As we’re all aware, the “economic downturn” has had a profound impact on the thermal-processing industry over the past several years. Has the economy fully recovered? While that has yet to be proven conclusively, some industries (alternative-energy, medical, natural gas, aerospace and automotive) have experienced improvement or growth, be it large or small. As a result, some technology areas unique to thermal processing are showing promise. The following industries utilize these technologies, which have the potential to help your business recover going forward in 2011.

Large wind-turbine power generation is growing.

Alternative-Energy Industry

This industry is booming, mainly because it includes wind energy and nuclear. The U.S. wind industry installed nearly 10,000 megawatts (MW) of new generating capacity in 2009.[1] Despite a slow start in 2010, the future remains bright. The House of Representatives passed The American Clean Energy and Security Act, which contains a requirement for 20% renewable electricity by 2020.[2] In addition, the American Wind Energy Association is attempting to increase the annual funding for wind-energy research and development at the Department of Energy (DOE) and other federal agencies to $217 million over the course of the next three to five years.

As far as technologies to watch for the wind market, induction hardening is being used to harden pieces of equipment essential to the industry such as ring gears, slewing rings and bearing races. The process transforms the surface material’s metallurgical structure through a well-controlled sequence of induction heating and rapid cooling.[3]

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, nuclear energy currently provides 20% of the country’s electricity and is its top source of emission-free electricity. The industry, worldwide, is set to grow. The International Atomic Energy Agency anticipates 70 new nuclear plants in the next 15 years. The news is good domestically, too. The House of Representatives recently approved the Nuclear Energy Research and Development Act of 2010, which authorizes the DOE to fund advanced research and development programs on various aspects of nuclear energy.

Fuel-pellet sintering is a process with potential for the nuclear industry. Sintering of fuel pellets significantly increases their density. The process takes place by solid-state diffusion in the temperature range of 3060-3270°F for a period of up to five hours. Walking-beam and pusher-style furnaces are common, being electrically heated with high-purity alumina refractory brickwork in the high-temperature zones. Pellets are placed in molybdenum boats (trays).[4]

Artificial joint

Medical Industry

The medical industry, particularly orthopedics, provides a variety of opportunities for the thermal-processing industry. Orthopedic device sales generate an estimated $32 billion annually worldwide. More than 700,000 hip and knee replacements are performed in the U.S. each year, and that could potentially double by 2016 thanks to osteoarthritis and other ailments.[5] Alloy development and cleaning/sterilization are two promising technologies.

Nitinol alloys exhibit two closely related and very unique properties: shape memory and superelasticity (also called pseudoelasticity). Nitinol’s extraordinary ability to accommodate large strains, coupled with its physiological and chemical compatibility with the human body, have made it one of the most commonly used materials in medical-device engineering and design. One such application for nitinol alloys is medical stents. Heat treatment is needed to form Nitinol. The heating method can be an air or vacuum furnace, salt bath or other heating method. The temperature should be in the range of 930-1020°F, with higher temperatures resulting in lower tensile strengths.[6]

The need to fully remove industrial contaminants from metal medical devices such as orthopedic implants has never been greater as these devices become smaller and more complex. The need for totally clean metallic surfaces is exemplified in pre- and post-heat-treat operations, where spotting, stains and shadows cannot be tolerated. The vacuum to vacuum (VTV) solvent-cleaning process removes air from the process chamber, allowing the cleaning solvent free to contact all surface areas (such as small blind holes, tight offsets, small lumens and the orbicular metal so often found on orthopedic implants). With the device’s surface fully wetted, the aforementioned cleaning accelerants can be applied to their full effectiveness.[7]

Natural Gas Industry

The Marcellus Shale is a promising natural gas resource in the Appalachian basin. This fuel reserve has attracted billions of dollars of investment, and there are plans to drill more than 3,000 wells annually over the next 10 years.[8] Drilling uses 25,000 tons of pipe-related products every day.[9] This is all good news for pipe manufacturers and the businesses that support them, including the thermal-processing industry.

The challenges this industry faces offer opportunities in new-product development and enhancement of existing products. Two technologies with the potential to benefit the heat-treating industry are seam annealing and pipe welding. Seam annealing – an in-line process for making high-frequency (HF) welded pipe – opens doors to both equipment manufacturers and heat treaters. Induction seam annealing is widely used for either normalizing the seam of HF welded pipe or removing its untempered martensitic structure.[10]

Aerospace Industry

This market is vital to the thermal-processing community, but that’s not all. The aerospace and civil aviation industries account for nearly 15% of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product and support approximately 11 million domestic jobs.[11] The U.S. aerospace manufacturing industry showed signs of improvement in the second quarter of 2010. Sales were up from the first quarter as well as over the second quarter of 2009. Most importantly, orders are up from 2009, signaling renewed confidence in a global economic recovery and higher demand for aircraft.[12]

Several technologies with ties to aerospace have growth potential, including low-pressure carburizing (LPC), a case-hardening process that provides parts without any surface oxidation. LPC is usually combined with high-pressure gas quenching (HPGQ), which provides clean components and offers the potential for lower distortion values compared to oil quenching.[13] LPC and HPGQ are being used to harden advanced materials used in the industry.

Other technologies to keep an eye on include titanium heat treatment, forming, rapid heat treating and rapid solidification.

In-line eddy current testing system

Automotive Industry

The U.S. auto industry, much like the economy in general, has experienced some well-documented troubles recently. But, just like the economy, many are hopeful that the industry will bounce back in the near future. It looks like it might be getting there. In the first nine months of 2010, Ford’s sales went up 21%, while sales of GM and Chrysler grew 6% and 15% during the period, respectively.[14]

Here are a few technological areas to keep an eye on. Forming technologies (magnetic, hydrostatic, spin) are garnering interest from the auto community. Magnetic forming, for example, improves the strength, wear resistance and life of steel and ferromagnetic materials. The goal of magnetic forming is to alter the austenite start/finish points to a much lower temperature.

Eddy current testing is a nondestructive method used for the testing of low-pressure carburized components. It also eliminates the need to cut and mount samples. Eddy current verification of heat-treat processes is gaining popularity because it reduces scrap and warranty costs.[15]


Will these industries hold the key to your company’s success this year? Will they remain competitive and lead your company to continued growth? Only time will answer these questions. However, the aforementioned technologies – and the industries that use them – do exhibit potential. In these difficult economic times, that’s a good sign. IH