As Jeff Weida, plant manager of Arconic Tennessee Operations, talks about the future of aluminum in Alcoa, he glances out the window of his corner office.
Something catches his eye as he explains the significance of Arconic investing $110 million in Tennessee Operations with the promise of at least 70 jobs.
But those numbers aren’t what Weida cites as he talks about evidence of a new age after 100 years of making aluminum in Blount County.
Weida talks in terms of time frames. As in “the time frame of 2015” when ALCOA Inc. made a $300 million investment in the North Plant to make aluminum sheet for motor vehicles and other products.
It was in the time frame of 2016 when the decision was made to exit the can sheet business. That’s also when ALCOA Inc. split into Arconic and Alcoa Corp. December of last year was the finale cut for can sheet in Tennessee. Talk about a time frame for change.
The end of can sheet production opens opportunities for investment. While the North Plant infrastructure stays in place, space is made available for new equipment. It’s called utilizing existing assets — including personnel.
Tennessee Operations has done that over the years, starting with the purchase of land in 1910 to build dams on the Little Tennessee and Cheoah rivers to power the smelting operation in 1913, then the West Plant fabricating facility in 1920 followed by the North Plant in 1942.
During World War II, employment at Tennessee Operations reached 11,000. Operating at full capacity, the smelting plant could turn out more than 1.3 million pounds of molten aluminum each day. The West Plant fabrication operation was so massive that after it closed in 1996-97, it took 13 months and millions of dollars to demolish the 2.4 million square feet of space.
Over the years, more than 1,000 products were fabricated at Tennessee Operations for use in consumer, construction, aerospace, military, farm, boat-building and highway industries.
The Continuous Cold Mill tower at the North Plant built 32 years ago symbolizes an earlier regeneration of Tennessee Operations. Coils of aluminum destined to become cans flew through the cold rolling process machinery at 60 mph with enough material to make 75,000 cans every minute.
Impressive numbers, but as the product line shrunk, so did marketing possibilities. Today’s time frame has changed. Listen to Weida: “You’ve got to be able to move and be very nimble and quick. We’re putting in the leanest and greatest technology that’s going to allow us to compete in the market for a long time, whether it’s in automotive, industrial, commercial transportation, what have you.”
The numbers Weida is excited about now are exemplified by what he sees out his office window — on this day, four.
“It’s a busy time. I look over my shoulder because there’s four engineers sitting out there right now, and they’re smiling and have a little extra spunk in their step. They’re front and center.” They are the future.
In its formative stages, ALCOA was on the cutting edge of metallurgy. The era of can sheet at Tennessee Operations limited that. No more. The bottleneck is broken.
The sign above Weida’s desk reminds him every day of what the former ALCOA had been, what it had become and what the future holds: NEXTGENTN 3.0. The third generation of Tennessee Operations is underway. The time frame is right.