Some northeastern Ohio manufacturers have discovered a new precious metal: steel.
It's becoming more expensive, takes longer to get and, in some cases, is even tough to find, manufacturing executives say.
"The lead times on steel are driving the lead times on manufacturing generally," said Chris DiSantis, president of Hawk Corp. in Cleveland. Hawk sells clutch and brake materials and fabricated components that include steel.
"We're hand-to-mouth on steel of certain grades," DiSantis said. At times, he said, plants must wait for steel before they can produce certain items, and production runs end when the supply of steel is used up.
DiSantis is far from alone.
Manufacturers generally say they must wait longer for the steel they need, a development that comes as their own customers are pressing for faster delivery of products to compensate for their own low inventory levels.
"Lead times are getting long. Fourteen weeks or longer is not unusual" between the time an order is placed and a shipment is received, said Charlie Kerr, owner of Kerr Lakeside Inc., a Euclid, Ohio, manufacturer of high-quality socket screws.
As recently as October, Kerr said, lead times for the same steel were only four to six weeks.
"What used to take four to six weeks to get now takes eight to 12 weeks," said Jerry Zeitler, president of Die-Matic Corp., a Cleveland company that makes precision metal stampings.
Ironically, it's not demand that's causing the problem but a lack of it. Too few people are buying steel to keep the nation's mills running full throttle, steel experts say. That situation leaves those who want to buy the commodity struggling to be first in line for the steel that is made.
"The mills are pushing out delivery [schedules]; they're taking orders, and they're raising prices. ... I can't see where the demand is coming from," said Herb Neides, president of Clifton Steel Co. in Maple Heights, Ohio, which processes and fabricates supertough steel used in military armor, recycling shredders and railroad equipment.