The Value of a Consultant
As a young engineer fresh out of college, my first job opportunity was as meltshop metallurgist in a stainless and alloy bar mill. Shortly after starting, we installed a new two-strand billet caster. Needless to say, we consulted with the experts on the construction of this facility. More than that, however, we needed to know what to expect metallurgically. For that, we consulted with two professors from universities in Canada. They helped us to optimize the process to produce the best-quality billets. One of these two consultants was J. Keith Brimacombe, who died unexpectedly in 1997. An annual AIST award is named for Dr. Brimacombe.
In my second position, I was responsible for the heat treatment and metallurgical testing of bearing-alloy materials. These bearings were used in aerospace applications, and the testing requirements were rigorous. Not only did we test each heat-treat lot metallographically for as-quenched grain size and tempered microstructure, we also relied on consultants for tests we could not do.
Most companies are limited in what they can afford to do themselves. The investment in both equipment and human resources is significant to perform all testing in house. This is particularly true for tests carried out infrequently. We always relied on outside laboratories for work such as X-ray diffraction for retained austenite or scanning electron microscopy for identification of unknown “inclusions” or fracture surfaces.
This company also relied on consultants for training programs. One that I taught was a heat-treat course purchased from an outside source. Although I was the instructor, a consultant prepared the course material. We also participated in a number of other training opportunities to become better managers, for instance. One that I recall was “How to Win Friends and Influence People” based on the Andrew Carnegie book of the same name. I also “consulted” with a group to help me become a better-organized engineer and continue to use this organization system 20 years later.
A particularly memorable consultant experience came about 15 years ago when I was managing quality control for a flat-rolled stainless manufacturer. Most of our product was austenitic stainless flat roll in thicknesses from 0.250 inches to less than 0.005 inches. The material was melted and continuously cast into slabs, which were then heated for hot rolling. The heating process was performed in very large electric heaters with the slabs on their sides just like toast in an electric toaster. These slab heaters were a challenge because every different grade and width of slab required different settings on the “taps” for the electricity going to the various banks of elements. Slight differences in these settings resulted in an edge-related defect, called slivers, on the hot- or cold-rolled coils, which resulted in rejects.
Although we were very creative in dispositioning these rejected coils, they typically could not be used on the original orders. At one point in time, we were running a reject rate of nearly 10% for slivers. A consultant was called in to work with us to solve this insidious problem. Although we did all of the work, the consultant was able to establish systems that helped us to separate and analyze many of the different process variables. As a result of this long-term study, our reject rate was reduced to about 2% or less. Needless to say, that was a major cost savings.
In my last position, we utilized consultants for several different types of activities. As the corporate manager of quality assurance, I worked with registrar consultants to certify our organization to the ISO standard about 10 years ago. Additionally, we regularly consulted with metallurgical experts when we were developing new alloys or processes to be certain the resultant microstructures and hardnesses were able to meet the demands of our customers. We would occasionally experience a failure in our heat-treatment process, and these failures would always be examined by “the experts” to help us determine the cause. I hope this trip down memory lane helps you see the many ways consultants are used in our businesses. I could only highlight a few, but their expert input can help us solve the seemingly “unsolvable” and/or provide the equipment and expertise we would otherwise not be able to afford, particularly in challenging economic times. Consultants: They can be a very worthwhile investment. IH