Europe’s largest aluminum rolling mill – Constellium’s Neuf-Brisach plant in France – has celebrated a half century of producing rolled aluminum for the automotive and packaging markets.
"As we celebrate 50 years of growth and industrial excellence, it is largely thanks to the women and men who have collaborated at all levels to achieve the success that we know today. Our fully integrated plant is constantly adapting, resolutely forward-looking and committed to serving its customers," said Site Director Ludovic Piquier at a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the plant, which was opened on October 13, 1967.
With a capacity of 450,000 tons of rolled products, the plant contributes to making Constellium a world leader in the design and manufacture of aluminium high-value products and solutions. It was built to serve the growing needs of the automotive sector.
Since the opening aluminum has also become the material of choice for beverage cans, which led to the plant moving into the packaging market as well. NeufBrisach has an integrated offering, recyling the equivalent of more than three billion cans a year, which is more than half of the beverage cans used in France each year. The history of Neuf-Brisach is one of continuous improvement, modernization and expansion with a view to increasing its production capabilities.
The plant is constantly growing, says Olivier Lach, Engineering Department Director. Neuf-Brisach was originally designed to cater for an expected growth in the demand for automotive body sheet, but development was slower than expected and Constellium had to wait until 2000s for the market to materialize. It was only then that the 400,000 tons of rolled products a year production target set by the plant’s “founding fathers” was achieved. In the intervening years the plant had to reinvent itself and establish a firm position in another market, which would grow on a scale that nobody had imagined: aluminum for beverage cans.
“The Neuf-Brisach plant has always taken change in its stride. It is capable of calling itself into question. Its entire history proves it,” says Laurette Zaeh-Petit, Communication Manager Packaging and Automotive Rolled Products. With annual production of between 220,000 and 260,000 tons, canstock has expanded constantly since the 1980s, and is still the leading market for Neuf-Brisach. "Twenty years ago half of Europe's beverage cans were made of aluminium. Now the proportion is more than 90 %", explains Hervé Vichery, head of canstock technical customer services.
Moving into the rapidly-growing can market allowed NeufBrisach to build on its core strengths. The plant was designed and built for continuous high-volume production runs. Its main strength and feature is that it incorporates all stages in the manufacture of aluminum coils and sheets: recycling, casting, hot and cold rolling, automotive finishing and coating.
“A key feature of the plant is that it is completely integrated. It’s one of just a few in Europe that go from recycling to coating.” says Catherine Athènes, Director Marketing, Packaging and Automotive Rolled Products. Thanks to constant modernization of the facilities Neuf-Brisach now manufactures 2,000 different high value-added products in a variety of alloys, most of which are destined for its two major historic markets: the beverage can market and the automotive industry.
It has been supplying OEMs and Tier 1 producers with aluminum to make closure components and heat exchangers since 1967. However, a whole new chapter began in the second half of the 2000s when high-end German automakers switched to aluminum on a large scale, adopting it mainly for vehicle closures and body in white. A second automotive finishing line was installed in 2016, and Constellium's automotive body sheet capacity has grown to 150000 tons a year. The decision by auto makers to substitute steel with aluminum body components was prompted by the need to comply with increasingly strict standards aiming to reduce the carbon footprint of vehicles.
“These standards led to a lot of new interest in aluminum, which is much lighter than steel and can also be recycled over and over again without any loss of properties”, explains Hervé Ribes, Director automotive technical customer services at Neuf-Brisach. “If we wanted to operate on that market, we had to invest heavily. And that’s what we did, starting in 2008,” says industrial director Philippe Solignac.
“That year marked a milestone. We completely refurbished the finishing line that had been installed in 1966 and installed a chemical conversion process, enabling us to go up-market in line with the German carmakers’ needs.” The site’s location just across the river Rhine is a further advantage, simplifying and speeding up deliveries to their factories. Just under a decade later, the automotive market has exceeded all expectations.
“We are on the verge of a major transformation: the sector is making ever greater use of aluminum, opening up enormous prospects for development. The European market is likely to grow three-fold and the American market ten-fold”, explains Piquier, who left the auto industry to become Plant Director in 2014. “Aluminium offers the best trade-off between price and weight,” adds Athènes.
Most of the growth has been driven by the closure components: doors, hood and trunk, which can be made of aluminum without changing the vehicle’s structure. That made the transition to aluminum a lot easier.” The Neuf-Brisach plant is recognized as the center of excellence in the automotive sector, largely thanks to the new finishing line commissioned in 2016. “This line is a high-performance, integrated facility that complies with the ever more stringent standards coming into force in the automotive industry. It has enabled us to triple our output of automotive body sheet,” says Piquier.
Technicians and operators from Neuf-Brisach are seconded to help set up Constellum plants around the world. “In both human and technical terms, Neuf-Brisach is a true benchmark for the automotive sector,” says Céline Steiner, a hot rolling supervisor who spent several months at the Constellium UACJ plant in Bowling Green, USA.
This expertise has enabled Neuf-Brisach to build a solid relationship with its carmaker customers. “We are no longer merely an aluminum supplier. We now design custom products to meet the carmakers’ needs,” says Solignac. “Real brands have been created, such as the Surfalex ® aluminum skin and Securalex ® for crash applications.”
The process is based on a team work. “A manufacturer sends us a request. If we don’t have the product required in stock, we work with C-TEC, Constellium’s R&D facility in Voreppe, near Grenoble, to develop a new alloy. Neuf-Brisach, Voreppe and the carmaker communicate constantly with each other, explains Solignac. The onsite engineering department plays a key role in this process: “It is tasked with designing the tools we will use to make the product the customer wants.
The men and women of Neuf-Brisach form the backbone of a real industrial culture based on in-depth knowledge of their products,” says Piquier. “Because of the standards it has to meet, the automotive industry requires us to make products of impeccable quality and deliver them on time. The plant is ideally placed to carry out this mission.”