The Challenge of Selling Prime Steel

By August 21, 2017News, Your Advantage

According to Frank Duncan, BS Chemistry:  Steel is an alloy and has no structural formula. It is composed of Iron (Fe) with small amounts of carbon (C).  This sounds very straight forward, so you would expect that if someone wants to buy prime steel it would be very easy to fulfill their request.  The truth is that the steel industry is very complex because steel has a multitude of characteristics.  

In order for the industry to speak the same language with regard to these characteristics, guidelines have been established by standards developing organizations throughout the world.  At Pacesetter, we generally order steel based on ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) standards; however, we may also place purchases based on other standards such as SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) in order to meet our customer’s specific requirements.  Simply purchasing steel produced to a specific standard, however, does not guarantee that it will be prime for our customer’s requirements since these standards define min/max levels and/or ranges, not specific values.   Factors such as the exact balance of chemicals added, the heat applied, the working of the metal, and the exposure to impurities as it goes through the steel production process can all affect the characteristics of the final product.  As a result, each batch of steel is unique, just like a person’s fingerprints.  These slight variations within each batch can affect the steel’s characteristics such as strength, formability, and appearance.

As an example, the chemical makeup and mechanical properties such as YTEs (Yield, Tensile, and Elongation) of a certain type of steel may work well for a customer when purchased from one mill but fail during their production process when supplied by a different mill.  This is due to each mill having its own methodology for producing steel that conforms to the ASTM specification.  You would, therefore, assume that buying steel produced by the same mill would guarantee that the steel would always be prime for the customer.  In reality, the same steel may start to fail during the customer’s production process simply due to a change in the customer’s equipment settings or the age of their machinery.  In these cases, we utilize our quality team’s expertise to find that perfect blend of steel characteristics needed to be prime for the customer.

One characteristic that is highly subjective among customers is their flatness requirement.  In many cases, steel with a slight edge wave is still considered prime.  In other cases, a customer may employ a lights-out manufacturing operation.  In that case, steel that has even the slightest wave can potentially jam in their equipment and stop production.  We therefore strive to understand our customers’ production processes and specific requirements upfront so that we can ensure that only prime material will ship to them.

Deciphering a customer’s expectations concerning what they consider prime steel can be challenging, especially with regard to the steel’s appearance.  Simple terms like ‘exposed application’ can for one customer mean that the steel will be visibly seen on the outside of a product that will be enclosed in a wall.  For another customer, it is the expectation that the steel be virtually flawless.  Even the ‘brightness’ of the steel’s finish can be a factor in whether a customer considers material to be prime or not.

There is a saying that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, but in the steel industry this could be modified to be ‘prime steel is in the eye of the beholder.’  At Pacesetter, we strive to ship our customers prime steel each and every time.  To accomplish this, we begin with our sales team questioning and LISTENING to our customers’ expectations as well as their requirements.  For more complex situations, we also deploy our quality team to dive deeper.  The information that these teams gather is funneled throughout our entire organization so that everyone – whether in procurement, inventory management, or operations – knows the customer’s definition of prime steel and validates to the customer’s standard.