One of my professor-type colleagues recently asked me to start reviewing some scholarly articles for a materials-engineering journal where he serves as an editorial board member. It has been interesting to start to look at scholarly articles after being out of graduate school for so long. But it is good to keep up with the latest work, and this is one way to do that.

One article I just reviewed made an exorbitant claim, I thought, in the abstract: "Our New Process Saves Over 1000% of the Heat Treating Time!!!" WOW! Now that is an accomplishment. It reminded me of the Heat Treating Industry Vision 2020 Plan that came out about 10 years ago, with what I thought were (almost) as ridiculous a series of goals, including reduction of process times by 50%, reduction of energy use by 80% and others. Hadn’t these people heard of “TIME AT TEMPERATURE?”

Of course heat treating is expensive, and of course we want to run the shortest time we need to at the lowest temperature we can to save energy and capital. But isn’t the gist of the sciences or arts of metallurgy and materials engineering that we can’t just pick any temperature and time we please only for economic reasons? We learn that we have to select our times and temperatures based on the phase diagrams and transformation curves of the relevant alloy system.

So what if we can crank the temperature up 100 degrees so the process takes less time. Even if we could eliminate distortion (another laudable but impractical goal of the 2020 Vision), what would the microstructure look like? Grain sizes might be totally out of control, and we might create all kinds of new phases or constituents of unknown effects on the characteristics of the material. Of course this is GOOD for the business of failure analysis. It has always been hard to determine if heat treating or welding mistakes should get more credit for keeping my failure-analysis business alive! But the responsible engineer side of me just was not impressed, to say the least. It just sounded like a bunch of hype.

After addressing the thinking skill/math error made by the author of the miracle time-saving process, we were still left with an impressive 70% or so process time savings. And the data looks VERY interesting. The article is not through the review process yet, so I can’t say too much more, but after 10 years of living with what I now see was my personal failure of imagination on these issues, I can now see that maybe there is a lot of room for improvement after all. Every so often I meet someone who clearly UNDERSTANDS all the physical metallurgy that I thought I was pretty good at while in school. These are the people who could drive the improvements toward making effectively what are totally new materials with the same basic alloy compositions that we use for our everyday products.

The Heat Treating Industry Vision 2020 Plan, to my understanding at the time, implied that heat treaters were the ones who were going to accomplish these great savings. What the scholarly article brought home to me is that heat treaters cannot do this alone. To accomplish these goals, becoming MORE worthy by the day for international and national security as well as environmental reasons, basic research into materials engineering as well as furnace design will both be required.

Some days, as a metallurgist who went to school in the late 1970s, I feel like a total dinosaur. It irks me that we are doing all this fancy materials engineering while we have fewer and fewer people who understand even the basics of carbon steel microstructure and physical metallurgy. I still don’t think that we are going to be able to totally give up using the common structural steels, alloy steels, cast irons, and aluminum and copper alloys that are the vast majority of tonnage metals that facilitate our modern life style. But maybe if we use our mental endowments and communication skills, we can make better use of our resources of time, energy and money to manufacture materials that reliably meet the designers requirements and expectations.

And what if along the way we achieved improvements of some more immediately realistic fractional goal? Would that be a bad thing? With only 10 years left on the plan, we better start moving! To achieve these goals, the knowledge has to be made practical for ordinary moderate and low-volume users who buy their materials on the spot market as well as those whose large volumes allow them the luxury to specify the microstructure of the raw stock.