SIC 3497

This category covers establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing gold, silver, tin, and other metal foil (including converted metal foil) and leaf. Also included are establishments primarily engaged in converting metal foil (including aluminum) into wrappers, cookware, dinnerware, and containers, except bags and liners. Establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing plain aluminum foil are classified in SIC 3353: Aluminum Sheet, Plate, and Foil.

NAICS Code(s)

322225 (Laminated Aluminum Foil Manufacturing for Flexible Packaging Uses)

332999 (All Other Miscellaneous Fabricated Metal Product Manufacturing)

Industry Snapshot

The value of laminated aluminum foil shipments in 2000 was $1.43 billion. The industry employed approximately 4,500 people. Average hourly wages in 2000 were $18.78. In the late 1990s, New Jersey and California led the country with the number of establishments involved in the metal foil and leaf industry, with 16 and 13 respectively. However, Kentucky and North Carolina were the leaders in terms of the value of shipments, totaling nearly 30 percent of U.S. output in the industry.

Organization and Structure

Aluminum foil, the bulk of which is converted into food containers and packaging for food and other products, is a major component of this industry. In 1995 a full 43 percent of the industry's output consisted of laminated aluminum foil rolls and sheets for flexible packaging uses, especially foil-paper laminate. Another 30 percent of the industry's output consisted of converted, unmounted aluminum foil packaging products. As a consequence, the fortunes of the industry were closely tied to the prosperity of the food packaging industry.

The remaining 27 percent of the industry's output consisted of unconverted metal foil and leaf and converted foil for non-packaging applications, many of which were on the cutting edge of technology, especially in the field of electronics. The industry was thus divided between those facets producing everyday household products—such as aluminum foil popcorn containers—and high technology foils—such as ultra-thin (3 microns) copper foil—to answer industry demands for the miniaturization of electronic components.

The largest segment of the metal foil and leaf industry was served by the Aluminum Foil Container Manufacturers Association, headquartered in Savannah, Georgia. This association, founded in 1955, was comprised of 14 member companies. Its journal, Paper, Film and Foil Converter , provided information to producers in the industry.

Firms involved in the production of metal foil and leaf were not generally involved in the production of metals. As Hamilton Bowman wrote in his Handbook of Precision Sheet, Strip and Foil , a foil producer's "operations are generally confined to the cold rolling, heat treating, flattening, slitting, and edge conditioning of coils of flat-rolled metal produced for him by a basic mill." However, the scope of operations in the industry had widened considerably in the latter years of the twentieth century as the use of foil for containers, packaging, electronics, and holograms became increasingly important.

Background and Development

Metalsmiths have produced flat metal sheets for centuries. In its earliest form, metal foil was produced by hammering malleable metal against a flat surface. As early as the seventeenth century, metal foils were produced by hand-operated rolling mills. These early mills made use of two parallel iron cylinders through which metals were passed in a number of successive stages, depending on the thickness of foil desired. Thinner products were referred to as sheet and thicker products as plate. By the mid-nineteenth century, a great many powered rolling mills were in use in Europe and the United States. The use of parallel cylinders remains the dominant method of foil production today, and hammering techniques are still used in the production of gold leaf and foil.

By the end of the nineteenth century, continuous-process roller mills came into use. These mills differ substantially from their predecessors. Instead of reducing the metal to the desired thickness by making a series of passes, continuous-process mills operate on a longer piece of metal that is flattened to the desired thickness by being passed once through a series of roller pairs set at ever-closer distances to each other. These mills substantially reduce the cost of production by optimizing the flow of materials and reducing set-up times.

Until the mid-1920s continuous-process mills (also referred to as tandem or strip mills) were not able to produce widths greater than 24 inches. Then, more powerful mills were developed that could accommodate greater widths and, subsequently, narrower widths were produced by slitting broader widths of material.

A wide variety of metals are converted to foils, among them copper, gold, lead, magnesium, nickel, platinum, silver, tin, and zinc. Foil is generally defined as being 0.005 inches or less in thickness. Some foil producers also produce precision sheet and strip, which are materials between 0.015 and 0.005 inches in thickness.

The cold rolling of foil and precision sheet and strip requires much greater precision than the cold rolling of thicker sheets. Variations in thickness, temper, and finish need to be more controlled. Consequently, foil is produced at much slower speeds than thicker sheets, and complex systems are required to monitor variation. Key developments in the post-World War II period include the use of smaller diameter rollers, the more rigid mounting of rollers, and more sophisticated drive mechanisms and systems of control.

Larger diameter rollers have the disadvantage of greater surface contact with the rolled metal. Greater force is required to overcome the greater frictional resistance of large rollers. Thus, for any given amount of energy used, large rollers reduce sheet thickness by lesser amounts than smaller rollers. The greater flexibility of smaller rollers requires that they be backed up by large adjacent rollers, called backup or support rolls. In four-high mills, each contact roller is backed up by a single support roll. In cluster mills, each contact roller is typically backed by nine support rolls. Steckel mills are four-high mills in which the rolls are not driven. Metal sheet is instead pulled through the rolls, permitting a great deal of thickness control, though somewhat less reduction per pass than a standard four-high mill. Large-diameter, two-high mills permit reductions of only 10 percent per pass, whereas four-high mills permit reductions of 50 to 60 percent and cluster mills reductions of 75 percent per pass. Smaller contact rollers enable not only greater reductions but also lesser variation in foil thickness.

Cold rolling makes metal harder and more brittle. Depending on the thickness of foil desired, cold rolled metals need to be heat treated, or annealed, in order to soften them for further reduction. Reductions obtained through cycles of annealing and cold rolling are constrained only by the mechanical limitations of the rolling machinery and by handling considerations.

Development of the metal foil and leaf industry was based on these basic technologies. In Handbook of Precision Sheet, Strip and Foil , Hamilton Bowman wrote that the growth of the industry since the 1960s resulted "as designers have come to appreciate the unique advantages of economy, weight saving, and dimensional precision inherent in these metals."

Current Conditions

In 2000 the total value of shipments of laminated aluminum foil for flexible packaging usage totaled $1.43 billion, compared to $1.65 billion in 1998. The cost of materials declined from $1 billion in 1998 to $867 million in 2000. Over the same time period, the number of industry employees fell from 5,241 to 4,504. Production workers in 2000 numbered 3,468.

The future of the industry is dependent in large part on technical developments within and outside of the industry. A number of viable substitutes for metal foil laminates were developed in the 1990s, cutting into the market of the most important product of the industry. Among these new materials were metallized polypropylene, metallized paper, polyethylene, and ethylene vinyl alcohol. However, such new products as extremely thin steel foils and improved foil products for baking suggested the possibility of growth for the core products of the industry.

Industry Leaders

In 1998 the top four U.S. companies in the metal foil and leaf industry were Gould Electronics, Hampden Papers, Alumax Foils, and Circuit Foil USA.

Gould's Foil Division, located in Eastlake, Ohio, was the leading supplier of copper foil in Europe and North America and the number two supplier in Pacific Rim countries. Gould produces specialty metal foils, such as nickel-and tin-plated copper foil and copper aluminum-copper laminates. In 1998 Gould's foil division had 800 employees and did $67 million in business.

Hampden Papers of Holyoke, Massachusetts, produces packaging laminates. In 1998 it employed 200 people and generated $32 million in business.

Circuit Foil USA of Bordentown, New Jersey, produces electro-deposited copper foil for electronic applications. In 1998 the company employed 170 workers and had sales of $25 million.

Alumax Inc., located in Atlanta, became part of Alcoa in 1998. It is the third-largest U.S. producer of aluminum products, behind Alcoa and Reynolds. Alumax Foils, Inc., produces light and heavy aluminum foil. In 1998 the foil division had 200 employees and had sales of $31 million.

Research and Technology

At the turn of the century, much of the ongoing research and development within the industry was aimed at producing ever-thinner foils for a variety of applications. Japan's Mitsui Mining & Smelting developed ultra-thin copper foil for electronic applications and Germany's Thyssen Krupp AG was producing a thin foil—Aluchrom 7A1 YHF—to be used in meeting new emissions standards for catalytic converters. The new product employed aluminum, yttrium and hafnium.

In the United States, the API Group introduced Atalfa in 1999. This was a new "optimum moisture barrier substrate" that employed 200 times less metal than aluminum foil. Atalfa has been approved for food contact.

Ultra-thin foils were also being developed for emergency equipment repairs, in which a flame from a match or a spark from a battery could trigger a "molecular marriage." This foil was being developed at Johns Hopkins University and consisted of a microscopic layering of two elements in alternating rows, each 50 to 100 atoms deep.

Further Reading

"API Group is Introducing Atalfa." Packaging Week , 26 August 1999.

Bowman, Hamilton B. Handbook of Precision Sheet, Strip and Foil. Metals Park, OH: American Society for Metals, 1980.

CF: Circuit Foil USA Web Site , 1999. Available from .

D & B Million Dollar Directory: America's Leading Public and Private Companies. Bethlehem, PA: Dun & Bradstreet, 1999.

"Fiery Foils Produce New Sealing Process." USA Today , June 1997.

"Goodbye Deflation! Prices Forecast to Rise in 2000." Purchasing , 21 October 1999.

"Mitsui Mining & Smelting Has Developed an Ultra-Thin Copper Foil for Microelectronic Printed Circuit Boards." American Metal Market , 18 May 1999.

Russell, John J., ed. National Trade and Professional Associations of the United States, 32nd ed. Washington, D.C.: Columbia Books, 1997.

"Thyssen Krupp's Krupp VDM Unit Developed a New Thin Foil for Catalytic Converters." American Metal Market , 11 May 1999.

United States Census Bureau. 1995 Annual Survey of Manufactures. Available from .

——. "Statistics for Industries and Industry Groups: 2000." Annual Survey of Manufacturers. February 2002. Available from .

——. Occupational Outlook Handbook, 1996-97. Available from .

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