It’s likely most people driving on Norton Avenue past the Alcoa Wheel & Transportation Products campus in Barberton don’t pay much, if any, attention to the newest structure set back on the property.
But that 50,000-square-foot building, a $21 million, state-of-the-art aluminum melting and recycling plant, is the only one of its kind in the United States and the largest in the world.
Construction was announced with great fanfare in the summer of 2011. And the plant, called a cast house, is now up and running 24 hours a day, seven days a week — not that many onlookers can casually tell because the proprietary technology inside keeps most emissions from escaping.
This is a low-emission facility, said Tim Myers, president of Alcoa Wheel & Transportation Products.
The 30 people working inside take aluminum scrap and melt it down at more than 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. The molten metal is then formed into 1,600-pound cylindrical billets and shipped out for eventual re-use.
“It’s a hot-metal facility. We want to keep it continually running,” Myers said.
“You can’t really shut down a process like this once it is up and running,” said plant manager Tim Doyle, a Barberton native.
And the cast house will be handling a lot of hot metal. The natural-gas-fired plant will take in and process about 100 million pounds of scrap aluminum annually — enough to make 2 million wheels, the company said.
Most of the scrap will come off wheels forged in Cleveland and then brought to the Barberton plant for final machining and finishing.
Aluminum scrap chips that drop off from the multiple machining lines are collected and moved via a below-ground conveyor system and end up at the recycling plant next door, said Michael Videmsek, managing director for the Barberton site.
Because Alcoa brought green technology to Northeast Ohio, the Barberton project qualified for federal tax relief, basically low-interest loans, Myers said.
“This building, this project is part of the Better Building Challenge out of the Department of Energy,” Myers said.
And because it took part in the federal program, the “best practices” used at the site will be shared with other companies to help reduce their energy consumption. Alcoa does not allow visitors to photograph the inside of the cast house.
“I’ve been in lots of other cast houses, ours and our competitors’, and they’re nothing like this,” Myers said. The Barberton plant is quiet and relatively cool compared to traditional cast houses, he said.
“Right now, we’re feeding [Barberton] billet to our forging operation in Cleveland,” Myers said. “We also make wheels in Mexico, so we’re exporting some of it down there. Eventually, it will all go to Cleveland.”
The Barberton cast house and its technology was an Alcoa-wide project, he said. “Other Alcoa businesses are probably going to use this technology.”
The cast house cuts in half the amount of energy used by Alcoa to makes its wheels by the processes it uses as well as by its location. Because it is built next to the wheel machining site, transportation energy use was cut about 90 percent, the company said.
Alcoa’s aluminum forged wheel business is growing, Myers said. The Barberton plant machines and finishes wheels that are used on 18-wheel trucks and similar large vehicles that rack up considerable mileage under significant weight stress.
Truck companies are increasingly replacing their aging fleets, which in turn increases demand for the Alcoa wheels, Myers said.
“Trucking is a great indicator of the general economy,” he said. The Barberton machining plant now runs three shifts five to six days a week, he said.
“It looks like freight continues to grow,” Myers said.
Alcoa jointly owned the Barberton facility with B&C Corp. and bought the whole property in 2010 as part of a B&C Chapter 11 bankruptcy process.
Employment at the machining plant in 2010 was about 150 people; it is now at 380 in addition to the 30 people working at the cast house next door, Myers said.
Many of the jobs require skilled labor to run the software-intensive machining, he said.
“It’s been a steady climb for us,” Myers said. “We’ve been bringing a lot of jobs to Barberton.”