Steel has been made for 100 years at TimkenSteel's Harrison mill. The company is celebrating that anniversary this year and looking to the future.

CANTON  Like his father, when Spencer Norman entered the workforce, he found himself at an industrial roofing company.

The company was Canton-based, but Norman disliked that the job took him out of the area for extended periods. So like his father (and both grandfathers), Norman put in an application at "Timkens." On May 22, he started working at TimkenSteel's Harrison mill, along with his father, Gary Norman, and his grandfather, Bill Webler.

"My kid is working here now. To me, that's cool," Gary Norman said of his son joining the TimkenSteel ranks.

Like the Normans, thousands of sons have followed their fathers into the Timken Co. and now TimkenSteel Corp. facilities through the years. The company started making bearings in 1899 and moved to Canton in 1901. Timken began making steel in 1917, to ensure the company had the raw material needed for its bearings.

This year, TimkenSteel has been marking 100 years of making special bar-quality steels used to make bearings, automotive parts, heavy machinery and other equipment to help drill oil and natural gas wells.

Timken Co. and TimkenSteel have been the backbone of Stark County, Gary Norman said.

"We make the best steel in the world. Why wouldn't we want to work here?"

TimkenSteel has benefited from generations of families working in its steel mills, said Tim Timken, chairman, president and chief executive officer. Family members help pass along the steel-making knowledge and techniques. They also share the commitment that has made the company successful, Timken said.

Strategic move

Timken Co.'s venture into steel was a strategic decision borne from necessity. The company was using steel made in electric-arc furnaces, which were in limited supply, and there were concerns about possible steel shortages because of World War I. Timken started its own production so it could gain control over its supply.

H.H. Timken, one of two sons of company founder Henry Timken, researched and then moved forward with the idea. The first steel production was in the Harrison Street mill adjacent to buildings where bearings were assembled. While most of the bearing production buildings are gone — cleared and now an open space to store steel — the steel mill has grown.

Timken started with four 5-ton furnaces, making it the country's largest electric-arc furnace facility at the time. The plant eventually had nine furnaces of various sizes. The company has kept up with changing technology, and today the mill has two 135-ton furnaces. On average, the mill melts scrap steel 18 times each day to make new steel. The company makes more than 450 grades of steel, with differences based on the complexity of the metal's chemistry.

The company also developed a reputation as an innovator of alloy steels. The company's metallurgists developed nickel-molybdenum steel in 1924 to replace chrome-nickel steel. In 1953, it published the first edition of "Practical Data for Metallurgists." The book has become a reference and source for metallurgical information, and TimkenSteel is publishing the 18th edition this year.

After splitting from Timken in 2014, TimkenSteel created a 20,000-square-foot technology center in its buildings on Dueber Avenue SW, where it researches new alloys and looks for ways to improve the products it makes.

Researchers are looking for the cleanest and strongest steel possible, said Chris Eastman, senior project metallurgical engineer. "We push the bounds of what is possible," he said. The technology center's work also helps measure and validate the products being created in the company's mills, he said.

While Timken started making steel for itself, by 1920, it was selling to other manufacturers. Today, TimkenSteel still counts Timken Co. among its many customers, along with other bearing makers and the world's largest automobile makers.

The Harrison mill also processes steel. The plant had three rolling mills, but in 1998 — because of changing technology — all were replaced with a single mill that makes steel bars in a variety of sizes and lengths. Between 2,000 and 3,000 tons of steel produced at the Harrison and Faircrest mills is processed each day.

Company split

TimkenSteel has been an independently traded company since June 30, 2014. Timken Co. spun off the steel business after a proxy fight with shareholders who believed splitting the company would lead to improved stock values.

The independent company had a fine start during the second half of 2014, but the oil industry began to dip in 2015, and that affected several segments. Most of 2015 and 2016 were rough. Demand for steel dropped, and TimkenSteel plants operated at half their capacity. The situation started changing during the last half of 2016. Oil drilling has recovered some and the industrial economy has picked up, Tim Timken said.

The last 18 months have been difficult, he said, but they also have helped to reshape the company. "We've pressure tested the hull of the ship in the depths of the ocean," Timken said.

During the downturn, which can be common in a cyclical industry such as steel production, the company reduced the workforce as production dropped. Since business has recovered, TimkenSteel has been able to call back workers who were laid off and add new employees, such as Spencer Norman.

He hopes to carry on the pride his father and grandfather have developed during their years with the company. "It's all about keeping that culture," he said.

Bill Webler, Spencer Norman's grandfather, started at Timken in 1974. He served in the Army after high school and went to Vietnam. When he came home in 1971, he kicked around in different jobs for a few years before getting the chance to work for Timken.

"We had a history here, and I knew it was a good place to work," Webler said. He learned from his father, Melvin "Bud" Webler, who worked 27 years at Timken.

A Timken job was good money and hard work, Webler said. "Everything was brute force when I started here," he said.

Technology has changed processes and the way workers do their job.

"We make better steel, cleaner steel, faster than we ever did before," Webler said. "With fewer guys."

Webler's wife helped Gary Norman get into Timken, sending in his resume. Garrett Norman, Gary's father, worked 37 years for Timken. "It was always something that I wanted to do was work here," said Gary Norman, who has more than 20 years at the company and operates equipment in the rolling mill.

Spencer Norman visited the plant with his father and grandfather, but now has a much better perspective of the operations. Meanwhile, it's strange working with people who have been at the mill longer than he's been alive. The older workers help newer employees, show them what to do, mentor and offer advice.

"We try to show them what a great place it is to work here," Webler said.

Reach Edd at 330-580-8484 or edd.pritchard@cantonrep.com

On Twitter: @epritchardREP