Thermal processing – one of the advanced thermal manufacturing technologies – comprises a number of industries including heat treatment, metal and non-metal melting, metal heating, fluid heating, drying, curing and forming, and various extractive processes to name a few. It has been reported that the thermal-processing industry is dominated by small- to medium-sized companies reportedly producing some $2.9 trillion in total value shipments.1
Global competitiveness, increased productivity, greater efficiency and value-added manufacturing are among the goals of all thermal manufacturing technologies. Today, focus areas are methods of heating, lean/green/agile manufacturing, automation and process/equipment modeling, and simulation.
Heat treatment is one subset of thermal processing that is particularly well-suited for these technology adaptations. Furnaces (atmosphere and vacuum), ovens and applied-energy solutions are choices depending on the type of material to be processed, part geometry and mass, heat-treatment process required, final properties to be achieved, the type of atmosphere and temperatures needed. In addition, heat-treatment units can be batch or continuous and use a variety of energy sources (direct and indirect fired, electrically heated).
The heat-treatment industry consists of end users (aka process implementers) supported by original equipment manufacturers (so-called OEMs) and component suppliers of all types (hardware and software products) as well as technology partners (e.g., professional societies, R&D organizations, national laboratories, academia). To add value, these organizations must be focused on common goals (as outlined) and be prepared to commit resources to the advancement of the industry. This is often easier said than done because the economic health of manufacturing and profits often are key drivers.
Organizations such as the Heat Treating Society of ASM International (ASM/HTS), Metal Treating Institute (MTI), Industrial Heating Equipment Association (IHEA), The Association of Iron and Steel Technology (AIST), The Minerals Metals & Materials Society (AIME/MMS), Metal Powder Industries Federation/American Powder Metal Industries (MPIF/APMI) and many others need to create a common and broad-based agenda for the benefit of both captive and commercial heat treaters. These in turn must be supported by national labs (e.g., Oak Ridge, Argonne, Los Alamos); academia (e.g., WPI Center for Heat Treat Excellence, IIT Thermal Processing Technology Center, Penn State’s Material Research Institute); and government programs (DOE, DOD, DOT, etc.).
The application of thermal energy (heat or cold) is the glue that binds everyone involved in thermal processing to the manufacturing community. To advance the industry, we need to continue to develop technology, focusing on (as a very minimum) the following key areas:
- Advanced materials – creating a new generation of engineered materials that allow changes to thermal processing to achieve the above-stated goals.
- Heating efficiency – creating new materials and alloys to enhance heat transfer, including waste-gas/atmosphere recovery.
- Process optimization – creating or refining processes that shorten cycle time and/or lower processing temperature.
- Sensors and controls – creating the next generation of intelligent sensors that report data in real time.
- Modeling and simulation – incorporating real-time feedback into computer models to enhance prediction (and control) of both equipment and process variability; refine simulators to reflect changes to process variables in real time.
- Lean/green/agile manufacturing – move beyond regulatory requirement to proactive environmental strategies.
- Automation and robotics – integration of heat treatment into the mainstream of manufacturing to approach or achieve one-piece flow.
1. Thermal Manufacturing Industries Advanced Technology Consortium (TMI ATC) Workshop, Nashville, 2014