I believe we can all agree that heat treating should strive to produce the best product quality possible. But just how do we go about doing this, in other words, how does one define “good” heat treating? Let’s learn more.

First, it is important to realize that there are many types of heat treatments and that each may require a different characterization of “good.” Quality heat treating could refer (in no particular order) to:
  • Technique – Be a master of what you do, use existing methods wisely and develop new tools to accomplish the task at hand faster, easier and more efficiently.
  • Insight – Strive to achieve a major process or product breakthrough, conceptualize and simplify, understand the underlying principle, technique or approach.
  • Theory – Use a systematic scientific approach to unify and generalize the existing knowledge in our field and to speculate on new ideas or innovations.
  • Problem solving – Understand root cause and strive to achieve a major breakthrough on an important problem facing the industry.
  • Discovery – Find the relevance of an unexpected and intriguing new heat-treat phenomenon, connection or method.
  • Taste – Keep heat treating interesting and vibrant while dealing with the mundane. Always be aware of the bigger picture, the important topics, questions and solutions.
  • Application – Extend the relevance of our science to other fields to further their advancement.
  • Exposition – Promote a detailed and informative understanding of a relevant heat-treating method or approach.
  • Pedagogy – Write and teach so as to enable others to learn and do heat treating more effectively, contribute to good heat-treatment education.
  • Vision – Be aware of the long-term implications of what is being done today and think “out of the box” whenever possible.
  • Public relations – Be an ambassador for who we are and what we do. Showcase our successes, address the challenges that face the industry and emphasize the rewards of what we do.
Next, we must understand that it is extremely important to share our knowledge throughout the industry and to embrace the following criteria for heat-treating excellence (again, in no particular order):
  • Rigor – In everything we do, be correct with all the details, think the process through, understand the consequences and be complete.
  • Beauty – Never stop being amazed with what we can accomplish, and never fail to take on the difficult challenges so as to advance our science.
  • Usefulness – Be sure that what we do today will allow the next generation of heat treaters to work smarter, faster and be more accurate.
  • Creativity – Do not back away from radically new or original ideas, never stop questioning the status quo.
  • Strength – Offer solutions based on a sound understanding of both scientific principles and solid practical experience.
  • Elegance – Strive to achieve difficult results with a minimum of effort.
  • Growth – Grow intentionally and avoid haphazard growth not rooted in sound thinking.
  • Profitability – Make a profit so as to fuel continued growth.
  • Cost – Control and contain cost wherever possible without being so constrictive that R&D programs or investments in new technology or equipment limit growth.
  • Savings – Do the easy things quickly and efficiently, and tackle the hard things in such a way as to minimize rework. Be sure that savings are real and quantifiable.
  • Conservationism – Be good stewards of those things that really matter, such as energy and the environment, to keeping our industry strong.
  • Cherishment – Passing on our heritage, our history and our practices to the next generation of heat treaters.
The diversity and multifaceted nature of heat treating is very healthy for the manufacturing community as a whole, as it allows us to pursue many different solutions to the challenges we face and exploit many different ways in which to accomplish a given task – along with encouraging different types of heat-treating talent – from the common sense shop-floor heat-treat operator to the academic. Our individuality is a desirable trait, but we must be aware that it can become detrimental to pursue only one or two of our quality goals at the expense of the others. What we must be careful to avoid is:
  • Heat treating that becomes increasingly ornate and baroque, in which individual results are generalized and refined for their own sake and not the common good. In other words, the industry drifts aimlessly without a definitive direction or sense of progress.
  • Heat treating that becomes filled with “rules of thumb” and methods or beliefs without rigor, documentation or an understanding of the scientific principles on which they are founded.
  • Heat treating that consists of ad hoc methods (in other words, for self-centered purposes) to solve a problem or collection of problems that have no unifying theme, connections or purpose.
  • Heat treating that becomes stagnant and overly theoretical or overly practical, continually recasting and unifying previous results in increasingly technical or formal frameworks but not generating any exciting new breakthroughs as a consequence.
  • Heat treating that reverses or rejects methods or accomplishments just because they were “not invented here or now” and continually presents shorter, simpler or more elegant ideas and explanations of results but does not generate any truly original ideas and new results beyond what is already known.
In each of the scenarios above, the fear is that heat treating will exhibit a flurry of activity and only progress in the short term. The risk of a decline of relevance, a failure of competitiveness or a failure to attract younger engineers to the industry in the longer term is unfounded. Fortunately, it is a hard field to stagnate in, given that we are constantly being challenged and reinvigorated by our connection to the rest of science and to the manufacturing community as a whole. This self-correcting mechanism helps to keep heat treating and metallurgy balanced, unified, productive and vibrant.

Be the Best of the Best

The very best examples of sound heat-treating practices do not merely fulfill one or two of the criteria for heat-treating excellence given at the beginning of this article, but are more importantly part of a greater story, which then unfurls to generate many further examples of good heat-treating practice in vastly diverse areas. Indeed, from a historical context, the evolution of our craft through time and the interactions of heat treaters with the entire manufacturing, academic and engineering community ensures success. Good heat treatment is not merely measured by one or more of the “local” qualities listed previously (though these are certainly important and worth pursuing and debating), but also must be considered in the grand or “global” scheme of things. How does good heat treating fit into the bigger picture, either by building upon earlier achievements or encouraging the development of future breakthroughs?

One Man's Opinion

It seems to me that the pursuit of intangible promises of some far-distant future is at least as important as any aspect of heat treating in the here and now. As we continue to strive unabated toward the more concrete and obvious aspects of heat-treat quality listed above, we must not sacrifice our vision of what lies ahead. Thus, I believe that good heat treatment is more than simply a matter of running a particular process or solving the immediate problem before us. It is about continuing to build theories, mentoring the next generation and educating those who are here now and those who are soon to come while making arguments for improvements in materials, controls, equipment, methodology and the like. Achieving all of these tasks and debating which ones should have higher priority or are more deserving of funding should occupy an inordinate amount of our mental energies. We should always be aware of a possibly larger context into which one’s results could be applied.

Lastly, remember to communicate – from the shop floor to the halls of academia. Jealously guarded secrets and hidden knowledge are counterproductive and limit our ability to achieve the “critical velocity” necessary for the heat-treating industry to remain competitive in a global economy. We must always remember to offer our customers the best and most cost-effective technology but never forget that although necessity is what has driven them to us, it is our performance, our vision and our science that will keep them coming back. I still “see” a furnace without walls and a heat-treating process taking place before my very eyes employing intelligent sensors, allowing us to make real-time decisions that will produce the perfect part. Until that time, “good” heat treating is what we need.IH