Hydro: the magic triangle of the aluminium industry in the Niederrhein
The bus stop in front of the German headquarters in Grevenbroich still says “VAW-Leichtmetall”. The name has long since become history, ever since the Norwegian aluminium group Hydro integrated this leading German aluminium company in 2002. All the locals know the aluminium works in Grevenbroich and Neuss – and many also know their nickname: the “magic triangle” of aluminium. Yet few are aware that this triad of smelting, rolling and finishing is the biggest aluminium cluster in the world. To this day, the cooperation among the three sites Rheinwerk, Alunorf and Grevenbroich is a blueprint for the Chinese, who have copied this combination of smelting, rolling, finishing and recycling.
Almost 5,000 employees are employed directly in these three aluminium works: 2,000 in Grevenbroich, 2,200 in Norf and 600 in the Rheinwerk. Alunorf produces 1.5 million tonnes a year; the Grevenbroich works more than 600,000 tonnes a year. And the Rhine Works? It had to survive almost four years of skeletal operations until the group board member Oliver Bell set about integrating this site into his division, Hydro’s Rolled Products Division, as an integral part of the aluminium triad, and driving up the smelting works to a two-thirds capacity utilization of 150,000 tonnes a year; all the while trusting that policy-makers would keep their promise of ensuring sustainable electricity prices.
If these works weren’t supported by the special compensation in the cost apportionment support for renewable energies – “then they would have to close straight away”, Oliver Bell, Executive Vice President of Norsk Hydro, explains. The former VAW manager is the first German on the board of the Hydro Group and responsible for the company’s German activities. If Brussels puts an end to the exception clause for the EEG (Renewable Energies Act), 830,000 jobs across Germany will be in danger. Oliver Bell knows the figures because this year he was also appointed president of Wirtschaftsvereinigung Metalle (the federation of the metal industry in Germany). He also heads up the initiative “Metals pro Climate”, which is the first German industrial climate protection initiative.
The magic triangle of division of labour and cooperation between works all in the immediate vicinity of each other has proved its worth over time. But how did this centre of the aluminium industry emerge in the Niederrhein and not in the Ruhr region or on the coast? The reason is brown coal. Grevenbroich has been generating electricity in the power stations as well as mining brown coal for decades; indeed, so much that the operators had to find a useful purpose for the energy. That is why industrial operations such as chemical works and aluminium producers, which are very energy-intensive industries, set up their operations right here. The Grevenbroich site began as a smelting works – long since decommissioned – but since 1922 the rolling mill has evolved into a major asset and leading employer. The modern smelting works that accompanied it, the Rheinwerk, was commissioned in 1964, and Alunorf right beside it in 1967. All three works have been expanded and modernized several times and are active today within the group of Hydro companies. Alunorf is a 50/50 joint venture company with the Novelis Group.
Aluminium production is not just a German or European concern. Hydro is part of the global competition. Many operations in other parts of the world reportedly have considerably worse environmental standards than in Germany. If the German production sites had to be relocated, Bell surmises that the consequences would not only be the deindustrialization of Germany, but also the weakening of its own aluminium finishing industry.
For example, Grevenbroich would be affected. It is, after all, the largest site worldwide for the rolling of extremely thin high-performance films. These films prevent groceries from exposure to oxygen and light, for instance in Tetra Pak juice cartons. Whereas the rolled ingots are still 60 centimetres thick in Neuss for 20 tonnes, in Grevenbroich they are rolled to the thickness required for the relevant application in several stages – right down to 6/1000 millimetres, about an eighth of a human hair, which on average has a diameter of 0.05 mm or 50 micrometers.
The Grevenbroich Hydro works are also a global market leader in aluminium strip for offset printing plates. About one newspaper page in three worldwide is printed with it. Reliable top quality, right up to the microstructure of the material, is essential for the competitiveness of the aluminium triangle. The Rheinwerk produces an even purer aluminium than other works, and there are three specialist lithographic plate centres in Grevenbroich supplying printing plate material that is famous for its symmetry and evenness – both prerequisites for precise printing. Furthermore, practically every used printing plate is recycled for a new aluminium product.
Aluminium is not just a diverse material; it is also an infinitely useful material, precisely because it can be recycled so well and because this recycling only requires five percent of the energy required for new production. That is why Hydro is investing in two ultra-modern large furnaces in the Niederrhein for recycling used aluminium products and intends to recycle more and more metal for further use. That also applies to drinks cans: in Germany the recycling rate for the most recycled packaging container worldwide is 96 percent, also thanks to the deposit on cans.
An important growth area for Hydro is the lightweight construction of automobiles, especially more efficient but affordable vehicle bodies. Aluminium strip from the Niederrhein helps nearly all the leading car manufacturers in Europe to save on weight thanks to lightweight construction, which reduces the running costs thanks to lower petrol consumption, and alleviates the burden on the environment. Carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic is much more expensive. For Bell, the hype about CFRP, for example in aircraft construction, is dying down again, also because aluminium offers clear advantages for recycling and has much better material properties in terms of repairs and the danger of lightning.
Aluminium helps to save energy in transport means and packaging, as well as insulating materials, and allows a net saving of 9.6 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of aluminium rolled products – despite the initial energy-intensive generation. The Grevenbroich works also refines its aluminium products in surface treatments such as painting, degreasing and special heat treatments. In order to remain the leader in all these processes, Hydro invests a great deal in research and development – especially in Bonn, where 120 employees dedicate their efforts to making rolling processes and products even more effective. To this end, Hydro has been conducting basic research together with scientists from the RWTH Aachen University, but also from other universities in North Rhine-Westphalia. In foil processing Hydro was once a pioneer. And to retain this competitiveness it is continuously investing, especially in modern machines. Hydro plans 20 years ahead for its sites. To date Hydro has invested 800 million euros overall in the Niederrhein, and 30 to 40 million euros a year just for the Grevenbroich works.
The fact that “the works” have existed in Grevenbroich for almost 100 years has created a close relationship with the population. In many families several generations have already worked at the works. At the anniversary celebrations the canteen is always packed out. Whole parades have even emerged from the workforce. Soon a day care facility will be opened in the works, one of many initiatives undertaken by Hydro to ensure its staff can reconcile their work and family needs more effectively. Hence, the “magic aluminium triangle” isn’t actually magic, but the result of many decades of dedicated cooperation – with appreciation and value creation.
Hydro Aluminium Rolled Products GmbH
Tel.: 02181 / 66 01
As at: September 2013