Dr. Bora Özkan Technical Director, Ipsen, Kleve, Germany-The Interview
Bora, I appreciate the time you are spending with us, I have been fortunate enough to interview several individuals at both Ipsen, Rockford, USA and Kleve, Germany and have always enjoyed the discussions.
Lets start at the very beginning as they say, how did you end up where you are today-Technical Director of Ipsen, one of the largest global furnace suppliers?
I studied mechanical engineering and made my PhD while I was a research assistant at the chair of materials technology in Bochum, Germany. During this time, I was in charge of operating the universities’ vacuum furnace. My research work had a big heat treatment part in open fired furnaces with a polymer quench bath as I needed to find a heat treatment for my composite cast steel parts. I started my industry career in 2010 at one of the biggest furnace builders for the steel industry. I joined Ipsen in 2019 in the continuous furnace department. In January 2020, I was asked if I would like to take responsibility for the design department and the R&D department.
What does your position involve on a day to day basis? I can picture a Technical Director as being an innovator-somebody in a back room coming up with ever more advanced ideas-am I completely off the mark?
A furnace builder is not a research institute. We have much shorter innovation cycles. Furthermore, we have a lot of different disciplines that are all working together to build a reliable and safe machine. There is a lot of complexity in a modern furnace. The biggest challenge is to manage this complexity. It must be easy for us at Ipsen to offer a highly customized machine to our customers with only few efforts for our designers. You cannot do that from a back room.
Ipsen recently made a number of changes about where equipment is manufactured, my understanding is that the USA operation focuses on vacuum systems, while Germany has an emphasis on atmosphere. If that is the case does your position involve mainly atmosphere technology or a combination of both?
For new equipment mainly atmosphere in Germany. But of course, we do work together with our colleagues from USA every day. We should not forget to mention the daily cooperation we have with our colleagues from Ipsen India and Ipsen China. For service and aftermarket, the organization did not change. Therefore, we have several designers from both mechanical and electrical engineering who spend more than 90% of their daily work on vacuum aftermarket and revamping projects. To mention only one example, in April even though we had Covid restrictions, a German customer who ordered a replacement hot-zone for their vacuum furnace, visited us for two days. We developed improvements for their very special process together and at the same time could significantly improve the lifetime of some components with the feedback we got.
Lets talk about one of the hottest topics in the world these days, greenhouse gas emissions and their effect on the environment. In North America this has not been serious consideration, however there are some signs that this is changing. For instance several heat treaters in North America have told me recently that they are considering Nitrogen/Methanol systems as opposed to endothermic generators for the simple reason that there is no combustion in a Nitrogen/Methanol system hence less emissions. In Europe I know this is a topic which has been taken more seriously than North America for quite some time now. My question would be; “are your customers asking that greenhouse gas emissions be considered in the design of a furnace?”
It sounds interesting that nitrogen/methanol systems have no combustion. Methanol is a liquid that needs to be heated up, decomposed and then heated further to the process temperature. For transferring 10 litres/h methanol to a typical carburizing atmosphere you need approx. 18 kW of heating power as it is an endothermic reaction. You can see that effect if you inject the methanol/nitrogen too close to the furnace thermocouple. The difference compared to Endogas is, that the furnace burners provide the energy. So, there is combustion, but it takes place inside the furnace burners. However, “green” methanol is regarded as a main energy carrier of the future as it is easier to store than hydrogen.
Nearly all German customers ask for the efficiency of the burners. There is a subsidy program of the government where an investment into equipment that will save CO2 is rewarded with 500€ for each ton CO2 that you will save annually in the future. So the answer here is an emphatic yes! Customers are all talking about reducing their environmental footprint and Ipsen is ready with solutions.
This question is closely related to the one above and has to do with energy efficiency. Again the differences between North America and Europe are quite extreme due to the very high energy costs in Europe. I know this from experience because every time I visit Europe my hosts gently remind me to turn lights off when I leave a room. Is energy efficiency a prime consideration amongst your customers and what solutions does Ipsen have?
Yes it is. CO2 emissions are a big topic in Europe. The most important answer on what we have is: we do have the right furnace size. There is nothing more inefficient than having an empty furnace on temperature or every time loaded with too few parts. On the other hand, it is inefficient to divide a bigger batch into several batches because your furnace is too small. In bigger installations we have already delivered energy recovery systems to make use of waste gas and the heat of process gas flare. We will launch very interesting new products next year that exactly address these issues.
Lets talk Nitrogen Oxides (Nox values). Many jurisdictions around the world have tight regulations to control this form of air pollution and I would imagine to your customers this is a consideration which must be taken into account when considering new equipment. What does Ipsen have to offer?
The regulations in Germany will be tighter with the new “TA Luft” directive that is expected at the end of 2021. We will see how the NOx limits will be. Heat treatment furnaces with protective or reactive gas atmosphere are indirectly heated. So, the burner fires into a tube and the waste gas is not touching the heat treated part. For this kind of indirect heating, the new regulations seem to restrict NOx values to 1/3rd of the levels that are permitted today. This is a major change and Ipsen will be ready.
Lets switch gears a bit and talk about furnaces and furnace designs. Your customers obviously have many considerations that must think about when buying a new furnace but what is the number one thing they think about? Examples might include throughput or is flexibility more important? Do operating costs mean more than throughput? Perhaps emissions or is that a lower priority than making production? I realize it will generally be a combination of all of these factors and more but what are your customers really concerned about these days?
The heat treatment cost per kg is only half in a continuous pusher type furnace compared to a typical batch atmosphere furnace. A pusher therefore has a much better carbon footprint but is of course not as flexible. A CAPEX and OPEX calculation is essential to guide our customers to the right choice of equipment. The number one thing for the customer is safety. Nobody wants to see an accident, neither the operators nor the designers of the furnace.
Does anything ever change in the heat treat industry? I had a close friend who spent over 50 years of his life designing and selling furnaces and his contention was always the same-except for control changes and some relatively minor design changes carburizing was still carburizing, and through hardening was still through hardening. Cynical perhaps but I have always remembered his comments. Has furnace design changed dramatically in the past 30 or 40 years?
A retired colleague with 40 years of experience in furnace building used to tell the young engineers: “I already forgot more in my life than you have ever learned.” It is important not to forget what the more senior engineers could build. You are right, it is a well-established technology. In our daily life we have a lot of well-established products like bread, steel, and paper. The question is how to produce these essential goods today. In a digital world where the drawings are a 3D-model in a computer and the supply chain is organized digitally and globally. Of course, it needs to have the same or even better quality than in the old days.
To be fair you should mention low pressure carburizing that came later than carburizing in an equilibrium gas atmosphere. In some areas where carburizing in deep holes is necessary, LPC has a lot of advantages. But there are other areas with high throughput or more flexibility where there is a big demand for the classical sealed quench atmosphere furnaces.
We just spoke about where we have been-where are we going? Will sealed quench furnaces remain the most popular design of furnace in the world or do you see us going to single part processing as some have suggested?
CAPEX and OPEX are better when you collect more parts and treat them as a big batch. Therefore, emissions should in the most cases be also lower than in-line heat treatment. The cycle time of many hours in a carburizing furnace does not match the cycle time of some minutes of a machining line. For machine availability it is also difficult to connect too many manufacturing machines in a hard sequence.
Please tell us about your most challenging and most memorable project ever. I am not going to ask about customer specifics but what furnace project is the one which will stick in your memory the longest?
Ever? Then I need o be fair and mention a railway wheels project in my previous job. After two years of development of a heat treatment line, finally there was the day when the first high speed railway wheel was produced. With the computer model I developed to calculate the cooling media flow we were able to achieve the desired material properties in the first attempt. What I learned from that project, is something that most heat treaters know from their own experience: Cooling is more complex than heating.
To round things out I have a very personal question for you-what do you enjoy most about your job? Pushing the envelope as us North Americans would say-in other words doing what others have not done? Seeing a new technology successfully introduced? Modifying existing technology to be more efficient? What gets you really excited about your job?
Furnace building is one of the few jobs where mechanical engineering and materials science have the same importance. Both are really my passion for nearly 20 years. There is a difference between new technologies and inventions on the one hand and innovations on the other hand. Innovations are often to successfully do what others were trying without or with little success or maybe in the wrong application. My job is to create something useful. I have a very good team of engineers. Most of them with many years of experience and still there are meetings where all these experienced guys have learned something new from each other. There is no chance that furnace building will ever get boring.
Bora, I really appreciate the time and your very interesting thoughts. Gord Montgomery