Heat-Treat Consultants Roundtable
Dan Herring: Need drives all projects, and need drives all purchases. There is a need right now to solve problems, whether those problems be heat-treat related involving equipment or processes or metallurgical in nature often related to field failures. So I think the reason people come to consultants is because we offer a technical expertise that is not available to them elsewhere. In my case right now, it happens to be related to component issues – the idea that the products are being put in service and are not performing to expectation. Clients are coming back to our organization and saying, “We need help understanding what the problem is. Does it lie in our manufacturing techniques? Does it lie in our heat-treating processes?” That is the number-one driver from our organization right now.
Adeel Karim: We are most consulted on the Nadcap and Boeing approval accreditations, new specs and new procedures. Frankly, companies just don’t seem to have enough metallurgical background to answer some of these questions. There is a shortage of metallurgists. I’ve seen companies baking cookies yesterday and then deciding tomorrow they want to do aerospace parts. Being able to fill that gap is difficult if you do not have the expertise. This is not an industry where you can do a whole lot of trial and error. I think our focus is mostly system-related, specifically pyrometry, furnace characteristics and AMS 2750. There are all these specs companies need to be adhering to, but there’s a lot of confusion as to the interpretation and implementation of them.
DH: I agree. There just are not enough people with a metallurgical background in the industry. I think that’s a powerful statement.
John Clarke: I am not a metallurgist, and I frequently get on-site and find that the people to whom I am speaking are not well-versed enough in metallurgy to be able to answer my questions from an energy-conservation point of view. I may want to upset the process slightly, and there isn’t the experience on-site to even comprehend what the effect of an alteration in the temperature or a heating rate would be. People approach me for energy savings. So many customers with whom I’ve dealt have seen a dramatic shift in their cost structure. People are not prepared and staffed to deal with those shifts. They don’t have the expertise on staff to answer the questions they need to have answered to deal with these new realities. The big shift in commodity prices – for raw materials and energy – have left a lot of our industrial base without the skill sets they need to be as effective as they could be.
AK: These companies have been in the industry usually somewhere in the 35-plus years range. They just don’t realize that there are new advances energy-wise and new theories that they could implement. So it’s almost as if they’re still wanting to have what I call a duct-tape mentality, where they just want to put parts in and take them out. I agree that heat treating a part may not have changed over the last 50-plus years, but the way it’s done has definitely been updated and become more stringent.
What recommendations would you make to a company about how they could conserve energy?
AK: Make sure that you have good communication with production and quality. For example, you have a uniformity survey where you’re essentially running a furnace empty. You have to coordinate that with production. If a furnace is going up, down, up, down in temperature, that’s a complete waste. If quality and preventative maintenance are communicating effectively with production, you can actually save a whole lot of energy by making sure you’re running at a capacity that is able to support your quality.
DH: I think you need to, within the organization itself, raise awareness and understanding. We all pay attention to our electric bill and gas bill in our homes. But in industry, since we don’t pay the utility ourselves or in many cases even see the bill, we’re not as aware of the energy consumption and costs as we should be.
JC: So many of the impressions people have are based on old information. Energy costs have risen very rapidly. Production scheduling people that came out of the machining side are still mentally operating in a regime where energy is extremely inexpensive. Frequently they will be running smaller lot sizes because at one time, economically, it made sense to run lots that size. But now, with energy costing four times as much as it once did, that may not make sense any longer. People really need to stay abreast of what the true energy costs are.
People also need to focus on their negative-net-type projects. I have yet to work in a plant (in the last year) where there hasn’t been a significant opportunity to save energy simply by tuning up the existing equipment. If they don’t have the expertise in-house, in every single case it was very easy to justify hiring someone to come in from the outside to make these adjustments. I found it absolutely astonishing how infrequently they were aware of the opportunities to save energy.
What opportunities to save energy would you suggest?
JC: I would suggest ratio adjustment – optimizing gas-air mix ratios. In furnaces that are direct-fired, make sure that the furnace pressure is controlled properly.
DH: I would suggest the installation of energy meters just to know what your energy usage is and peak-demand charges are. For example, most people are totally unaware that if their 400-horsepower blower on a vacuum furnace starts at the wrong time, they’ve just been charged their entire energy bill for the month at that peak rate.
AK: One of my clients goes back and turns up the rheostats on the vacuum furnace because he thinks that bringing the furnace up quicker is somehow better and the heat treat is going to be better for the parts, which is not the case. You have to change that mentality, which is tough sometimes.
JC: Also, the engineers responsible for justifying energy-conservation expenditures need to be well-versed on their internal company procedures. One thing I find frequently is the people who are responsible for trying to put together these projects don’t know what the hurdles are within their own organization to spend money.
AK: Number one, Nadcap, Boeing and some of these process audits are not like an ISO audit. An ISO audit is like, “Yes, I’m doing something, and here is the documentation.” A Nadcap audit is like, “Yes, I’m doing something, here is the documentation and here’s the proof.” With Nadcap, Boeing and some of these larger process audits, it’s not that easy for one person to do it. You have to have a top-down management approach. You can’t give the responsibility of approval to one specific person.
Number two, these specs have a lot of different interpretations. You have to document your approach. In other words, make a specific interpretation. Then you want to make sure you’ve consulted the industry experts. Write it up, insert it into your procedure, then take it a step further and get client approval. Contact the customer and say, “Here’s our interpretation of the spec verbatim. Is this okay with you?” Companies don’t understand that if an auditor comes in and says, “This is wrong, this is wrong,” the strongest piece of evidence you can have is customer approval.
Number three, if you don’t have the expertise, don’t wing it. It’s a small industry. Once you have a tainted image in the heat-treating approval process, it’s going to take a long time for you to get back the business.
DH: I agree completely. When I’ve gone in and done Nadcap pre-audits, the biggest thing I’ve found is that this idea of proof just isn’t there. People don’t understand that they have to be able to prove what they’re capable of doing. This applies, also, to a lot of the existing automotive heat-treat audits. The inability to have the proper documentation is killing them.
JC: Sometimes companies don’t have a broad enough spectrum of expertise to accomplish their goals. The metallurgical department gets all of the responsibility, and they need involvement from other departments. They’re asked to solve a problem that really isn’t their responsibility to solve.
Is there something you could recommend in control systems/instrumentation improvements that would help a company’s energy efficiency?
DH: There are a couple of things. In this day and age, there are a lot of people that have retrofitted older control systems. Although some companies still need instrumentation upgrades, most systems have been upgraded to digital controllers, even if those digital controllers are not necessarily state-of-the-art by today’s standards. I find, in general, that people have good awareness of what they are doing with their controls. I think the area that they fall down on is sensors. Many people need instrumentation upgrades. Companies either have the wrong type of sensors, not enough sensors, the sensor is located in the wrong location or it doesn’t have the control accuracy they need.
JC: People frequently are not paying enough attention to what that controller is controlling. They also frequently don’t spend enough time to understand the system as a whole. They will apply a new controller without looking at all the valves in the system. People don’t do the math – they haven’t spent a lot of time trying to assess what (a particular piece of equipment) is going to do for their process and how it’s going to be best applied.
AK: Some companies’ instrumentation is definitely not capable of energy efficiency because they haven’t updated it in years. The new control logic and PID controllers that are out there now do a better job of energy efficiency. Companies do not understand that not all controllers are created equal. My suggestion is to get a demo unit, have it installed and utilize it for one week. Does the meter exceed your expectations? If not, don’t spend the money. If it does, spend the money. When it comes to spending the money, you spend it up front to get dividends later on.
Is there something companies can do to make their consultant’s job easier?
JC: Companies don’t look at the relationship with the consultant as a relationship. They want to bring you in to have a problem solved or to make a very quick observation. It is always much more effective if you form a longer-term relationship with your consultant, so he/she has the opportunity to truly learn your process. You need to bring the consultant onto your team and use him/her on an ongoing basis instead of trying to get a quick answer to a particular problem.
AK: It is important to remain steadfast and strict on whatever implementations are made for at least six to nine months – at a minimum. Companies tend to slip back into their old habits after a consulting session has occurred.
DH: As a consultant, our job is to inform and educate. Companies should make sure that the people they have assigned to work with us are empowered to use the information we impart to them. They have to make the commitment to learn from us so that they can address their problems after we leave.
In the last 10 years, has there been a change in company personnel that makes your job more difficult or less difficult?
DH: In the past, some senior managers were not well-founded in the fundamentals of science. As a result, they had trouble understanding the need for a consultant and the message delivered by the consultant. In the last 10 years, however, that situation has gotten much better. There is now a generation of intelligent young managers that, although they might lack practical experience, have a solid science and engineering background and are smart enough to realize their shortfalls and hire consultants for very focused tasks.
AK: The problem is a lot of organizations don’t have an understanding or appreciation of the science aspect of consulting, and consequently they either do not want to hear it or ignore it. J
JC: When I first started my career, the metallurgical department would have eight people. Now there are three, and those three are so busy they don’t have the time to do the best job they can. I would say the biggest problem we have is we are not putting enough resources into thinking in our manufacturing enterprises. Too much of our resources are going to just getting by day to day.
What are the hot and cold markets right now, and what do you think the future holds?
AK: Hands-down aerospace, specifically aluminum, is pretty hot right now. Automotive and steel have taken a beating over the last year or so. The hot areas for us are in a six-hour radius of Wichita, Dallas and St. Louis. Cooler areas are somewhere between Michigan, Ohio, western Pennsylvania and over to Wisconsin.
JC: Automotive is down, except for some of the transplants in southern Indiana and northern Kentucky. As for what the future holds, I have no idea. I assume aerospace will remain strong. I have a feeling that the domestic automotive companies are going to have to do something to survive.
DH: Like it or not, there is a war going on, so anything related to the military or defense industry is a growth area. Also, aerospace is not only strong from an aluminum standpoint, but there is an increase in titanium usage. Civilian and military aircraft, I think, will remain strong for a long time. The recovery and reuse of raw materials such as steel, precious metals, titanium and tantalum is a big growth industry. The industries that appear to be slow are automotive and machine parts with low value added. There is a spirit of optimism with the transplants more so than with the domestics. There is a lot of outsourcing going on within the automotive sector – they are looking to outsource heat treating to help control their costs.
AK: One of our big growth areas is Germany. It’s amazing how efficient the Germans are. It was very nice to see that kind of corporate structure outside of the U.S. There was a lot of pull for us to look into heat treating in India, but I think it’s not capable of having the Nadcap and Boeing type of growth that would sustain a long-term consulting practice at the moment. Is it going to get there? I think so, but they have a lot of infrastructure issues that they need to resolve.
Some U.S. facilities that we have consulted with or have pyrometry services for have literally closed up shop and moved to Mexico or near the border. They run just as efficiently, if not better, in a cleaner environment, and they have no logistical issues either. A couple of our clients have closed up shop and moved from the Midwest, Ohio and Indiana down to Mexico.
JC: China is growing at an unprecedented pace, but from a consulting point of view, I chose not to get involved. I think their lack of respect for intellectual property is going to pose problems for all of us long term.
DH: I think the four growth areas that stand out are Europe, Mexico/South America, China and India. I think each one of these areas is trying to carve out their own niche. Years ago, the U.S. could impose its will on the international community. America would say, “Here’s what we do, here’s how we do it and here’s the standards by which we abide.” Now, whether it be Europe, China, Mexico or India, these countries are saying, “No, we’re going to be doing it to our standards, and here is our standard. We’re expecting you to accept it.” I don’t know if we are comfortable accepting it, but that’s what I see happening from an international perspective. There is a lot of movement from Europe into the United States, and there’s a lot of movement from the U.S. to companies in Mexico, China and India. These are huge markets, but from a consulting standpoint there are limited opportunities because they tend to handle problems internally. IH