at the Merafe/Xstrata chrome venture’s new R1-billion 600 000 t/y chrome fines pelletising and sintering plant at its Rustenburg operation, in the North West.
“Metix’s scope of work on the project entailed the building of the pelletising and sintering plant, including all product and materials handling equipment, overland conveyors to the furnaces, as well as roads and offices around the plant. “The contract for the lump sum turnkey project was signed with the Merafe/Xstrata team in July 2010 and was commissioned on time and within budget in October last year,” he says.
“During construction, safety standards were implemented, which assisted us in achieving 1.65 million injury-free hours, bringing Metix’s total injury-free hours for projects where we have been directly in charge of construction to more than three-million,” states Moolman.
Metix faced challenges during the project, including strikes, steel cost fluctuations and other construction cost fluctuations. It overcame these challenges by imple- menting early procurement and proactive labour relations management.
Going forward, Davies says the company will remain keenly focused on its local business and do some business offshore as part of the SMS Siemag group.
Further, he notes that BHP Billiton has indicated that it will retain its manganese business in South Africa, which Davies believes is an advantage to Metix and South Africa’s economy.
“Also, on the positive side, the world ferrochrome and stainless steel market is growing by 4% to 7% a year. If this continues, it will be to the advantage of our company and the group,” he says.
Moolman says Metix will continue to service its established client base in the ferroalloys and platinum markets while continuing to explore new areas of oppor- tunity in South Africa.