Bill Gornicki, Director of Sales, ECM USA-The Interview
- 3D Additive
- Crystal Growth
- Vapor Phase Aluminizing (VPA)
- MIM processing
- Nitriding, Ferritic Nitrocarburizing (FNC)
- Rapid Thermal Processing & Annealing (RTP/RTA)
- Vacuum Induction Melting (VIM/VAR)
- Robotics and advanced automation
When all encompassed, the depth of technical know-how at ECM is quite remarkable.
The last question leads to this obvious question-what ECM product is generating the most interest these days?
With some process expansion to Nitriding and FNC, the long-standing FLEX continues to be a primary player for us. Its long-established installed base is a testament to its capabilities and it’s mature design justified the capabilities expansion. However, it’s now feeling a bit of competition from NANO. NANO brings small batch, more rapid processing a to the manufacturing environment a relatively new way of thinking about heat treating as a valued piece of the manufacturing chain. The inquiry level with NANO is continuously growing.
I’d also have to say that robotics and/or system automation have become, a part of nearly all our offerings. With the challenges in today’s labor market, it’s a must to consider when deciding to make the capital investment. One positive aspect of this offering is that it can be implemented in phases over time sometimes making the investment more manageable.
Bill over the past two years or so it would appear to me that ECM has been emphasizing two very interesting themes. The first one is the fact that your furnaces are “eco friendly”, specifically that there are no CO2 emissions and no open flames. Personally, I like to see open flames in a heat treat department but I do realize that this is not necessarily desirable. However, I do have to ask you about CO2 emissions-are you finding this a real selling point in North America-let me elaborate. In Europe CO2 emissions are front and foremost in industry but that is not yet the case in North America so my question would be; is the average north American heat treater interested in furnaces with reduced CO2 emissions?
I can’t argue that seeing open flames always draws attention. It’s a thing of beauty as the flame roars up into the door hood and you pray the duct work is clean enough it won’t catch fire. (Ok, there’s my cheap shot at atmosphere furnaces) LOL… To your point, in North America the “average heat treater” is watching but not yet fully engaging with the whole eco-friendly mantra. But have you seen the price of gas and oil lately? If this continues, the average heat treater will need to be involved. More and more the larger companies (captive heat treaters) are setting targets for “net zero” emissions. This includes their supplier chain. I’ve even been told that to meet this goal, some North American based companies are looking at buying carbon credits. Can you imagine paying this voluntary “tax” just to claim, “net zero”? I personally would sooner buy equipment that gives me that ability.
Yes, on this side of the Atlantic, we may be a little ahead of the driving force for our new ECO line of vacuum furnaces. But, it’s coming and we’re ready. From a vacuum furnace manufacturers standpoint, I couldn’t be happier to have this offering.
The second theme which I have noticed from ECM recently is that of automation and robotics. My understanding is that you have set up a new division called ECM Robotics dedicated specifically to these two topics-what prompted this decision?
Our new Business Unit, ECM Robotics is actually being marketed in North American as Heat Treat Robotics (HTR). When ECM acquired Semco, a very experienced and competent Robotic capability was part of the acquisition. They had already, for many years, been fully automating thermal processing operations. Since then, the team has gained new and more diverse opportunities to automate heat treating as well as welding and more. Today, well more than 50% of our proposals include an aspect of automation and/or robotics.
Heat Treat Robotics is in development to offer these capabilities and experiences to the captive heat treat market and make it not only possible but economical for a commercial heat treater to consider it.
How would a heat treater make a business case to invest in what is presumably a fairly expensive investment to automate their heat treat department? In other words how do you justify this investment?
Quality, consistency, dependability, predictability, stable staffing levels, are the primary drivers toward automation. There is no mystery in this. As most in this industry already sees, the job titles “heat treater” and/or “furnace operator” are fading away. There are not many heat–treat experts on the production floor tweaking and tuning; these capabilities are largely lost to time. Today’s modern furnace control packages have had to expand the role of basic on/off controls to that of process monitoring, control and adaptation. Develop–and–repeat have become the most common process methods today which is a result of far more sophisticated controls.
Today, ECM furnaces mostly operate themselves and people are largely left to assembling and dis-assembling workloads, which too is now often robotic.
Naturally, we’re not going to walk into a commercial heat treat operation and fully automate from receipt to shipment. We “eat this elephant one bite at a time”. Where do you have a person (or people) routinely building a single workload for hours (thousands of parts in one load). Here’s a good place to investigate. Are there multiple furnaces of similar design, perhaps automated furnace loading/unloading is a place to begin via AGVs or AMRs? Or are your customers waiting extended times for you to combine many different customer parts in a single load, then perhaps rapid small batch processing should be considered.
Of course, if we’re looking at captive heat treating, ECM furnaces can be seamlessly integrated into the manufacturing chain. It becomes a natural move.
There is a lot to consider in creating an environment of automation and robotics. This is where our heat–treat expertise, in conjunction with our long-standing robotics capabilities come in. We’re not the local integrator that you need to teach about heat treat fixtures, we’re the OEM and we have commitment and expertise to the entire process chain. Our worldwide experiences can be drawn from and our end user benefits.
What are your customers asking for these days? The world has seen substantial and continuing changes in the entire supply chain which is leading to new thoughts and ideas. Are you seeing this in the form of different requests from your customers?
As I’ve already alluded to, our customers want more from our systems. Process consistency/repeatability is now an expectation and often contractually required, not just a “want”. Never more than now are we being driven to provide heat treat consistency almost to a machine tool type specification.
As we see less and less expertise on the production floors, our customers are forced into demanding more from us.
We’re also seeing a substantial re-shoring effort taking place. Obviously there have been some lessons learned in worldwide industry over the past couple of years. Now, it’s up to North America to double down on our competitive capabilities. For ECM-USA, all the reshoring programs we’re involved in require significant automation. This comes as no surprise and we’re self-reliant in accommodating them.
More now than ever ECM is seeing diversity in the processes being requested. Our product line and therefore process capabilities have expanded significantly, and the world is realizing that ECM is not just for LPC anymore. My sense is that ECM is nearing the number one position, globally, as a vacuum furnace manufacturer.
Bill you and I have spoken before about electric vehicles and how they will change the heat treatment market mainly because there are so few parts to heat treat in an electric vehicle. Are you seeing a change in the marketplace because of this?
The most significant change I see is the degree of distortion control being required and contractual. Years ago, distortion was not usually accepted as a contractual requirement. Those days are largely gone.
With regards to EVs, yes you’re correct, there are less gears per drive train. But interestingly, it appears that on average the parts are larger and therefore, the required furnace volumes necessary are not all that much less.
I’m also seeing a lot of new automotive start-ups trying to jump in along with some interesting alternative style manufacturing methods. It’s likely most of these players will either shake-out or be absorbed by others.
What is also interesting is carry over into alternative vehicles. Motorcycles, ATVs, boats, are also jumping on the EV craze and making a try at it.
If nothing more, this whole episode is giving a lot of engineer’s good career experience.
My final question for you today is what do you expect to see in the short and medium term in the North American heat treat market?
I believe we’ll continue to see commercial heat treat multiple–facility organizations grow at the expense of the smaller guys. The smaller, single facility CHT’s will need to “specialize” only in order to remain profitable as the larger players aim at the long run, serial production and big-name customers.
I also believe we’ll see the OEMs continue and expand the track of doing their own heat treating now that it’s so highly automated, highly repeatable and with the highest quality. Shrinking portions of their heat treat will be subcontracted.
Finally, we’ll see more tier one suppliers take the step toward automated, vacuum processing as their customers demand low/no carbon emissions and higher tolerances. It seems irreversible now.
Unfortunately for some dear friends, in the long term, I believe we’ll continue to see the further decline of atmosphere furnaces. They’ll not disappear in my lifetime, but ultimately their use will be driven by necessity, not cost.
Just my 2 cents…
As always I appreciate your time and thoughts Bill. I look forward to seeing you at the Furnaces North America show in just a few months. Thanks Gord
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