Primary Production of Aluminum

SIC 3334

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This classification includes establishments primarily engaged in producing aluminum from alumina and in refining aluminum by any process. Excluded from this classification are establishments primarily engaged in rolling, drawing, or extruding aluminum, which are classified in the following product groups: SIC 3351: Rolling, Drawing, and Extruding of Copper; SIC 3353: Aluminum Sheet, Plate, and Foil; SIC 3354: Aluminum Extruded Products; SIC 3355: Aluminum Rolling and Drawing, Not Elsewhere Classified; SIC 3356: Rolling, Drawing, and Extruding of Nonferrous Metals, Except Copper and Aluminum; and SIC 3357: Drawing and Insulating of Nonferrous Wire.

Industry Snapshot

With global primary aluminum production of 36.9 million metric tons (mmt) in 2009, aluminum is the world's second-most used metal and also ranks second behind iron in terms of value used. Divided into product groups, the aluminum industry comprises three distinct segments: primary aluminum manufacturers; semi-fabricated aluminum manufacturers; and secondary, or scrap, aluminum manufacturers. Of these segments, the primary aluminum industry is the smallest, based on its number of manufacturers.

To produce aluminum, primary aluminum manufacturers first process bauxite (an ore that is the basic raw material of aluminum) to create alumina. A powerful electric current is then passed through a solution containing alumina to produce aluminum in its most basic form. This type of aluminum, shaped into either a mass of metal in a bar or a block shape (referred to as an ingot) or a smaller rectangular bar (referred to as a billet), serves as the raw material for manufacturers engaged in producing aluminum products. Primary aluminum manufacturers supply aluminum to semi-fabricated aluminum manufacturers and to a diverse array of manufacturers outside the aluminum industry who utilize aluminum to make their products.

In 2009, the value of primary aluminum production was $2.96 billion. The transportation industry accounted for 33 percent of domestic consumption of aluminum; the packaging industry, 26 percent; building, 14 percent; electrical, eight percent; machinery, eight percent; consumer durables, seven percent; and all other uses, four percent.

The growth of aluminum had been driven by the automotive industry. Car makers continued to produce lighter passenger vehicles and trucks to conform to the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations, which took on increased importance with the average price of unleaded gasoline in the United States topping $4 per gallon in mid-2008. By substituting one pound of aluminum for steel parts, the auto designers are able to remove 2.0 to 2.5 pounds of cast iron, making the use of aluminum very attractive.

While primary aluminum production was strong in the mid- to late 2000s, the companies in the industry faced increasing challenges related to energy costs. More than a quarter of available smelters were idle in 2007. The industry rebounded for much of 2008 and, as a result, the United States was a net exporter of aluminum during that year. However, during the second half of the year, high energy prices, coupled with the onset of an economic recession, sent prices downward. Low demand and price continued through 2009; by the fourth quarter of 2009, smelters were operating at less than 50 percent capacity.

Organization and Structure

As of 2009, 167 establishments were involved producing aluminum from alumina or in refining aluminum by any process, according to Dun and Bradstreet. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, six companies operated 13 smelters, although four smelters were closed throughout 2009, one was demolished, and several others were idle during portions of the year.

Primary aluminum producers faced high overhead costs. In fact, the average cost per facility for the raw materials necessary to operate is higher in the primary aluminum production industry than in any other manufacturing industry. This disparity is mainly due to two key factors. First, aluminum production requires a tremendous amount of electrical energy, meaning that producers face staggering utility bills. Second, very little bauxite is found in this country, and, as a result, aluminum producers incur high costs for importing this essential ore.

Background and Development

In 1886, the concurrent development in the United States and France of an economical electrolytic process for refining aluminum immediately spawned widespread optimism. Many manufacturers regarded the discovery as the metal of the future. Aluminum would continue to be regarded as such throughout its first century of existence, indeed well past the time its future should have arrived. All this optimism led aluminum manufacturers and government officials to overestimate demand for the metal on occasion. However, the creation of a process to economically produce aluminum did warrant its fair share of hyperbole, even if the expectations associated with its production sometimes ran too high. The metal possessed desirable conductive and thermal properties, was lightweight, and could be used to form many hard, light, corrosion-resistant alloys. As American manufacturing industries slowly moved toward creating products that were lighter in weight, aluminum would prove to be an integral component in a wealth of manufacturing processes, eventually establishing a pervasive, global presence that would validate the hopeful projections held by aluminum's early proponents.

In 1886, there was really no clear plan regarding how aluminum could become, in practical terms, the metal of the future. Discovery of the myriad applications for the new wonder metal fell entirely to the only aluminum manufacturing company of any consequence at the time, the Pittsburgh Reduction Company, later renamed the Aluminum Company of America, and more commonly known as Alcoa. Indeed, Alcoa would remain the only manufacturer of any consequence for the aluminum industry's first 60 years, establishing a monopoly over the U.S. aluminum market during the interim and, consequently, solely guiding the industry's direction for the first half of the twentieth century.

Under the partial stewardship of Charles Martin Hall, a young chemist who discovered the more economically feasible process of aluminum production while working in his woodshed, Alcoa faced the daunting chore of first creating both a need and a demand for aluminum. Initially, the company utilized aluminum to manufacture a line of cooking utensils, which in 1901 were successful enough to merit the organization of a cookware subsidiary named American Cooking Utensil. The biggest market for aluminum, however, proved to be the automobile industry, a market that would fuel the industry's growth for its first five decades of operation. By 1915, 65 percent of all primary aluminum was utilized in automotive parts.

At this time, Alcoa still stood alone in the U.S. aluminum market, with the only competition coming from foreign manufacturers, whose penetration of the U.S. market was limited by high tariffs and comparatively higher energy costs. America's entrance into World War I quelled the negligible effect foreign manufacturers had on Alcoa and provided the opportunity for America's uncontested primary aluminum giant to begin exporting aluminum to Great Britain, France, and Italy. On the homefront, Alcoa enjoyed commensurate success, supplying the federal government with aluminum for military applications.

By the end of the war in 1918, Alcoa was producing 152 million pounds of aluminum annually and stood poised to further develop export markets it first explored during the war. The manufacturing of aluminum had become a lucrative business, due largely to escalating demand during the war and to the fervor with which the automobile industry embraced the still new metal. Alcoa, almost entirely responsible for creating this burgeoning demand, sought to capitalize on the boom wherever it could and, as such, spent the 1920s acquiring factories, bauxite mines, and power-generating facilities in Scandinavia, western Europe, and Canada. Toward the end of the decade, however, Alcoa's ubiquitous presence overseas made efficient management and production too difficult. In 1928, the company divested all its foreign operations, excluding the bauxite mines it owned in Dutch Guiana, which were spun off as Aluminum Limited and later renamed Alcan Aluminum Limited.

Reorganized and focused on domestic production, Alcoa struggled through the Great Depression, during which the company's sales plummeted from $34.4 million to $11.1 million, and half its workforce was laid off. Once demand for aluminum returned in 1936, Alcoa quickly recovered from the earlier losses, still maintaining an omnipotent grip on the U.S. aluminum market. This enviable position, however, would not be enjoyed by the company for long, as the end of the 1930s signaled the beginning of a new era of competition in the U.S. primary aluminum industry, although it would be more than a decade before competition in the industry would begin in earnest.

Anti-trust suits had been filed against Alcoa by the U.S. Justice Department dating back to 1911 without much success, but in 1937, a suit filed by U.S. Attorney General Homer Cummings charging Alcoa with monopolization and restraint of trade initiated proceedings that finally wrested control of the U.S. aluminum market away from Alcoa. The trial lasted from 1938 to 1940, and several appeals were made. Although a district court ruled in Alcoa's favor in 1942, the final decision, in 1945, sustained the government's appeal.

While lawyers for both parties submitted a series of appeals that made the Alcoa anti-trust suit the largest proceeding in the history of U.S. law at that time, America entered another war, spurring demand for aluminum. The military applications for aluminum significantly increased during the 23-year span between World War I and World War II, creating a military appetite for aluminum that Alcoa--still the lone manufacturer in the United States of any consequence--found unable to satiate. Frustrated by Alcoa's inability to supply all the aluminum that was needed, the war department stepped in and financed new plants to provide additional production capacity.

These plants, built and operated by Alcoa, swelled the nation's output of aluminum and enabled the heightened demand to be met. As the war drew to a close and victory appeared assured, government officials were left with the responsibility of what to do with the additional capacity created during the war, which would be superfluous during peacetime. The answer to the problem was the solution of another exigency: namely, how to effectuate an equitable conclusion to the anti-trust suit levied against Alcoa? The decision was made to offer the government-financed aluminum production plants at reduced prices to two fledgling aluminum manufacturers, Reynolds Metals Company and Permanente Metals Corporation, both of which were owned by industrialist Henry Kaiser. In 1950, a district court decree parceled out the U.S. aluminum market among the three manufacturers, giving Alcoa 50.9 percent of the nation's production capacity, Reynolds Metals 30.9 percent, and Permanente Metals, by this time renamed Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corporation, 18.2 percent of production capacity.

Although the seven-year debate concerning the redistribution of the U.S. aluminum market did not necessarily spawn an industry comprising numerous participants but instead left control of the market to a tightly knit cadre of manufacturers, competition was nevertheless quick in coming, particularly from Reynolds Metals. The company's aluminum production capacity doubled as a result of acquiring six of the government-financed plants, which enhanced its ability to capitalize further on the introduction of its aluminum foil products several years earlier in 1947. Although much smaller in terms of sales volume and production capacity than Alcoa, Reynolds Metals established itself as the more aggressive marketer, expanding overseas at a rapid rate, while still focusing on developing innovative applications for aluminum that would later help elevate the company's magnitude in relation to Alcoa's.

A postwar housing boom infused the industry with an increased demand for aluminum, but the problem of smelting over-capacity, unresolved by the government's actions after the war, remained as a potential impediment to the industry's continued success. Although the hazards posed by excess supply did not threaten primary aluminum manufacturers to any great extent during the 1950s, the danger still remained. To exacerbate matters, production capacity tripled during the decade, partly due to justifiable increases engendered by the rising demand for aluminum from the housing, construction, and transportation industries. But demand was also fueled by federal orders to augment aluminum production to meet the demand created by the nation's involvement in the Korean War. The industry was protected from the negative effects of oversupply during the early 1950s due to an agreement with the federal authorities that guaranteed the purchase of excess aluminum by the government at market prices, referred to as a "put." But federal intervention merely masked the problem of overcapacity, a problem that would plague manufacturers in the years to come.

Despite their inherently precarious position, primary aluminum manufacturers entered the 1960s rightfully optimistic. The decade would bring with it the development of several new applications for aluminum that would enrich the industry considerably and fuel its growth for the next several decades. The utilization of aluminum to manufacture automobile engines, used in only one model in 1960, became more widespread during the early 1960s, and 1961 commenced with eight automobile models boasting aluminum engines. Further, aluminum bumpers and other new applications for automobiles were being developed, contributing to a rise in the amount of aluminum utilized per automobile to 62.1 pounds by 1961. A year earlier, Reynolds Metals introduced the first aluminum drill pipe, which was met with encouraging enthusiasm by other manufacturing industries. Reynolds Metals' greatest gift to the future success of the primary aluminum industry came in 1963, however, with its fabrication of an aluminum beverage can. The utilization of aluminum in beverage cans would increase dramatically for the next 30 years, supporting the industry's growth throughout the 1960s and 1970s and becoming a linchpin to primary aluminum manufacturers' survival in the 1990s.

These developments, combined with a housing construction boom and the growing popularity of mobile homes, which contained a large amount of aluminum, drove demand from domestic customers upward, while the industry's export activity accelerated at a rapid rate. Foreign demand for U.S. aluminum tripled between 1959 and 1960, totaling more than 500 million pounds in the first year of the decade, and enabling U.S. manufacturers to sidestep the pernicious effects of oversupply.

To foster the further development of overseas markets, U.S. manufacturers of primary aluminum also began striking affiliation agreements with foreign aluminum producers in the early 1960s. In addition to joint ventures already existing at that time in Guinea and elsewhere, primary production facilities were opened in Greece and Australia in 1960, concurrent with the development of a hydroelectric and aluminum project in Ghana.

By aggressively developing new markets for their product, instead of patiently waiting for demand to catch up to supply, primary aluminum manufacturers had ameliorated their position in the aluminum marketplace. As sales climbed for each manufacturer and production increased, however, industry participants found they were actually recording smaller profits. The deterioration of aluminum prices, shrinking profit margins, and an excessive amount of unused production capacity saddled manufacturers with a growing percentage of operating costs that did not generate revenue. To exacerbate matters, the importation of primary aluminum into the U.S. market saturated a market already sufficiently supplied with aluminum. Consequently, U.S. producers of aluminum were shipping more aluminum but reaping reduced earnings. The combined net profit margins for the three largest manufacturers slipped from 10.7 percent in 1956 to 5.2 percent by 1960. Alcoa, which produced 36 percent of all the aluminum manufactured in the United States at this time, posted a sales total within one percent of its record high in 1960, yet lost $40 million, the company's worst profit performance in a decade.

By the mid-1960s, the primary aluminum industry comprised seven companies operating 23 separate plants. Conditions had improved considerably in the five years since earnings slipped from more lucrative levels, as the industry recorded its fourth consecutive record year in shipments in 1965. Significant gains were realized in several markets that relied on primary aluminum for manufacturing purposes, most notably the burgeoning demand for aluminum to fabricate truck trailers, mobile homes, and related equipment. Aluminum usage in this segment of the transportation market jumped 32 percent in 1964, complementing an increase in the usage of aluminum per automobile to nearly 70 pounds. The electrical market also provided additional business for aluminum manufacturers, as aluminum usage for underground residential distribution cable; building wire for industrial, commercial, and residential uses; and extra high voltage transmission lines increased 19 percent.

A stabilization of aluminum prices along with affiliations with foreign aluminum manufacturers initiated earlier in the decade began to buoy the industry's performance, as manufacturers benefited from high-volume, global operations. Providing further impetus to the industry's growth was a trend toward incorporating aluminum into many new large-scale construction projects during the mid-1960s, such as in skyscrapers and large ships.

In the early and mid-1970s, an energy crisis touched off recessive economic conditions that sent many manufacturing industries' earnings spiraling downward. For primary aluminum manufacturers, the effects of the energy crises were particularly harsh, since their production facilities were the most energy-intensive of all manufacturing activities. Aluminum manufacturers consumed four percent of all the electric power generated in the United States, the purchase of which represented greater than a third of the total manufacturing cost of aluminum. Consequently, when the price of electricity soared, primary aluminum manufacturers suffered the brunt of the damage engendered by escalating energy costs. In 1975, the nadir of the recession, primary aluminum operating capacity dropped to 75 percent and the industry's total shipments plummeted 28 percent from the previous year's total.

Despite the decline in shipments, primary aluminum inventories swelled during the recession. It took two years to work off the aluminum ferreted away during the general economic decline once the economic scene improved, prolonging the industry's recovery. Not surprisingly, primary aluminum manufacturers intensified their efforts toward developing primary aluminum processes that reduced their dependence on electricity. The energy consumption required to produce aluminum dropped from 12 kilowatt hours per pound after World War II to roughly eight kilowatt hours. After the recessive mid-1970s, however, manufacturers invested more time and money into developing alternative methods to produce aluminum. Additionally, a majority of primary aluminum manufacturers began concentrating more on the secondary smelting of aluminum, which required far less electric power.

Manufacturers were unable to meet the rising demand for aluminum as conditions within the industry quickly reversed. Then demand quickly disappeared in the early 1980s, due in part to a significant decline in housing and construction activity. Aluminum prices plummeted, causing the closure of a substantial percentage of production capacity. Despite the diminished production capacity, total operating smelter capacity in the United States fell to 72 percent, three percentage points below the low recorded in 1975. By the mid-1980s, key aluminum markets had become saturated, with foreign aluminum manufacturers carving out a 21 percent share of the U.S. primary and fabricated aluminum market, up from the nine percent market share they secured in 1980.

Sales in the U.S. aluminum market grew at twice the rate of the gross national product during the 1960s and 1970s, but in the 1980s, the expansion into new markets was no longer possible. Buffeted by a rapidly growing scrap aluminum industry that benefited from the trend toward recycling and an increasing use of plastic instead of aluminum for beverage containers, primary aluminum manufacturers faced unfavorable prospects. The fabrication end of the aluminum industry, which generated 80 percent of the overall aluminum industry's revenues by the mid-1980s, began to attract more primary aluminum manufacturers as the decade drew to a close. Between 1982 and 1987, the number of manufacturers climbed from 15 to 34. At the same time, primary production facilities sprouted up overseas.

Aluminum sales to automobile manufacturers increased 110 percent through the 1990s. Although steel is the most commonly used metal in car production, aluminum is playing a greater role as pressure for lighter, more fuel-efficient cars grows. Aluminum weighs approximately one-third as much as steel yet maintains corrosion resistance and durability.

Because aluminum is lightweight as well as strong and durable, increasing numbers of construction contractors were incorporating aluminum in their projects near the turn of the century.

Primary aluminum producers' profits are influenced by environmental regulations. The domestic construction of new smelting capacity was limited by the amended Clean Air Act of 1990, which in part required electric utilities to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions. The costs incurred by electric utilities in making these emission reductions were in turn passed on to primary aluminum manufacturers. Aluminum producers have also had to invest large sums of capital into advanced scrubber systems in order to satisfy the Clean Air requirements. As a result, U.S. aluminum companies have looked for alternate suppliers of electricity and have made efforts to start a futures market for electric power.

Already showing some signs of mild weakening early in 2001, the aluminum industry was directly affected by the terrorist attacks of September 11, as the commercial aerospace industry came to a screeching halt. Although aluminum producers did not feel the effects immediately, as commercial airlines postponed and cancelled plans for new planes, the demand for aluminum declined in the sector during 2002. Top producers Alcoa Inc., Alcan Inc., Century Aluminum Co., Commonwealth Industries Inc., and Kaiser Aluminum Corp. reported $2 billion in operating profits in the first three quarters of 2002, compared to $3 billion for the first three quarters of 2001.

With decreased demand due to the weak economy of the early 2000s, overcapacity hampered market conditions. Price in September 2001 was running 7.5 percent lower than the same period of the previous year.

Transportation-related sales were bolstered by increased production of military aircraft such as C-17s, F-16s, and FA-18s, which are 75 to 80 percent composed of aluminum, but commercial airline business was way down. After robust auto sales in 2002, spurred by zero-percent financing offers, activity in the automotive sector decelerated during 2002. Construction-related sales were bolstered by strong new housing construction.

Although primary aluminum production actually declined from 2003 to 2007, revenues increased after a drop in 2005. Production in the United States went from 2.7 mmt in 2003 to approximately 2.5 mmt the next two years before dipping to 2.3 mmt in 2006. Production rebounded to 2.6 mmt in 2007, although capacity was 3.7 mmt.

Despite the drop in production in 2006, the value of shipments increased from $5.0 billion in 2005 to more than $6.2 billion, because the price per pound of ingot rose from 91 cents in 2005 to more than $1.21 in 2006. With the price at more than $1.25 in 2007, the value of shipments totaled $7.1 billion. The rising price of aluminum was the result of increased global demand, particularly in China.

The increased price of aluminum did not discourage its substitution in products such as cable and auto parts because prices for copper and steel increased at a greater rate. By weight, aluminum passed iron as the second-most used material in automobiles in 2006. More than half the engine blocks manufactured in North America were made from aluminum.

At the beginning of 2007, 36 percent of primary aluminum smelting capacity was not in use, including idled potlines at operating smelters. Power supply issues caused more shutdowns in 2008. Alcoa Inc. idled three of the six potlines at its aluminum smelter in Rockdale, Texas. Moreover, Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. LLC of Montana had given a 60-day notice of pending layoffs while considering to idle two of its three potlines in operation. Alcoa was to lay off about 250 people in Texas, and a significant portion of the 340 employees at the Columbia Falls plant faced layoffs.

Current Conditions

The industry experienced several ups and downs during 2008. During the first half of the year, new power contracts allowed primary aluminum producers to increase production, and prices trended upward, reaching $1.426 per pound in July. However, high electrical prices and a drop in aluminum prices in August caused the industry to spiral downward. During the first half of 2009, smelter closures took place in Alcoa, Tennessee; Massena, New York; and Ravenswood, West Virginia. Partial closures occurred at four other locations (Columbia Falls, Montana; Hannibal, Ohio; Hawesville, Kentucky; and New Madrid, Missouri). By September, smelters were working at less than 50 percent capacity. For the aluminum industry, 2009 was a difficult year.

Aluminum giant Alcoa's finances portray the ups and downs of the aluminum industry during the late 2000s. In 2007, Alcoa earned a net income of $2.81 billion on $29.28 billion. In 2008, as the aluminum industry was hit with high energy costs and the beginning of the economic recession, Alcoa's net income fell to $229 million on $26.9 billion in revenues. The following year, in 2009, when a failing economy--including the collapse of both the housing market and the U.S. auto industry--took full effect, Alcoa's revenues dropped to $18.44 billion, and the company recorded a net loss for the year of $985 million.

However, during the last quarter of 2009 and the first half of 2010, the aluminum industry showed some positive signs related to the overall recovery of the economy from the recession. Some smelters that had been taken off line in 2008 were brought back on line in 2010 as the price edged upward. However, as oversupply once again threatened to put pressure on prices, some produces once again reduced capacity. Another factor in play in the global aluminum picture was uncertainty surrounding China's ongoing strong demand for aluminum. As a result, in August 2010, Accord Fintech pronounced the outlook for aluminum to be "rather mixed."

During the first six months of 2010, U.S. shipments of aluminum were up by over 17 percent to 615,800 tons, compared to 524,600 over the same period the previous year. "Last year, it was depressing. I would definitely say we are up, and up significantly, from that bottom. We're maybe halfway up the ladder to where we were, but we're definitely stronger," a source told American Metal Market in July 2010. A clear sign that the industry's strength was returning, Alcoa announced its quarterly fiscal earnings in July, showing the company posted a net gain of $136 million for its second quarter, compared to a loss of $454 million for the same period during 2009.

Industry Leaders

After a spate of acquisitions in the late 1990s, Alcoa Inc. regained its historic place as the most powerful aluminum producer in the world. Although the company reduced its workforce from more than 127,000 employees to 107,000 from 2002 to 2007, it increased its revenues from $20 billion to more than $30.7 billion in that period. In 1998, Alcoa acquired Alumax, Inc. and Norada Aluminum Inc. After its archrival, the Canadian company Alcan Aluminums, merged with Pechiney of France and Alsuisse Lonza (of Switzerland), Alcoa turned its eyes toward its largest American competitor, Reynolds Metals. Reynolds accepted Alcoa's takeover bid of $4.4 billion in 2000 and now operates as Reynolds Food Packaging, a subsidiary of Alcoa. In 2009, Alcoa posted revenues of $18.44 billion, down from $26.9 billion the previous year.

The Century Aluminum Co. of Monterey, California, had 2009 revenues of $899.2 million. Other leaders in the industry include Ormet Corp. of Hannibal, Ohio, and Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. of Columbia Falls, Montana.


Employment in the primary aluminum industry was nearly 26,000 in the late 1980s. Reductions in the industry's production capacity and the trend toward relocating smelting facilities abroad eroded the industry's employment level to less than 16,000 in the late 1990s and less than 13,000 by 2001. In 2008, employment was roughly 9,000.

America and the World

Domestic aluminum producers have often accused their foreign competitors of "dumping" aluminum, or selling their products at artificially low prices in the United States to increase their market share. This situation was especially tense in the early 1990s, as the amount of aluminum originating in the former Soviet Union ballooned from 250,000 metric tons (mt) to 1.6 mmt between 1989 and 1993. As a result of this flood of aluminum unleashed on the domestic market, U.S. producers cut production by 796,000 mt, or 20 percent of capacity, and laid off 1,300 employees. In 1995, the 14 aluminum smelters in the Commonwealth of Independent States (the countries that had previously comprised the Soviet Union) were privatized. Without subsidies from the Russian government, the CIS manufacturers were liable for their own operating costs. They could no longer afford to sell aluminum below open market cost and remain operational.

In the late 2000s, the United States trailed only China and Russia in terms of primary smelter production capacity. However, in 2009, U.S. production was fifth behind China, Russia, Canada, and Australia. China, with a capacity of 19 mt, surpassed all countries in both capacity and production. China's production in 2009 was 13 mmt, compared to the second largest producer, Russia, with 3.3 mmt.

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