Switching stainless grades can be difficult

Since the price of nickel doubled to over USD 17,000 per tonne a few months ago there has been much talk of substitution – using nickel-free or low-nickel grades of stainless instead of type 304 and other austenitics. This is not a new trend. Whenever nickel costs increase, mills and end-users examine the possibility of switching in this way. However, diverting to a different grade is far from straightforward. It may look superficially attractive in terms of cost per tonne, but the mechanics of making the change are complicated. The International Stainless Steel Forum recently conducted a survey which showed that its members’ production of the 200 series of stainless types rose to about 1.5 million tonnes in 2003. But the austenitic chromium-manganese materials still accounted for only 7.5 percent of total stainless output. It seems the low-nickel grades are not taking any significant share of the market away from 300 series which accounted for over 70 percent of production last year. Stainless consumption maintains its steady growth trend of 5 percent per year on average, in spite of the dire warnings that price volatility will harm demand.

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