The 2008 Consultants Roundtable is a discussion that investigates important issues affecting the heat-treating industry. The participants in this dialogue are some of the leading consultants in their respective fields. Industrial Heating editor Reed Miller moderated the conversation. What follows is an edited transcript.

Within your area of expertise, what are the greatest challenges experienced by your clients?

Poteet:Cost reductions remain the greatest challenge and are necessary for the U.S. to remain competitive in the world market. Labor is always number one on the list for cost reductions, so automation continues to be evaluated. Expensive materials and processes are next. Because of its energy consumption, heat treating is often under scrutiny. Low-cost heat-treatable materials and low-cost processes are being continually evaluated.

Pye:What I find as a predominant problem is a lack of understanding of the heat-treatment processes. A lot engineers do not understand the processes. I also find that they don’t understand equipment performance – how the equipment works. There’s also a lack of understanding of the steels that they work with.

Gentry:Education. A lot of the processes I see are very inefficient. The reason they are is because the same equipment has been there since the plant was built in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and nothing has been done. They haven’t had time, or taken time, to evaluate more efficient ways. When you go in and say, “There’s a different way of doing this,” they’re excited, but they need help to learn what that other way is. They need questions answered and need help.

Martin:Most of my consultations involve the investigation of failures. Because all failures are fundamentally human failures, my practice tries to uncover which particular human error was the root cause of the loss that we’re investigating. In each of these cases, the consultant has to assess whether the root cause originated with the design, manufacture, installation, maintenance, inspection or the operation of the device or system. The toughest question that my clients have to face is, “Did we do something wrong? If not, who did?”

What types of solutions have you found for some of those problems?

Pye:It’s a fairly straightforward exercise to automate the continuous, high-volume, high-production procedures. As far as loading is concerned, load it robotically. Also, precision control is an absolute must for repeatable metallurgy.

Poteet:Just-in-time and cell manufacturing continue to be implemented to reduce inventories. Heat-treat processes that fit into these manufacturing philosophies are receiving close evaluation. Induction hardening, which does single-piece processing, is very attractive. Several companies are looking at trying to replace furnace processes like carburizing, carbonitriding, nitriding and through-hardening with induction hardening. This is not always possible due to the part requirements, but it is often feasible.

If someone decides they need to consult with an expert, how can they maximize their benefit? How can they prepare for your visit?

Martin:From my perspective, there are two types of consultations. For a safety audit, good communication is the key to a successful consultation. Second, if an accident investigation is required, then a manufacturing company has a decision to make. Do they want to retain their own independent consultant, or do they want to allow their insurance company to select the expert for them? I believe the manufacturing firm should seek wise legal counsel because there are certain instances where one approach is better than the other.

Poteet:People needing consultants have two extremes. One is lack of knowledge of their problem to the point that they don’t know what questions to ask. The other is the person that wants a consultant to confirm what he thinks the solution is. And then there are the in-betweens. I find that the initial phone call is absolutely critical. That’s where you find out where the lack of education occurs. After the first phone call, you can do an awful lot in terms of defining the problem and knowing what other questions to ask. Then I will sit down, write a list of questions and send those to the client. When they answer those questions, oftentimes the solution to the problem pops out at you. Many times, a visit is not needed. Communication is essential. The client needs to be as knowledgeable as possible about what the problem is and what they think the solution might be.

Many consultants like to have an ongoing relationship with their customers so that they can address problems quickly when they occur. While this is OK and provides benefits to both parties, I prefer to work on problems as they occur and try to provide the customer with an estimated cost for the problem resolution. I believe that working this way provides the highest benefit-to-cost ratio.

Many consultants have a specific area of expertise rather than a broad base. For example, heat-treat process consultants may not know much about failure analysis and vice versa. It might be wise to work with a consulting firm that covers many areas of expertise.

What are the most challenging compliance issues faced by those in thermal processing?

Martin:Explosion protection seems to be a challenging problem. Because explosions tend to be pretty rare, there may be a tendency to be complacent. As an example, I investigated one explosion where even though there were a number of serious problems existing in this furnace for a long time, none of them triggered an explosion until the company decided it was time to buy a new heating system. In the process of taking a part of the system off-line, they altered the process just enough to cause an instability that led to a fatal explosion. That’s why management of change is so important.

Do you think that outside audits are having the intended effect of improving business systems for companies?

Gentry:Audits that I deal with look more at the energy side of a plant. What typically is happening is (the auditors) come in, spend a lot of time gathering data, do a walk-through, sit down with the appropriate people, create a report, hand it to the company and then walk away. Nothing is done with implementation, and in my opinion that is a major concern. Companies, who have their plate full, now have something else added to it and have to implement these recommendations to actually start seeing benefits. So there are opportunities out there for other companies to come in and help implement these solutions. The solutions presented in the audits can help, but the customer needs help implementing these solutions.

Pye:I think that the company being audited is not usually aware of the educational background of the auditor. One of the things I have found with auditors is a lack of understanding of heat treatment. The knowledge of the auditors is not, to me, what it should be. On the other hand, there is a lack of preparation by the company being audited. Companies are just not doing sufficient preparation.

But I think, whatever the audit may be, it has the potential to highlight problem areas that can be dressed up to improve productivity, quality and repeatability.

What energy-saving upgrades have you found to have the biggest bang for the buck?

Gentry:We’re seeing a lot of opportunities in compressed air, which is such a big issue. You can walk into a plant when it’s completely shut down and hear air blowing continuously 24-7. However, people are reluctant to implement a maintenance program on their compressed air. I think that’s because it’s such a big monster to get your hands around. Customers don’t know where to begin.

Lighting has a lot of potential and does help the customer on the energy side. But customers are aware of lighting, and lighting can be done very simply. There are a lot of resources out there to help the customer make a decision on lighting.

A lot of energy is being used in furnaces, but that is the last thing most companies are willing to spend capital on. When you look at the process-heating applications, capital is going to have to be spent. Companies are looking at ways to reduce energy, but they have to make a business case so they’ll be able to get capital. Companies struggle with that. I have been able to help customers develop a business case to look at the potential energy savings and the process-improvement savings that they can benefit from and get value from by implementing a new process or changing controls out.

Poteet:Heat-treat equipment upgrades include having the latest high-efficiency refractory in furnaces. The fiber-module refractory is much better than the brick in terms of energy efficiency. Burner designs using recuperation are now essential. Refining the operating techniques and procedures can pay big dividends. Switching from large continuous furnaces that are not fully utilized seven days per week to batch furnaces that can be shut down cold during non-productive times can save a lot of energy costs. Three-shift, seven-day-per-week operation is always more efficient than five-day-per-week operation. Companies that utilize four-shift scheduling can avoid overtime payment for seven-day operation.

I’m also seeing more and more customers look at electric versus gas. Even with recuperative burners, you might get 35% energy efficiency out of a gas furnace. With a good electric furnace, you can get 65% and up. Also, gas furnaces are now more expensive than electric. It used to be the other way around.

Pye:A burner is a burner. The principles of combustion are exactly the same as they were 30 years ago. However, burners are not being set correctly. Companies have high energy consumption because they don’t understand the correct ratio of gas to air when firing. If the burners are set correctly, I believe you can accomplish good energy savings.

How is 2008 looking for our industry? What are the greatest challenges companies are going to face this year?

Martin:One of the biggest challenges is the continuing pressure to reduce costs, which can lead to a reduction in the quality of a product or service. I think engineers are required to make trade-offs, constantly, between performance and costs. The one thing they should always strive to avoid sacrificing is engineering excellence despite the pressure to reduce cost.

Poteet:Virtually all of the companies I have contacted in the last month have reported a business slowdown. Therefore, we might be in the beginning of a recession. The question is how deep will it go and how long will it last. Most companies I know believe a recession will be temporary and last as long as it takes for current inventory levels of products to be worked down. No one knows how long that will take, but history says it can be as short as six months or as long as three years. By and large, companies are pretty optimistic.

One of the things that helps end a recession quickly are new markets developed by technology improvements. An example is windmill technology for energy production. Manufacturing windmills seems to be a pretty hot technology right now, and there appears to be a high demand worldwide.

What heat-treating technology seems to be strongest and/or weakest right now?

Poteet:Induction hardening is a technology on the rise, and furnace technology is on the downturn because of inventory costs. Plasma nitriding also seems to be a growth market right now. I think that’s because it doesn’t produce distortion.

Pye:The use of more vacuum-processing technology is something I’m starting to see take place. Also, we’re starting to see a growth take place in low-pressure carburizing. It’s not a phenomenal growth, but companies are investing in low-pressure carburizing. I think that is likely to be a hot technology of the future. Maybe not so much now, but it’s on an upward incline.

Ferritic nitrocarburizing (FNC) was frowned upon five years ago in the U.S. But there has been integration between U.S. auto companies and European auto companies, and the Europeans have pushed ahead with the process of FNC.

What developments do you see as having the greatest impact on our industry in 2008 and beyond?

Poteet:I think the greatest potential for reducing costs and maintaining quality is plasma carburizing technology. When we get the problems ironed out, that’s going to be the major technology to use for carburizing in the future. I think, ultimately, that’s where we’re going.

Pye:I think low-pressure carburizing has gained momentum. Once you get into low-pressure carburizing, the only thing that is going to inhibit you would possibly be your vacuum pump going down. I think plasma carburizing is effective and efficient, but the capital cost is the killer simply because you need a plasma generator. Once a plasma generator goes down, you’re dead in the water.

Martin:Combining induction with furnaces is a technology that I think is coming.

Gentry:A lot of companies out there – big companies – are implementing energy-reduction goals or energy/carbon reduction goals. They see energy as a big factor that has been a rising cost in their production, which has reduced their margin, so they’re implementing programs. One company I’m working with is using 2002 as a basis, and by 2015 they have to reduce their energy consumption by 50%. They can’t do that without looking at process heating and changing the way they’re doing it. They have to make some changes.IH

Mark Gentry is the business development manager for Advanced Energy of Raleigh, N.C. He identifies and evaluates ways to help reduce costs to produce products and manages projects for industrial customers of electric utilities. Mr. Gentry, who has 15 years of experience, also coordinates demonstration projects and engineering evaluations. He has previously worked as an engineering associate for Duke Power, where he designed electrical installations.

Richard J. Martin, Ph. D., P.E. is a mechanical engineer with 27 years of experience designing, troubleshooting and inspecting industrial combustion and heat-transfer equipment. He is currently a senior managing engineer for Exponent Inc. of Los Angeles, Calf., where he investigates thermal- and combustion-related failures. As a consultant, Dr. Martin specializes in combustion safety (member of NFPA 86 “Ovens and Furnaces” committee) and air-pollution control (19 U.S. Patents). He is also a regular contributor to Industrial Heating’s Environmental and Safety Issues column.

Dale E. Poteet is the owner and principal consultant of IMT Consultants in Pewaukee, Wis. He spent 20 years with John Deere and also founded, co-owned and operated a commercial heat-treating company. Mr. Poteet’s practice areas are in materials applications, all heat-treat process applications and process development, troubleshooting heat-treat processes and equipment, failure analysis, equipment selection, and implementation of heat treating into just-in-time manufacturing. His specialty is product and process improvements at reduced cost.

David Pye is the owner and operator of Pye Metallurgical Consulting in Meadville, Pa. He has 22 years of experience in captive and commercial heat treating and metallurgical laboratories, and he also has 17 years of experience in furnace sales. Mr. Pye has produced almost 40 one-hour online training programs for the Metal Treating Institute and is a published author. He is currently instructing “Practical Heat Treating” courses for ASM International.