Hamburg, Germany-based Aurubis began helping meet the world’s growing demand for copper and copper products shortly after it was founded in 1866. As it celebrates its 150th “birthday” in 2016, the company can look back on an impressive history and also look toward the future with confidence in its global business model.

Throughout its history, the deep-rooted metals company has demonstrated an ability to develop new technologies, including several that have allowed it to tap into Europe’s and the world’s supplies of nonferrous scrap.

Aurubis currently employs some 6,300 people at production facilities in Europe and the United States and manages a sales network that spans the globe.

A BETTER WAY

Aurubis was founded April 28, 1866, as Norddeutsche Affinerie (NA). While proud of its history, the company’s leaders have selected the motto “150 Years of the Future” to look forward while commemorating its anniversary in 2016.

During its first 10 years in business, the company focused on gold and silver separation. It was only one decade into its existence when the company now known as Aurubis introduced its first major technical innovation—one that still plays a major role in metals production today.

In 1876 NA’s Dr. Emil Wohlwill developed the copper electrolysis production process and helped NA become the first company worldwide to put chemically pure copper electrolyte onto the market.

The innovation provided an advantage that helped NA increase its production capacity and grow into newer, larger facilities throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Even after the devastation of World War II, in 1949 NA was able to commission a continuous copper casting line to produce red metals needed in the rebuilding of a continent.

In the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s NA added capacity and developed new production techniques, culminating in 1999 in the purchase of the Hüttenwerke Kayser AG facility in Lünen, Germany. That plant today, after undergoing major investments, serves as the center of Aurubis’ scrap melting and conversion operations.

Well beyond Dr. Wohlwill’s development of the electrolysis process, NA and Aurubis have continued to generate R&D (research and development) advances that have moved the company forward. Michaela Hessling, the company’s executive director of corporate communications, says, “Aurubis has been a pioneer right from the beginning. Some processes that are state-of-the-art today worldwide have been developed at Aurubis.”

Hessling says, “Aurubis has pioneered a lot in the field of multimetal recycling. Today, our flexible metallurgical process with its capability to process nearly all metals is outstanding.”

That is not to say the company is complacent. “As a part of our service attitude, we are continuously adjusting our raw materials receiving and sampling processes,” says Stefan-Georg Fuchs, the company’s executive director of supply for recycling raw materials. He says “the pre- and end-processing of many complex end-of-life materials or types of production scrap is part of our business to develop sustainable and competitive recycling solutions for our customers.”

The company’s name change took place in 2009, after additional mergers and acquisitions expanded its footprint well beyond the northern Germany region referenced in the NA name.

Germany continues to play an important role in Aurubis’ current operations, but the company has diversified geographically and in the types of facilities it runs compared with its earlier NA era.

CATHODES AND BEYOND

“Today, Aurubis is the leading integrated copper group and the largest copper recycler worldwide,” says Hessling. She adds, “We produce more than 1 million tonnes of copper cathodes, 1,000 tonnes of silver and 30 tonnes of gold annually.”

Although Aurubis’ “core business is the production of marketable copper cathodes from copper concentrates, copper scrap and other recycling raw materials,” Hessling says, the company also has downstream operations that yield “continuous cast wire rod, shapes, rolled products and strip, as well as specialty wire and profiles made of copper and copper alloys.”

The variety of intake materials handled by the company means that “precious metals and a number of other products, such as sulfuric acid and iron silicate, round off our product portfolio,” Hessling says.

Buyers of what Aurubis produces “include companies in the copper semis industry, the electrical engineering, electronics and chemical industries, as well as suppliers in the renewable energy, construction and automotive sectors,” she comments.

The company operates from production sites in several European nations, including Germany, Belgium, Bulgaria, Finland, Italy, Netherlands, Slovakia, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Beyond Europe, Aurubis also manages one production facility in the United States (in Buffalo, New York) and sales offices in eight Asian nations.

The company melts scrap at several of its facilities, but Fuchs says, “Our site in Lünen, Germany, is our recycling center, processing all types of copper and copper alloy scraps, electronic scrap, residues and complex recycling materials.”

In addition to feeding its Lünen facility, copper scrap also is directed toward the Aurubis plants in Olen, Belgium; Pirdop, Bulgaria; and Hamburg, Germany.

That is a predominant reason why approximately 70% of the red-metal-bearing scrap acquired by Aurubis comes from Europe, according to Fuchs.

While Europe is the foremost scrap market for the company, Fuchs helps manage a team of buyers who maintain relationships around the world to ensure that opportunities to purchase scrap in Asia, North America or elsewhere are not overlooked.

The volume of scrap consumed by Aurubis, Fuchs says, also points to the need for a global buying network. The company consumes “roughly 650,000 tonnes per year, of which about 350,000 tonnes are copper scrap, and about 300,000 tonnes are complex recycling materials, [including] about 100,000 tonnes of e-scrap materials,” he says.

The company seeks out a wide variety of scrap grades, including wire and cable scrap, copper-brass radiators, electronic scrap, printed circuit boards, shredded nonferrous metals and metal hydroxide slimes, foundry sands and catalysts.

“In order to cope with the ever-changing market environment, Aurubis has developed processes that enable us to handle a rising complexity of recycling materials,” Fuchs says.

THE NEXT CHALLENGE

The global economy has provided its share of challenges in the past several years for Aurubis as it has most other recycling and manufacturing firms.

The company’s leaders foresee continuing challenges on the horizon and say firming up and advancing its market share will be the best way to navigate any resulting turbulence.

Fuchs says, “Copper scrap markets have been tight lately. From the current perspective, we expect the copper scrap markets to recover starting in the third quarter of 2016, with a consequent recovery in refining charges.” He adds, “Despite adverse market conditions in the [previous] months due to declining copper prices and an overall difficult financial situation of scrap collectors, our plants were fully supplied.”

On the semifinished and finished products side, Hessling says, “We expect good demand overall from our main markets in Europe. In North America, we expect stronger competition from imports for our local strip production due to the strong U.S. dollar.”

As Aurubis enters its 151st year, affecting the future of its business model will be “challenges due to price fluctuations of metals,” and the “miniaturisation of products,” Fuchs says, which is likely to decrease the volume and change the nature of the e-scrap stream in the medium-term future.

Such issues notwithstanding, Hessling says of Aurubis, “The main focus of our strategy is on expanding our leading market position as an integrated copper producer, utilising growth opportunities and practicing a responsible attitude when dealing with people, resources and the environment.”

She says the company’s close attention to its production processes and the needs of its customers means, “We obtain the direction in which we have to aim with our R&D efforts.”

Such research will be one the keys to the Aurubis “150 Years of the Future” outlook, according to Hessling, as it strives toward “the development of know-how and technology to be able to process the increasingly complex recycling materials that will remain an important driver for innovation.”

The author is editor of Recycling Today Global Edition and can be contacted at btaylor@gie.net.