Steel is often referred to as a commodity. Although recognized as a material with a wide range of uses, the breadth of different end uses is often not well understood. In the article that follows, the author discusses some typical end uses of steel illustrating the different applications for which this material is commonly used.
Within flat steel products, several different product groups can be identified. These include:
- Sheet, commonly used in shipbuilding, for the production of large diameter pipes (eg for oil and gas transportation) and for military applications as armor plate (tanks, personnel carriers).
- Hot rolled sheets and coils, where significant uses may include low pressure tanks, heavy ducts and channels, gas and water pipes, rolled sections for construction use, machine parts, and some automobile chassis components.
- Cold-rolled coils and sheets, where typical uses include roofing products, enamel-coated cookware, packaging (including strapping), unexposed items in appliances such as refrigerators and freezers, construction brackets, and machinery.
- Coated steel products, i.e. primarily zinc and tin coated steels, where key uses include highway crash barriers, air conditioning vent shafts, lockers, cabinets, metal boxes, unexposed parts of automobile bodies, rail cars, drums, boats, roofing products, PVC window assemblies, and at the higher end of the quality spectrum for exposed automotive body panels, appliance panels, sandwich panels for construction applications; and tinplate for packaging uses (food and beverages).
Within long products, several different product groups can be identified. These include:
- Heavy sections, typically used to make bridges, or as construction elements (beams) as load-bearing structures in buildings. Railroad rails are also a major end use for heavy steel sections.
- Light sections, which may include merchant bar products [meaning round, square, hexagonal, rectangular, flat and other shapes used as support structures for building, construction and machinery]rebar (used to reinforce concrete, both horizontally and vertically), as well as engineering steel products (used for the production of crankshafts, gearbox gears, suspension arms, automobile springs, and hydraulic components) .
- Wire products, used for tire cords, mechanical springs (including bedding), steel cords, as well as for fasteners (nuts, bolts, screws), as well as wire mesh, nails, and fencing products.
Inside the tube, more products can be distinguished. These include:
- Seamless tubing, where thinner applications include syringe needles and precision tubing; and larger diameters find uses in oil and gas exploration, as well as high temperature and pressure applications, including uses in highly corrosive environments.
- Welded pipe, which includes small, medium and large pipe, with uses ranging from furniture, gas and water pipes, as well as construction elements. Larger diameter pipelines are used for offshore, subsea, and intercontinental oil and gas transportation.
While often referred to as a commodity, it is clear that the uses for steel are wide-ranging. Many of the applications for steel are also highly specialized, especially in the case of:
- High speed steels, used for cutting metals.
- tool steels, used for the manufacture of tools (including stamping dies, cutting blades, and hand tools such as wrenches and chucks for machine tools).
- steel forgings (with very broad industrial applications including components and machinery).
With certain steel subgroups (such as stainless steels) having other quite unique sets of applications (jewelry, surgical instruments, kitchen surfaces, and tools).