Lou Koprivnikar launched his career at ATI 36 years ago when everything was hands-on.

Employees would load 43-ton metal coils by crane and affix labels on specialty metals fresh out of a 2,250-degree furnace.

Today, operations are fully automated inside the Hot Rolling and Processing Facility (HRPF), a $1.2 billion plant marking 10 years in Harrison along the border with Brackenridge. It’s the heart of ATI’s Specialty Rolled Products division.

“A lot of our products don’t work without the capabilities of this facility,” said Koprivnikar of Harrison, the plant’s general manager.

He was among the original team that opened the hot strip mill.

“It’s designed to roll nickel alloy, titanium and other metals and reduce them at a higher rate than any other process on the planet,” Koprivnikar said.

“We can take a slab that’s 8 or 9 inches (thick) and roll it down to the thickness of a nickel. It’s like pasta. It just keeps stretching and stretching, and we get it in one pass exactly how the customer wants it without it going to multiple facilities.”

The customized process cuts lead time and slashes supply chain issues — all but guaranteeing continued growth for the Alle-Kiski Valley, leaders said Thursday during a family day at the site.

“It’s incredibly exciting for us,” said incoming CEO Kim Fields. “We will continue to look at ways to grow in aerospace and defense.”

The company’s foray into those markets spurred construction of the facility, as it was uniquely designed to incrementally reduce the thickness of nickel and stainless and carbon steels into coils, sheets and plates.

The $1.2 billion cost was the largest private capital investment in Pennsylvania at the time.

When the company unveiled the factory, then-Vice President Tom DeLuca promised, “You’re not going to find another factory like this one in the world.”

That holds true today, Fields said.

It remains the most powerful hot strip mill in the world, capable of rolling up to 1.9 million tons a year, she said.

ATI officials never promised new jobs, but pledged to maintain employment levels — which they have.

When the mill opened, ATI had about 1,100 employees regionally.

The number has ticked up to about 1,500, including 120 HRPF employees and about 400 total at the building along River Road and Mile Lock Lane.

Crew leader Phil Rearick of Upper Burrell has worked at the plant 18 years. He was there for the transformation of the hot rolling facility.

“Without this, we wouldn’t be able to compete in the market,” he said.

“Ten years isn’t that old. There’s plenty of life in this building, which should provide stability for the Valley for years to come.”

Plant Manager Jason Kortz said the mill has longevity because it’s critical to certain markets.

“Inside armored vehicles is our material protecting soldiers,” he said. “In the aviation field, we do landing gear and jet engine components.”

In April, when CEO Bob Wetherbee announced the company’s first quarter sales of $1 billion were up modestly from the same time in 2023, he credited growth in aerospace and defense sales for driving results across ATI.

“ATI’s outlook continues to be strong and is supported by a robust backlog of commercial aircraft orders,” he said at the time.

“ATI is well-positioned to continue its organic growth and margin expansion.”

Other worldwide markets that receive ATI materials include automotive, food processing and medical, among others.

Materials processed in Natrona come from slab yards at ATI facilities across the country. When they reach the plant, metals are heated and rolled through furnaces that uses the same amount of gas in 25 minutes that a typical house uses in a year.

The roughing mill does the bulk of the work, behind 13,500 pounds of horsepower. It’s the equivalent of 12 Airbus A380s careening through the sky, spokeswoman Natalie Gillespie said.

The roughing mill takes materials down to 1 or 2 inches in less than 90 seconds, Gillespie said.

Metals then go through the finishing mill to transform to a precise thickness — or thinness – down to as little as 0.06-inch. They travel 2,000 feet a minute under machinery that uses 14 million gallons of water an hour to flatten materials to specifications.

Lastly, the sheets are whipped through a coiler at 3,500 feet a minute and shipped by rail to ATI’s Vandergrift facility, where a $65 million expansion to the Bright Anneal Line was unveiled in April.

Koprivnikar believes ATI’s rolling mill provides a positive and long-term economic impact for the region.

“We would like to solve people’s problems with our products,” he said. “We’re not just making materials for a cheap grill. We want to make things that matter and that last.”

Tawnya Panizzi is a TribLive reporter. She joined the Trib in 1997. She can be reached at tpanizzi@triblive.com.