MONROEVILLE, Pa. - There are no belching smokestacks here. No monstrous mills churning out tons of steel. But in the labs on a sprawling, tree-lined, college-like site in this Pittsburgh suburb, steel work is most definitely being done.
About 130 people, mostly scientists and engineers, don hard hats and light blue lab coats and go to work in the U.S. Steel Corp. laboratories. They simulate production in a test mill to try out new ways of steel making and link computers to high-powered microscopes to improve product quality.
Like researchers at other steel companies, the employees inside the U.S. Steel Research and Technology Center are toiling in a new age — perfecting generations-old techniques and developing new technology to make steel better, cheaper and faster. With growing global competition, innovation is required to stay in business.
‘‘Participating in a global economy magnifies the technical challenges,’’ said Joseph Defilippi, division manager for product technology and head of the research center.
The researchers at Defilippi’s labs have developed more than 50 new kinds of steel used in automaking. Other companies have developed fingerprint resistant stainless steel and anti-corrosion steel used in hip and knee replacements.
Inside mills, computerization has streamlined produc- tion, and jobs now often require technical skills such as computer programming, software code writing and advanced math.
Don Whipkey, a steelworker for 27 years, said there is a lot less hard labor.
Whipkey, an operating technician at Mittal Steel USA Cleveland, has been working at the production heart of a traditional mill for most of his career, usually near a ladle and furnace where molten iron ore becomes steel slabs.
Computers now calculate the heat in the casting process and how much molten iron and scrap to mix at any given time.
‘‘In the old days, it used to be done by hand or by guess,’’ Whipkey said. ‘‘Now when these computers go down, shoot, we’re down. A lot of the older fellas who could make steel by looking at it are gone.’’
The scene is repeated at steel mills around the world, particularly in countries where the industry is more developed, such as the United States and in Europe.
The perception that the steel industry is antiquated is not in tune with reality, said Ron Ashburn, executive director of the Warrendale, Pa.-based Association for Iron and Steel Technology.
‘‘It’s by no means akin to what our grandfathers, or even our fathers would have been exposed to in a mill environment,’’ he said.
But considering overall advances in technology, basic steel production has not changed that dramatically, said Richard Fruehan, director of the Center for Iron and Steelmaking Research in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University.
‘‘There have been a lot of improvements,’’ he said, ‘‘but they are more evolutionary than revolutionary.’’
Fruehan said the global consolidation of companies could help speed up that change.
‘‘You are going to see best practices being implemented,’’ he said. ‘‘No company does everything better than another company, and every company does something well.’’
Technological developments help give companies an edge in the competition to make the best quality steel while keeping costs down. Instead of several thousand workers needed to hand-make steel, only a few hundred are needed to program the computers or help run new machines.
One of the latest examples of how research has translated into more dollars for companies is a new way of making thin strips of steel used by automakers and other manufactures. Charlotte, N.C.-based Nucor Corp.’s Castrip plant has pioneered a way to bypass several traditional steps that once included hand-pounding that type of steel. That means Nucor can produce — and sell — more of the product.
‘‘They pour steel directly into a flat roll. That’s incredible,’’ said industry consultant Peter Morici, also a professor at the University of Maryland. ‘‘That’s the Holy Grail of steel.’’
Nucor executive Bob Jones said a second mill like the Crawfordsville, Ind., operation is planned, probably in the Southeast.
Nucor, the world’s 10thlargest steel maker, is rich with minimills, which use electric furnaces run with scrap steel instead of the expensive raw materials that fuel blast furnaces.
The minimill technology, which now accounts for 54 percent of steel production in the United States, was partially to blame for this nation’s industry collapse in the 1980s. That competition got the integrated mills started on the road to becoming more efficient, often with the use of computers and other technology.
Some, including U.S. Steel’s Defilippi and industry leader Wilbur Ross, criticize minimills, saying quality suffers when using recycled steel instead of making it from scratch, as integrated mills do.
Integrated producers worldwide these days are dealing with a shortage of raw materials, mainly iron ore and coal. The shortage, combined with a worldwide spike in demand for finished steel, has meant a huge increase in production costs.
Those costs have been passed along to steel users such as automakers and construction companies, which pass them on to consumers.
Ross, the financier known for buying bankrupt steel mills and merging them into Netherlands-based Mittal Steel, said technology may help reverse that trend. For example, he noted Mittal, the world’s largest steel company, is involved in developing a substitute for scrap steel.
The next big thing in technology may be figuring out a better way to finish a steel sheet’s surface by coating it to protect it from corrosion, a process known as galvanizing. There’s a battle going on within the industry, including at the U.S. Steel lab, to be the first company to do that.
Industry leaders believe research and development will help give U.S. steelmaking an edge in the globalization era.
‘‘In the future, the role of R&D will probably be greater as technology becomes a differentiating factor among the few giant companies that dominate the world,’’ Defilippi said. ‘‘There will be a greater emphasis to develop one’s own technology to remain globally competitive.’’