Tag Archives: MimboloveMaaden
Alcoa has announced it is selling its share of the Mt Holly aluminium smelter to Century Aluminum.
Mt. Holly, in South Carolina and with output of about 229,000t, was 50.3% owned by Alcoa.
It marks another small step in Alcoa’s trajectory away from primary metal. Alcoa has closed high-cost smelters but introduced only the Ma’aden Saudi Arabia smelter, which with less than 200,000t of capacity (the other owners own the rest of the 740,000t) is less than half the capacity that had been cut. In another sign that Alcoa is re-imagining itself, the company has changed its description of itself on company documents, calling itself an engineering company.
There’s nothing wrong in that description, and it better describes a company that is focusing on its key customer segments, but the downsizing of Alcoa’s primary metal capacity leaves me wondering if they will own enough metal units to satisfy all the demand that they foresee. The transition to aluminium in the Ford F150 and in other vehicles has caused a new narrative to emerge in in the demand side, that narrative being that the transition is a major game-changer for the industry and for Alcoa in particular. I confess I have not sat down and done the numbers, to compare the demand that Alcoa predicts with its own smelting capacity, but I wonder if those who drove its share price up after the Mt Holly announcement have done so.
In a demand-driven world, the swing factor in the years ahead is going to be the delivery premium. Now sitting at 20% plus of the metal price, if all this metal demand from the auto sector is going to be filled less from Alcoa’s own plants and increasingly from metal from other producers, then Alcoa will need to make sure premiums are priced into the sales contracts every step of the way.
In that scenario, margins may suffer. If the delivery premium is passed through from the non-Alcoa source to the car company, then Alcoa’s operating margin will be a lower percentage. To illustrate, let’s say that metal is $2000, delivery premium is $400, and alloy and rolling margins are $1,000. That’s a selling price of $3400, but Alcoa has had to pay $2400. If they supply the metal themselves, then the delivery premium in real terms reduces to only the physical cost of picking, packing and shipping. Let’s assume that’s $100. Now Alcoa’s margin on a sale at $3400 becomes $1400 instead of $1000. They also pick up the difference between the metal price and their actual cost of production, which they don’t do if they have to source metal from outside the organisation.
Of course the risk is that production costs exceed LME price, so having someone else smelt the metal makes it someone else’s problem. But that argument is hard to sustain in a world where metal is short. LME prices look set to rise over the next few years as structural shortages of metal start to change the dynamics of the market. That in turn could lead Alcoa to start dusting off idled capacity. I understand the trigger point for a decision to revive capacity is somewhere north of $2500, a price that could well be achieved, based on our modelling.
By the way, if you don’t agree with the pricing model I laid out a moment ago, please lodge a comment and tell me where I went wrong.
Following the posts on this blog combined with several discussions on Linkedin, some people have chosen not to express their views in public, but have written to me on a 1-to-1 basis.
The most common thread among the private responses has been:
- Only a full investigation will truly determine all the contributing factors, their sequence, their “weighting” in terms of the contribution they made to the line closure and the extent to which they could have been prevented.
- The range of possible contributing factors goes way beyond what was initially reported. A 20 metre long pot full of molten metal, with so much electricity running through it, and with its temperature at roughly 950c, is a highly delicate and somewhat unpredictable situation to manage. One correspondent described it to me as being “like a patient in intensive care. The doctor must continuously check the vital signs, and adjust the medicines and conditions carefully to ensure the patient (the new start up pot) survives and gets to full health. Rushing it is not an option.
- That last point was also a common thread in the correspondence I received on the subject. While everyone who wrote to me acknowledged that they were not involved in the Ma’aden start up, they all said that a start up must not be rushed. Several expressed concern that Alcoa’s rush to manage cash flow, reduce costs and achieve milestones could have compromised the start up process.
- Everyone agreed that the AP37 technology that is installed in Ma’aden should have been no surprise to any experienced start-up team. It’s a well known, proven technology. Several writers expressed puzzlement at how the pot control system could have been at fault. The Pechiney standard template called for Alpsys technology, and this would have been mandatory in the licence agreement, according to some correspondents.
- Most agreed that the process of getting Line 1 back up and running is likely to take longer than the 6 months suggested by the official announcement from Alcoa. However, there was some disagreement as to whether the pots would have suffered enough damage to need relining. It comes down to how they dig out the metal, said one
- The biggest worry expressed by those who wrote to me was that lessons from line 1 may not be applied, or applied rigorously enough, in line 2. The rush to get metal flowing should not overrule the need to take corrective actions.
One writer saw a bright side to the situation at Ma’aden. He hopes that the delays at Ma’aden will cause Alcoa to delay execution of the smelter at Point Henry. It is not the same cash cost basis, but the fact that Alcoa did not declare force majeure with its customers (I understand it did with its suppliers), means that Alcoa needs to get replacement metal from somewhere.
We are hearing that one problem at one pot eventually brought the whole line down.
We understand that Pot A48 had a problem with the pot controller. The pot controller would not respond when the operators tried to reset it. Eventually they had no choice but to hit the emergency stop button for the entire line. When they tried to restart the line, they suffered multiple trips to the electrical circuitry. The team dropped the load line to 200KA, but by then they were suffering multiple clad failures, followed by a huge number of burnoffs.
But why did this happen in the first place? There are two reasons, according to our sources. One is that the control systems were the wrong type. According to some engineers, the cheapest control system was purchased, not the best. The pot controller at pot A48 simply failed.
The second problem is even more inflammatory. According to some at the plant, too many pots were started too fast. It’s a complicated process to start up pots. You need “bath material” which you must retrieve from the first pots you start. But while you are busy siphoning bath material, you can’t fall behind on tapping the pure metal from the bottom of the pots.
According to our sources, this is exactly what happened. The crew got behind in extracting the metal from some pots, and some metal levels in some pots got too high. That’s a precarious position to be in, and it seems that the pot control problem came just at the worst time.
This doesn’t mean that the operators were at fault. The plan to run some pots to generate bath material, and to start pots at a certain rate, is not a plan made on the factory floor by the crew when they start their shift. It’s a decision made in board rooms, and in the interface between plant management and the technology company.
Based on what we are hearing, there is a lot of frozen metal in the pots. That means those pots will need to have the metal excavated from those pots. But that can lead to damage to the linings. It’s highly unlikely the plant would have enough spare lining sets to replace up to 360 pots. Even the area in the plant that is devoted to cleaning the pots, inspecting and repairing or replacing the linings will be a bottleneck.
So when the company says that the line will not come back into service until Q2 2014, you better believe it.
The good news is that the problems initially identified should not cause delays to line 2, although it will be interesting to see if a decision is made to replace the pot control system.
Alcoa has announced overnight that they have had to shut the potline at their flagship smelter in Saudi Arabia. No specific reason was given other than “pot instability”.
Ma’aden has AP37 pots, so it’s a well-established technology. Pot instability can mean anything, from electrical problems, carbon/anode problems to poor worker disciplines. We are attempting to find out more about what the problems are, precisely.
Alcoa has said that the plant will now try to press the second line into service much faster. The plan had been that both lines would be fully operational by the end of the year.
More information when we receive it.
Congratulations to Alcoa and Ma’aden on the announcement of the first pot coming on line at the new Saudi Arabian smelter.
According to the press release, the smelter will have an annual capacity of 740,000t once phase 1 is fully operational.
There was some conjecture doing the rounds of the recent ARABAL conference that Ma’aden was only partly completed. According to the talk around the coffee machine, those parts of the project that were built by Bechtel/SNC were on time and within budget, while those parts under Samsung’s control were not so well positioned. If this is true, there could be a problem bringing too many pots into operation too early, as Samsung’s brief included the casthouse.
The Ma’aden project also got some recent press when it was revealed that some Alcoa employees were offered huge salary increases, but with “golden handcuffs”, to take contracts to work there.
There’s no doubt however, regardless any teething or HR problems, this will be a major smelter in the world’s potline population.
Alcoa, Inc. is cutting its stake in a planned aluminium complex in Saudi Arabia its partner announced today.
Maaden, the main stakeholder in the project, said Alcoa cut its stake to 25.1 percent from 40 percent in the joint venture. Last December Alcoa touted its venture with the Saudi Arabian company saying it would become the the world’s pre-eminent and lowest-cost supplier of primary aluminium.
The reduction lowers Alcoa’s investment to $2.71 billion from $4.32 billion. Maaden is government-run and will likely receive funds from the Saudi government.
An analyst said Alcoa may have been concerned that the money required to invest in the project would have damaged its credit rating. It is also possible that Alcoa is weighing investments in other regions.
ALUMINA says it will contribute about $US120 million ($134.8m) toward the development of a $US10.8 billion aluminium project in Saudi Arabia. Alumina’s joint venture partner, Alcoa, is teaming up with Saudi Arabian Mining Co, better known as Ma’aden, to develop an aluminium complex featuring bauxite mining, alumina refining and aluminium smelting. The deal will see Alcoa and Alumina provide alumina for the first stage of the project, due to come on line in 2013, with a bauxite mine and alumina refinery to be developed in the second phase.
Alumina said it will consider a variety of debt funding options for its equity contribution, which will be contributed progressively between 2010 and 2014. “This is a unique opportunity to invest in very low cash-cost alumina production capacity in a major growth region for the aluminium industry and further diversifies our operational and geographic footprint,” Alumina chief executive John Bevan said.