SDI makes $2.2-billion move into aluminium business

Steel Dynamics Inc (SDI) has become the first major American steel producer to enter the aluminium business, announcing on Tuesday July 19 that it will build North America’s first aluminium rolling mill in 40 years

The $2.2-billion investment is for three facilities: a rolling mill in the “southeastern United States” and two remote sites to help feed the mill with SDI’s own aluminium scrap.

The mill will produce 650,000 tonnes per year of low-carbon, flat rolled aluminium, SDI said, and start production in the first quarter of 2025.

The mill is 6% owned by Unity Aluminum Inc, formerly known as Braidy Industries, which began construction of 1.5 million-square-foot aluminium rolling mill in Ashland, Kentucky, in 2018 that never came to fruition.

The two recycling plants to be built will be 100% SDI owned. One will be in the “Southwestern” US, the other in “Northcentral” Mexico, according to the announcement. Between them, they will supply about half of the 900,000 tonnes of aluminium slab that SDI’s rolling mill will require once it is at full capacity.

The rest will be generated on-site at the mill and supplemented by “probably around 225,000 tonnes” of primary aluminium, SDI told investors in a call after the announcement.

SDI is the largest nonferrous recycler in the US, through its Omnisource unit, as well as one of the biggest US steel producers.

“We’re incredibly excited to once again revolutionize an industry. We did it with steel, and we’re going to do it again with aluminium,” Mark Millett, chairman, president, chief executive and co-founder of SDI, said on the call. “It takes me back to the inception of SDI some 27 years ago,” he added.

SDI becomes can supplier: another ‘hedge’

SDI enters a second industry with this move, by starting to supply beverage can customers.

Both that and the diversification into aluminium production are “hedges” for a steel company, it acknowledged.

SDI’s new mill will supply aluminium sheet for beverage cans. “This… diversifies Steel Dynamics’ end-market exposure by serving the growing North American sustainable beverage can industry with its counter-cyclical characteristics,” SDI’s announcement said.

The “biggest arena is definitely the canned beverage arena,” Theresa Wagler, executive vice president, chief financial officer, and corporate secretary of SDI, said on the call.

She had been asked about aluminium supply gaps SDI plans to fill. “The biggest gap is in canned sheet, followed by automotive, but there are expanding gaps in common alloy and other products as well,” she said.

SDI plans to provide 45% aluminium can sheet, 35% aluminium for autos and 20% as common alloy.

Long-term, there is insufficient aluminium supply to meet demand, especially as the trend toward electric vehicles (EVs) means steel in car bodies increasingly being replaced by aluminium, a lighter metal.

“Automotive seems to be constrained by a lack of secure supply for its EV development,” Millet said on the call. “Instead of ignoring that issue, we’re embracing the change. We can fulfill these needs while creating a natural hedge to steel substitution.”

Aluminium is the fastest-growing automotive material according to study by the Aluminium Association conducted by Ducker Frontier, a Washington, D.C.-based research firm.

“The North American flat rolled aluminium industry has a substantial and growing supply deficit estimated at over 2.0 million tonnes, based largely on increasing demand from the automotive and sustainable beverage can industries,” SDI’s statement said. “The supply deficit is currently being addressed through imports of higher-cost aluminium flat rolled products, which exceeded 25% of North American consumption in 2021.”

That shortfall, and the pressure to conduct business sustainably, has partly prompted multiple recent investments in aluminium recycling plants by aluminium producer Novelis Inc, for example.

SDI will use cash to fund aluminium business

SDI - which enjoyed more than a sixfold increase in annual profits in 2021, $3.25 billion, up from $571 million in 2020 - will fund its aluminium investment in cash, according to the announcement.

And it expects to make money immediately. Millet said it would be “additive to earnings in that first year.”

The Mexican recycling center will be operational at the start of 2024, the US mill by the first quarter of 2025, and the US recycling center by the end of 2025, SDI said.

“This wasn’t because there was nothing else to do. It’s more than an adjacency,” Wagner said, when an investor asked on the call if SDI was changing strategy to aluminium.

“This is not a change in strategy, this is just… an addition of an adjacent growth platform,” Millet said.

SDI has “a plethora of experience fast tracking projects, turning quality mills and being able to start them up in very short order,” Millet said.

“We have vast technical and operational expertise… that is only added by the Unity team.”

Grace Asenov in New York contributed to this report.

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