Jim Grann, Technical Director, Ipsen-The Interview

It makes our day to present to you our readers an interview with Mr. Jim Grann, Technical Director of furnace builder Ipsen. Jim is based in the Rockford, Illinois, USA facility and has the distinction of being the second longest serving employee of the company-by only one month we hasten to add. We asked Jim a number of far reaching questions, his very interesting answers can be found here.

Jim, you have had a remarkable career having started with ABAR Corp. back in 1978. Please tell us how your journey with Ipsen started.

Growing up, I worked every summer for my father who was an industrial electrical contractor with 27 employees. After high school I attended Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania and continued spending summers working for my father. One day I noticed an ad running in the help wanted section for an organization called ABAR Corp., a manufacturer of heattreatment equipment. They were looking for a floor electrician for the assembly of vacuum furnaces. The job sounded interesting and was only 1.6 miles from my home, so I thought, why not inquire about the posting? I made an appointment for an interview, and the wheels were set in motion.

At my interview, I was asked, how old are you? I answered the question. The foreman then reached over, grabbed my wrist, and flipped it over to look at my hands. He was comparing the wear and tear on my hands against what I had listed on my resume. They asked me if I was familiar with electrical prints. I answered, yes, and water and hydraulic systems. Next, the foreman opens a roll of prints and starts pointing to devices and circuits asking what we were looking at. After acing that test, The HR director says, when can you start?

I spent several years in that position, moved to QC, then QC Manager and sometime thereafter picked up the additional title of Field Service Manager. Ipsen merged with Abar in 1985, and in 1996, I relocated to the Rockford facility after they consolidated operations and removed Abar from the name. My duties remained the same for a few years, then I transitioned into assisting sales with new equipment, retrofits and support.

Is there anybody at Ipsen who has served longer with the company than yourself?

Mr. Craig Moller (Chief Engineer) has exactly one month on me in tenure.

My understanding is that your title is Technical Directorwhat does that mean in terms of what you do on a daily basis?

My title pretty much sums it up . I basically interface with every department within Ipsen. I work with our customers on process related issues, sales and special projects.

Up to this point, Jim, I have been working under the assumption that your experience has been mainly with vacuum systems, but perhaps that is an incorrect assumption. Do you also get involved in atmosphere equipment?

I do have some experience with atmosphere furnaces and related equipment at an arms length, but I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination.

Others at Ipsen have told me you have had several roles with the company over the years, including quality control, instruction and technical support. What has been your favorite role?

My Favorite? Hmm… basically anything or anytime that I am helping others solve an issue. I have an “A type” personality, and some here may even argue compounded with a splash of OCD. I like being pulled into tasks where others may have fallen short. I enjoy the challenge. I enjoy explaining my thought process and how I arrive at a conclusion. When Im done with a project, whomever is along side me, either a customer or a colleague, they know and understand what was done, why and how.

This is the question I have really been looking forward to asking you – what are the biggest changes you have seen in the industry since you began your career? This could include technical changes, changes in how furnaces are built, changes in how equipment is sold, pretty well anything.

This is a very broad reaching question that I could generate a book on. A few highlights perhaps being the transition from all molybdenum hot zones to graphite. 44 years ago, we were all taught that all metal hot zones were the standard and graphite hot zones were for low-end heat-treating processes. There was a lot of, you can’t run this or that in a graphite hot zone. Well, most of the people who said that are retired now, and the scales have nearly flipped, with graphite being the typical construction used for most applications.

There have also been many technical advances. Today, customers are requesting advanced controls functionality, energy efficiency, implementation of IoT systems, and predictive maintenance capability, such as Ipsen’s PdMetrics. Heat-treating technology has also come a long way in terms of efficiency. Customers have always come to us wanting a furnace that can handle more weight, cools faster, reduces distortion, processes faster, provides more uniform heating/cooling, has deeper ultimate vacuum levels, etc. Over the years we have been successful in finding ways to accommodate these requests to continually build better and better furnaces.

From the past, lets move to the future. With each advancement in furnace technology, we as a group tend to think that we have reached the limit of what we can do, that is until the next breakthrough happens. Is there still room to push the limits of what we can achieve? What do you see as the next big step in the advancement of heattreating technology? 

That my friend resides under the code of silence. Top level answer being, YES! There remains room for technical advancements in several areas. A few of which are currently in progress. Ipsen is always expanding its digital toolbox to optimize processes and maximize performance for our customers. We currently provide predictive analytics tools, and remote troubleshooting through augmented reality. We are on the road to using more artificial intelligence to further reduce furnace downtime and prevent failures.

Many in our industry would say that the number one challenge these days is finding good, experienced people. That being the case, does Ipsen have a plan for using technology to make up for the shortfall in experience?

I believe that technology is here to assist us and make our lives easier, but not to replace us. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it a little more difficult to obtain quality new hires (considering there are presently two jobs available for each unemployed person in the U.S.), but we have expanded our HR department and implemented internal training and advancement programs to focus on placing the right people in the right positions.

Next to finding good people, I would suggest that supply chain issues are the next major challenge these days. Several manufacturers have told me that in some cases they are forced to make design changes in new equipment when certain parts are unobtainable. Has this been the case at Ipsen?

Indeed, we are experiencing unprecedented times in the world of supply chain, but one thing remains crucial: relationships. Suppliers continue to face commodity and electronic component challenges – which will likely continue for the foreseeable future; therefore, being able to rely on our strong bond with key suppliers is more critical than ever.

For some electrical components, the standard products just aren’t available. In these situations, Ipsen’s experienced engineering group works hand in hand with purchasing and suppliers to come up with acceptable alternatives. In instances where lead times can’t be improved, long-lead items are engineered and ordered early in the project to minimize delays in the build schedule.

While Ipsen is certainly feeling the effects of the supply chain issues, we spend a lot of time communicating with our customers throughout their project so that they can adjust accordingly on their end. By adapting project schedules, working closer with suppliers, and providing creative engineering solutions, we have been able to keep up with production while minimizing disruption to our customers, and we certainly appreciate how patient they have been with us during this unprecedented period.

Let’s talk about trends in the industry. As Technical Director, I would imagine you are at the forefront of new technologies. That being the case, are you seeing any interesting trends these days? Perhaps increased demand for low pressure carburizing, more requests for nitriding, requests for larger and ever larger systems?

The demand for proven processes remains at a normal level. The request for larger and higher-pressure furnaces is on the rise. Many customers are advancing 3D printing of very small and very large components, driving changes in furnace design. We are partnered with several of these customers.

I almost forgot this question, Jim, and it is one our readers and I will be very interested in. In your many years in the industry, what is the project you remember the most? Perhaps because it was the most challenging or perhaps the biggest disaster. I am not going to ask for any names, just an idea about which project over the years was the most memorable for you.

Being honest, we have had the occasional setback, but disasters, not on my watch! Carefully reviewing compliance documents is paramount these days. It’s also important to make sure the customer truly understands what they are asking for and why, and that Ipsen understands the scope of the mission. Let’s be honest, sometimes it is ok to say no gently though. I have been involved in so many projects, they sometimes seem to run together. We have partnered with many customers on new and bold process undertakings. Seeing these projects come to fruition and going into production is what I like and remember most.

And what does the future hold for Mr. Jim Grann? Obviously, you enjoy what you do and the company you work for. Will I be seeing you at trade shows 20 years in the future?

I am not the type of person who can sit back and relax, watching time go by. I thrive on changing environments and tasks, and I love dealing with customers. My plan is to continue my current path as long as health permits. Many people go through life punching in at 8:00 a.m. and out at 5:00 p.m. I love my job and love helping others in and out of work. My efforts don’t stop at 5:00 p.m. I, and others within the Ipsen organization, often take calls on weeknights, weekends and holidays, as I treat customers like they are family.

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