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Cuban innovation to reduce the nickel industry’s reliance on imports

Cuba fabrica niquelThe repair of just one of the large furnaces, at the Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara Nickel Enterprise, reveals the shocking fact that the job costs between three and five million pesos. To avoid a shutdown at the smelter, which generates “hard” currency income for the country, there are two alternatives. Either incur the significant expense of importing the necessary parts, or develop solutions here.

As part of the capital renovation process underway at the industrial giant, the Comandante Gustavo Machín Nickel Enterprise has been called upon to take responsibility for the second option. According to its general director, engineer Alexei Martínez Mora, the plant’s workforce manufactures more than 70% of the mechanical components for the furnaces, among them the heavy arms that move the ore mixture.

“Furnace number ten, for example, went into operation in September. We did practically all the metalwork on the outside, and on the inside, we repaired the sheathing of refractory bricks that withstand the high temperatures,” Martínez reported, adding that they did the same work on the number six furnace, one of the three completed, and have made the commitment to repair an average of four a year.


The director confirms that 80% of the company’s total sales, both in parts and in pre-fabricated metal structures, are to the Che Guevara mill. Contracted with this company are the repair of settlers and stills, which will contribute to the gradual re-building of the industry’s capacity.

“Over the years we have worked systematically on innovation and development. In the fabrication of the furnace arms, we have reduced imported elements, using scrap from dismantled parts of the factory. Our success lies in having achieved an appropriate alloy,” he explained.

They also created a technology to solve problems that appeared in the furnaces’ combustion nodes, recovering this way a very specific type of burner and continuing, as can be seen today, to the rehabilitation of pressure regulators.

“The burners cost around $5,000 abroad, but now we invest less on purchases by extending their lives. Since we manufacture the parts, some of them in conjunction with the military industry, we have the option of adapting them when necessary. Nonetheless, the alternative is not only a question of money, but also of the obstacles that the blockade creates to making purchases.”

Despite the challenge, the colossal industry has not abandoned its projections, nor the search for financing to make investments that could increase capacity. In the meantime, their efforts are concentrated on keeping the lathes and other equipment in the workshops in operation. They have what is most important: well prepared human capital.

Relieving the industry of significant expenses, innovation has also made possible reducing the list of resources imported for the principal components of recirculating pumps used in the factory; as has having their own workforce devoted to the maintenance and repair of electric motors and transformers of different power ratings and dimensions, crews able to erect all the elements pre-fabricated in shops and apply anti-corrosive paint to metallic structures, as well as highly skilled workers to repair combustion engine equipment, both light and heavy vehicles.


The work of the Comandante Gustavo Machín Nickel Mechanics Enterprise has guaranteed the implementation of the country’s decision to continue production, despite the COVID-19 epidemic, at the Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara and Comandante René Ramos Latour plants, the nation’s two industrial complexes that produce nickel.

Outlining the strategy of Cuba’s Ministry of Energy and Mines, its head, Liván Arronte Cruz, in a late August edition of the Mesa Redonda television program, reiterated the intention to continue investments in the industry, especially capital repair of the Che Guevara.

He said plans are directed toward “strengthening the manufacturing of resources needed by the industry for production and maintenance, promoting the recovery program for parts and components of the fundamental equipment, either in the industry’s own facilities or by national companies specialized in this activity.”

Engineer Eder Manuel Oliveros Garcell, general director of the Cubaníquel State Enterprise Group, noted that today relations with other companies in the country are acquiring greater dimensions. He cited as a first example the links established with the Santa Clara Mechanical Plant, which manufactures sections of the rotary conveyors and large sprockets for the ovens. 

“With the Electric Union’s Electrical Engineering and Projects Enterprise, we are working on the development of a Cuban burner, and they are providing technical assistance with the furnaces’ combustion system, while the Power Plant Maintenance Enterprise has assumed the repair of high power transformers and ore mills.”

Also for the furnaces, the Hydraulics Enterprise in the province of Cienfuegos, in addition to manufacturing pulleys, repairs cylinders, he reported.

The engineer also noted that Holguín’s Mechanical Solutions company participates in the repair of bulldozers involved in mining operations, and another entity which has benefitted from the investment of foreign capital plays a decisive role in maintaining the availability of trucks transporting ore at the two nickel processing plants.


The securing of nickel production has many protagonists. Jesús Llorente, a worker at the Comandante Pedro Soto Alba joint venture, begins his day adjusting the harness he wears in case other means of support fail where he is working. A fall would be a fatal from the top of the 18-meter reactor, a key technical component of the productive process here.

In addition to this risk, mud with sulfur residues accumulates at the bottom of the reactor. In such a hostile environment, a simple tear in the anti-acid suit could mean injury to some part of his body. But the specialist dismisses the danger: “This is how we Pintos are.”

Also a member of the brigade identified with this unique moniker, Carlos Manuel Jimenez explains that Jesus, his partner in the descent, have an important task to complete: “They are going to clean the crust adhered to the walls of the reactor, and if they find damaged bricks, they will replace them.

More than 13 years of experience allow him to give details of the day’s work. “In general, every pair works non-stop for an hour, or an hour and a half. There is a supervisor above who is responsible for delivering and removing the necessary tools and assessing difficult situations.” This is all part of a cyclical operation, completed, at the end of a season, in the leaching trains, each consisting of four reactors.

The “Pintos” are also responsible for maintenance in other areas in the plant, and regularly participate in the start-up of equipment. Members of the brigade are all strong men, sought out among the smelter’s personnel, given the tremendous physical effort they make, working around the clock, Jimenez reports.

If a list were to be made of those who put their shoulders to every task assigned, resolving the difficulties they regularly encounter, Jimenez would not hesitate to add the names of Joel Cruz Fonseca, Ermis Crespo Leyva, Jesús Llorente and Jorge Agustín Pérez. In his opinion, they are paradigms among the more than 40 members of the collective.

The origin of the nickname they proudly carry is well known: “Pinto was the last name of one of the brigade’s leaders, years ago.”

They say that he did a great deal to unite the group and forge a brigade of workers ready to overcome any obstacle. Even though this select group has distinguished itself, it is clear that none of the Cuban nickel industry’s people ever “lose heart,” not even in the most challenging times for the productive process.

(Source: Granma)

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