Markets, Minerals, and Technology

By Harbison Walker
Published: Wednesday, 03 August 2016

The past decade has presented some interesting challenges for mineral-dependent industries like ceramics and refractories. Demand has varied substantially for all industries, and this has had a huge impact on the consumption of key minerals needed for steel production as well as of mineral-based products like refractories.

Wide fluctuation in mineral demand leads to wide swings in mineral indexes. This past decade has seen consolidation of mineral suppliers and more efforts by companies and governments to adjust available supply to demand. The advantage of consolidated supply is to enable the industry to adjust supply up or down in response to demand, with the goal of insuring a more stable price of the commodity mineral. This was not always the result, however.

While opening and closing capacity to adjust for demand may seem like a simple process, it becomes much harder when the markets creating the demand change at the same pace. Rather than being a stabilizing influence, consolidation can lead to volatility. So how do industries that use minerals adapt? The short answer is technology. When price exceeds value, consumers react by supporting initiatives that reduce their demand. A great example is the way the automobile industry has evolved in response to rising crude oil prices. While this type of evolution is not always so straightforward in many industrial applications, the same dynamics are at play.

Though science and technology are the clear solution, it’s also true that technology programs are a finite asset. When they are used in reaction to short-term price fluctuations, they are less available for other critical long-term needs, like making better, safer, more environmentally friendly products or developing novel solutions to industry problems. This may well mean that technology has not advanced as much in the past ten years as would have been expected. Instead, industries have been forced to direct their efforts toward demands caused by unstable and unreliable commodity and mineral pricing. 

These challenges have underscored the importance of industry collaboration to ensure that innovations advance in line with each other. Having the flexibility to adjust quickly to short-term market dynamics is also key. With these new realities in mind, HarbisonWalker International is reigniting innovation and new product development. With an influx of new technology solutions and a commitment to new technologies in its labs and engineering centers, HarbisonWalker International will be amply prepared to serve its customers through the next wild swing. 

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