The Role of a Consultant in the Heat-Treatment Industry
Technical consulting is generally among the least understood professions. Since it is usually done on a contract basis, consultants are not direct employees of their clients, but they nevertheless fill critical roles as advisors, mentors and technical experts. The relationship between client and consultant is unique in that it is often short-term, but it involves high-level expertise and requires a great degree of trust since consultants often either work on solving the client’s most intimate problems or on the very fringes of what is technically feasible.
In terms of market scope, consultants range from huge multinationals to small independent firms. In today’s world they are used more than ever, as companies attempt to minimize staff size while still maintaining workforce flexibility and cutting-edge technology. As a result, consultants are in strong demand during times of economic growth. It is estimated that 25% of new products or processes introduced into industry have passed through the hands of a consultant.
The Consultant’s Mission
Heat-treatment consultants specifically add value and/or reduce cost for their clients by focusing on their operational, service and market needs related to heat treatment and ancillary issues. They provide impartial technical and business advice and support on all aspects of the thermal-processing industry. This advice can range from simple technical recommendations to fully detailed reports or multifaceted studies.
Heat-treatment consultants often deal with critical, time-sensitive problems such as assembly lines shutting down for lack of parts, industrial accidents putting plants at risk, product failures resulting in huge fines or loss of profitability due to product recalls, loss of market share, and competitive advancements jeopardizing the future of a company. For this reason, the consultant must be extremely responsive to the client and maintain schedule flexibility, working late hours or weekends when necessary.
The Scope of Work
Prior to hiring a heat-treatment consultant, the client must clearly identify the problem(s) that need to be solved, what deadlines exist and then create a summary of activities to date. Project timing, costs, documentation and test results should be thoroughly discussed and defined before a scope of work is developed. When deemed necessary, the consultant may offer an initial consultation to help the client define the above parameters and ensure a good fit with the consultant’s expertise.
Upon receiving the scope of work, a contract is generated to define the extent of the services to be provided, including the deliverables (e.g., reports or test results). By mutual agreement, the consultant may charge the client on an hourly basis or for a block of time. For example, the client may purchase a specified number of hours of technical assistance, often at a rate less than the standard hourly rate. As the work progresses, it may be necessary be increase the original number of hours needed. If so, these additional hours are charged on an equivalent hourly rate.
Resources Available to the Heat-Treatment Consultant
In order to fulfill the contract, the heat-treatment consultant must bring extensive knowledge and expertise to bear in addressing the needs of the client and helping to solve their problems. In order to accomplish this, they have extensive resources available – empirical and scientific – from worldwide sources on all aspects of thermal treatment.
This includes a network of industry contacts and long-established working relationships with associates in the metallurgical, engineering, academic and industrial communities. The heat-treatment consultant constantly monitors, organizes and indexes relevant technical and trade-association information on an ongoing basis so as to enable rapid data retrieval and response to any inquiry.
Several examples follow of how the heat-treatment consultant can offer value to the client by providing prompt and comprehensive assistance on questions of heat-treatment selection, operation and control.
Real-Time Advice on Production Problems
A typical example is determining the reason for mechanical failure of a part after manufacture and heat treatment. This can include laboratory testing, failure analysis and microscopic fracture analysis. The solution may involve altering the part metallurgy, changing a manufacturing process or adjusting the heat-treatment cycle. The consultant will perform the necessary testing and data analysis and then offer a solution.
Detailed Investigations on Particular Aspects of Heat Treatment, Manufacturing and Product Development
A frequent example is when a manufacturer is currently outsourcing heat treatment and would like to bring the process in-house to reduce lead times, increase product control and reduce cost. The consultant carefully reviews the part metallurgy and desired final properties such as yield strength, hardness and surface condition. After determining what heat-treatment process(es) is required, the consultant recommends the type of equipment that will meet the desired process parameters and production rates.
Alternative Material Investigations into Standard, Nonstandard and Proprietary Materials
A common example is a client that manufactures steel parts and wants to change to a lighter material such as aluminum or titanium. This change will require completely different heat-treatment processes and often different equipment. The heat-treatment consultant will provide guidance in regard to heating time and temperature, quenching parameters, and recommendations for material handling, control systems and other ancillary processes.
Equipment and Services Evaluation/Recommendation
After a new heat-treatment process has been selected, the consultant can recommend equipment suppliers, write bid specifications and assist with supplier selection. In order to provide unbiased recommendations, it is important the consultant not have a financial relationship with any of the equipment suppliers. For this reason, the most highly regarded consultants do not accept finder’s fees for their recommendations.
Analysis of Heating Processes and Recommended Technical Solutions
When a furnace, oven or other heat-processing equipment is not functioning properly and the client’s in-house staff does not have the expertise to find the solution, the heat-treatment consultant is called upon to evaluate the heat cycle, temperature uniformity, time-to-temperature performance and other operational parameters. The consultant can perform an in-depth analysis of data collected and make recommendations in regard to equipment repair or replacement. The consultant must help identify the root cause of a problem to help avoid its recurrence then thoroughly communicate his/her findings to all necessary levels of the client’s organization – from the shop floor to upper management. This assistance can be provided either remotely or on-site.
Third-Party Specifications and Quality Control
It is more common than ever for manufacturers to be required to meet third-party heat-treatment specifications. Their customers, who require ever-more stringent quality control and process monitoring, often dictate this. It is particularly common for industries such as aerospace, military and automotive, where recalls and product failures are so expensive and can be life-threatening. The heat-treatment consultant can provide guidance with meeting these specifications.
Examples include AMS 2750 and BAC5621 (Pyrometry), AMS 2770 (Heat Treatment of Wrought Aluminum), AMS 2771 (Heat Treatment of Aluminum Castings), BAC5602 (Heat Treatment of Aluminum) and many others. The consultant can also assist with Nadcap compliance and setting up an in-house quality-control system.
Laboratory and Testing Services
Where heat-treatment and manufacturing problems require laboratory examination, the heat-treatment consultant either conducts or coordinates analyses and interprets investigations conducted by independent laboratories. Metallurgical and scientific test facilities may be available at third-party suppliers or affiliated university partners that offer professional services that can be tailored to suit any needs. In addition, the consultant can assist in setting up and maintaining an in-house testing facility or laboratory.
Educational Training Services
The consultant provides instruction, either in the classroom and/or “hands on” on the factory floor. Modular courses can be structured to provide relevant information that addresses the specific needs of any level within a company, from maintenance personnel and heat-treat operators to supervisors, engineers and senior management staff. Educational services can be designed to impart both a general insight into the role of heat treatment in manufacturing as well as customized job-specific knowledge in the fields of heat treatment, metallurgy, sintering, equipment design, operation and safety.
Technical Publication Services
The heat-treatment consultant can offer technical writing skills to assist clients in the creation of articles, presentations and preparation of sales literature (brochures, data sheets, etc.). The consultant works closely with various technical societies (e.g., ASM International, APMI International and others) and industry magazines to provide forums for information transmittal and exchange.
Available on a confidential basis, many heat-treatment consultants offer marketing services, including customer satisfaction surveys, product acceptance investigations, state-of-the-industry reports, technical and market due-diligence reports, marketing surveys for new process or product introductions, competitive analysis, and evaluation/recommendation of heat-treatment equipment suppliers.
New Product Development
Assistance can be provided by the heat-treatment consultant in the areas of marketing and commercialization of new product developments, including work on patent development, product launches and implementation strategies from a manufacturing or marketing perspective. Consultants can assist with generating a business plan to bring a product from the design and development stage to full production.
Energy-Use Reduction and Optimization
Heat treatment is an energy-intensive process, and energy costs often constitute a substantial operating expense for the users of ovens, furnaces and related equipment. The heat-treatment consultant can offer assistance with green initiatives, energy-use reduction, energy cost analysis and heat-recovery solutions. Return-on-investment calculations can be provided to help evaluate proposed solutions. A consultant can perform energy audits to determine which production machines are the most likely candidates for replacement, upgrade or retrofit.
Litigation and Arbitration Assistance
As an unbiased expert, the heat-treatment consultant can provide expert reports, deposition and trial testimony related to legal actions involving heating equipment failures and code violations. Technical interpretation of patents and claims is available, as well as patent-infringement analysis and assistance with technical licensing. Independent arbitration (e.g., between component manufacturers and heat treaters) is also available.
For the heat-treatment consultant, integrity and ethical conduct are absolutely essential. A consultant must have strong moral conviction and avoid the temptation to reveal confidential information or trade secrets since he or she sees so many facilities and is exposed to so many products and manufacturing processes, new ideas and inventions. The consultant must also anticipate and avoid conflicts of interest (e.g., representing two opposing interests at once).
If a solution to a problem does not exist or is beyond the consultant’s ability to solve it, he or she must admit this and be willing to recommend others who may have the skill set necessary to meet the client’s needs. Meeting the highest ethical standards is vital to a consultant’s enduring reputation and a constant stream of future referrals. Consultants must add value in all they do. And remember, the client, not the consultant, defines value.
Consultants in the heat-treatment industry play an important role in helping to solve engineering and manufacturing problems. Companies that hire consultants must make sure that their needs are being met by the skill set of the consultant they choose. In all instances the heat-treatment consultant must add value to the projects they undertake.