A Look at the U.S. Process-Heating Industry: Today and Tomorrow

Where We Are Today

Incremental gains and evolutionary changes appear to be the order of the day in light of the economic realities that have emerged to confront the U.S. process-heating industry. Application of technology focused on solving specific customer needs is being used to ensure survival in these tough economic times.

Economic Indicators

The past year presented a major challenge to the U.S. process-heating industry as domestic orders for all industrial heating equipment declined by 12% due to lower demand in the automotive, tool and die and commercial heat treating market segments. This mirrors a trend that has been continuing for the past 24 months in the machine-tool industry, which has seen orders decline by almost 40%. Although optimistic about the future, the consensus is that huge improvements in the near term for the U.S. economy are doubtful.

In light of this reality, there is a renewed emphasis on going "back to basics." For example, a great deal of time and effort is being expended to improve efficiency and increase customer satisfaction. Several business segments long neglected have emerged as vital to survival. Aftermarket parts sales and full service (24/7) support are examples, coupled with a manufacturing philosophy of "right the first time." Some manufacturers have focused their efforts exclusively on providing spare parts and service, or on the refurbishment and resale of used equipment. Today, customers are looking at repairing, rebuilding and upgrading existing equipment so it can be run in the most cost-efficient manner and stay in production until the economy improves.

Another answer is to reshuffle existing technology, a solution often neglected in favor of the more glamorous "flash technologies" that continually obsolete themselves. The economy has forced U.S. manufacturers to revisit existing materials and processes and to find new uses or incremental improvements in them so they can once again be competitive or even superior.

Three examples illustrate this phenomenon. First is the "rebirth" of cast iron as a viable engineering material. Different heat-treating techniques can make castings comparable to stampings or forgings. What seems like a step backward in technology is in reality a cost-effective alternative to more expensive materials. Second is that the endothermic gas atmosphere generator has been improved to a point where it competes very favorably with the newer nitrogen/methanol and in-situ atmosphere technology. Third is a dramatic improvement in the image and use of salt and salt-bath equipment. Neutral salts can be almost completely recovered from a wash tank without skimming, centrifuging, or the use of an environmental "smog hog." This means that an old favorite is no longer a technology in decline.

Technology Trends

Technology is viewed as an absolute necessity to improve the performance and lower the cost of the components and parts for every major market segment. Today, emphasis is on the timely introduction of new technologies in specific application niches to reduce the cost to manufacture components and improve both productivity and efficiency.

The aluminum industry is an example. Aluminum is becoming more important to the transportation sector, specifically automotive for weight reduction. Process-heating innovations include new rotary pour spouts for tilting melters and holders, "cold car" designs for atmosphere annealing furnaces, and high-volume mixers for water-quench systems for solution heat-treating furnaces. Copper is moving to center stage as well. For example, air conditioning systems subject to new U.S. environmental regulations have seen manufacturers change from aluminum to copper brazing. The long-struggling steel industry appears to be shifting emphasis from development of new materials to improvements in manufacturing methods and efficiencies.

On the thermal-processing side, new high-efficiency, low-emissions radiant tube burners have come into their own, and there is a trend to have smaller, more flexible systems, whether they be atmosphere or vacuum furnaces, induction equipment, or ovens. This trend will continue in the foreseeable future.

In spite of the U.S. economy, the use of vacuum technology in the areas of high gas pressure quenching and low-pressure vacuum carburizing continues with unbridled enthusiasm. Despite a lack of universal agreement, these technologies are viewed as major players in the decade to come.

Where We Will Be Tomorrow

For the process-heating industry to thrive in North America in the 21st century, it must be the most price-competitive technology, especially in light of the desire to replace or eliminate it with alternative technologies.

Going forward, the future of the heat-treating industry will be one of continued endeavors to reduce energy consumption, process times, production costs and emissions, while improving product quality and uniformity. New materials and processes will compete with heat treating based on economic justifications. Continued improvements and advances by the heat-treating industry will be necessary to remain competitive.

Time, temperature, load configuration and other variables that today are often intuitively determined by an experienced operator, trial and error, rules of thumb, and perhaps because "that's the way it's always been done" will give way to programs that model or automatically calculate the heat treating cycle based on the mass, shape, material, etc. Operators will be able to input exactly what they are processing and receive an exact recipe on how it's accomplished. The "art" of heat treating will give way to the "science" of heat treating.

Likewise, computational fluid dynamics (CFD) modeling will optimize furnace design; determine from a thermodynamic standpoint the placement of heating elements and burners, flue locations, material part loading, etc., while minimizing emissions. Innovations on how to achieve more effective heat transfer and uniformity will arise from this, and that understanding will influence furnace designs and enhance heat-treating programs as above.

Similarly, technology will contribute to advances in reducing energy consumption. Areas such as more efficient recuperators, low watt density heating elements, self-recuperative burners, better insulating materials, and pulse firing are prime candidates. Waste-heat recovery will be a critical design function of furnace technology.

All of this will then be tied together with real time controls, obtaining their inputs from intelligent sensors covering the entire process, automated, networked, and accessible from remote locations. Using this automation/ supervisory technology in a "lights out" environment, operators will be more sophisticated, more productive, and more accurate through the use of technology.

The continued use of "chemistry-specific" alloys chosen for a particular end-use performance requirement will give rise to new processes and equipment designs. A new generation of "engineered materials" will complete the shift from a discovery-based science to one that is design based.

The lean manufacturing philosophy, a reality in large U.S. companies, will see a move into small and mid-sized manufacturers with cellular manufacturing moving closer to a "batches-of-one" processing mentality.

Whether equipment manufacturers specialize in a narrow parts or service niche, build standard equipment to minimize risk, or devote significant engineering talent to developing challenging applications, a strong consensus is that all these approaches have their place in the future of process heating in the U.S. with the greatest rewards going to the most innovative companies.