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An indispensable ingredient

Portrait

“We manufacture carbon anodes for aluminium smelters,” says Daniel Allaire, managing director of Aluminium & Chemie Rotterdam B.V., Aluchemie for short. “We only make the anodes, not the aluminium, and that is an exception in the aluminium world. As a rule, aluminium plants have several smelters and one anode production facility. We have focused on the development and manufacture of anodes right from the start, and so we can draw on almost half a century of know-how and experience in anodes.”

The origins of Aluchemie date back to 1964 when the company was established by the Swiss company Alusuisse under the name of Aluminium & Chemie Rotterdam B.V., as Alusuisse intended to build a smelter and an anode plant. Instead, Aluchemie was inaugurated two years later in 1966 as a stand-alone anode manufacturing plant with three baking furnaces.

The focus on anodes proved to be a successful strategy. In the following years, the production capacity had to be expanded several times to meet the growing demand. By 1970 the number of baking furnaces had been doubled to six. 2003 saw the inauguration of the seventh baking furnace.

Due to mergers and acquisitions, Aluchemie changed hands several times. In 1986 Norsk Hydro became a shareholder of Aluchemie, in 2000 Alusuisse merged with Alcan to become Alcan Inc. and in 2007, Rio Tinto took over Alcan.

“Today, we are jointly owned by Rio Tinto Alcan, the world’s biggest aluminium manufacturer, as a majority shareholder; Norsk Hydro, the number three worldwide in aluminium; and the Norwegian aluminium smelter Søral,” explains Mr. Allaire. “At the headquarters and the production plant in Rotterdam, we are in command of state-of-the-art facilities for the development and production of anodes with a capacity of 450,000 t a year. Basically, anode production is like baking. We mix the ingredients, put them in a mould and put the resulting block in a furnace for a few weeks. Then we put the blocks in the slotting machine, pack them and ship them.”

In detail, the Aluchemie process starts with a paste of several sizes of carbon dust mixed with a binding matrix consisting of coal tar pitch and petroleum coke. After moulding and baking, the anodes are hard blocks with a weight of 750 to 1,500 kg and a length of 1,300 to 1,500 mm.

Aluchemie has the know-how to manufacture the anodes to customers’ specifications. “We manufacture 15 types of anodes,” underlines Mr. Allaire, “and they all are bespoke solutions. Our customers are aluminium smelters. Most smelters have their own production plant for anodes, but sometimes they have to buy anodes anyway, for example when they expand the aluminium production capacity without investing in facilities. Smelters can increase the capacity by increasing the size of anodes. Investing in a new baking furnace is very costly; it may be cheaper to buy from us. We have furnaces of different sizes, and we have different ways of managing the size of the furnace. As a result, we have fewer limitations than the aluminium producers to make anodes of larger sizes, so they come to us. Moreover, we offer a special service: We take back the waste material of customers, the leftover butts, and recycle them. We crush the butts and reuse them in the manufacturing process. We close the gap, and it is cheaper. That is why we want to do that more and more.”

It is the basic philosophy, the corporate principles that make the difference with Aluchemie. “We are based on six major principles,” Mr. Allaire points out. “There is first of all health, safety and environment, a very important issue for us. We invest a lot in ensuring the health and safety of employees, and we are actively involved in protecting the environment, as our certifications well document. In addition to ISO 9001 for quality, we are certified to ISO 140001, OHSAS 18001, ISPS and AEO. Moreover, we have invested heavily in reducing air emissions. In 2011 we inaugurated the Fume Treatment Plant 7, larger again than the last we inaugurated in 2009, and featuring latest fume treatment technology. We also put emphasis on taking care of our people. We listen to them carefully, and we invest in training and in participation. The community plays an important role, too. 25% of our staff of 325 come from the near town of Spijkenisse. We aim at having good relations with our surroundings, and this also includes the port of Rotterdam. For example, the community benefits from our 70 million EUR investment in the reduction of air emissions. The mayor of Spijkenisse officially inaugurated the new Fume Treatment Plant 7. Close relationships with customers is a matter of fact with Aluchemie. We have regular contact with customers to keep track of what they do. We call them once or twice a month, meet them twice or three times a year and visit them regularly.”

Growth is another basic principle. Backed by the network of the two big owners, Aluchemie aims at staying ahead of the game and further enhancing the leading position. Production and financial results are part of the strategy, adds the managing director. “Right now, the economic situation is not easy. 2008 was a very hard year for the aluminium industry, and we saw the same in 2011. As a result, the price of aluminium is low, and lots of producers are slowing down or even shutting down capacities. We did so, too. In 2008, we shut down one furnace and early in 2012 another one. At present our main focus is on improving competitiveness by reducing costs. We will do that systematically, strategically, not just cutting costs to cut costs. The main competition comes from China, where the regulation is less stringent. We see potential for closing the gap between us, and that is why we take advantage of the time of rest to reposition ourselves.”

Aluchemie builds on the excellent reputation the company has earned for the quality of the bespoke anodes and for dependable on-time delivery. Moreover, the base in the port of Rotterdam is a major strategic advantage as it provides easy access for overseas shipments.

“Anodes are the only product we can make, but aluminium is always needed, and it cannot be made without anodes,” concludes Mr. Allaire. “We just have to stay afloat and reposition ourselves in the cost curve. We need about a year to review our internal processes and optimise costs. At present there is a 4% increase in demand, and we will be able to make use of the growth potential and sell to third parties as well.”

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