Andres Bernal / ION Heat

Today we have an interview with a fellow by the name of Andres Bernal who has a rather interesting story to tell. Not only does his family operate the largest commercial heat treats in Columbia and Peru but in addition they manufacture Ion (Plasma) Nitriders.

Andres how did you get started in the heat treating industry?

“Gord…. My father Roberto started a heat treat shop in Medellín back in 83.  During my school vacations he used to take me to the shop to get parts ready for processing.  I do not think I was efficient in doing so, but he was in getting this into my blood.  Before I graduated from mechanical engineering, back in 2001, I started working with him.  I have heard that heat treatment is like the song Hotel California… “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave….” That has happen to me so far.”   

You and your family operate both as a commercial heat treater and a new furnace builder-lets start with Ion-Heat who offers Ion (Plasma) Nitriders. Before we get into the details of the company though which is the most common phrase Ion Nitriding or Plasma Nitriding? I have always thought the two names were synonymous.

“They are….. I think Plasma Nitriding is more common in Europe… Ion Nitriding seems to me to be more common in America…”

Could you please share with us when Ion Heat was formed, where it is located and some general background about the company? I certainly would be very curious about the size of the company.

“Ion Heat was born as a spin-off from TRATAR (Our heat treat shop).  Ever since my father first saw the ion nitriding process in the USA many years ago, he thought it was cool and wanted to offer nitriding as part of our services.  As you know we had three options for offering nitriding services.  One was offering salt bath nitrocarburizing.  As a company directive, we had abandoned cyanide technology back in 1990, therefore, salt bath nitrocarburizing was not an option.  There is a bitter sweet story as what also became a driver for us to develop this technology and that is that ammonia is strictly controlled in Colombia because of the drugs issue, so gas nitriding was not an option for us either.  We were left with Ion nitriding as the only option.  The heat treatment industry in Colombia is small, thus buying an already made system was out of our reach, therefore we decided to enter an R&D project to develop our own technology and we did back in 2008 with the support of the Colombian government.  After having used the technology in our own heat treat shop for a couple of years, we decided to start Ion Heat and offer our systems to the industry.”

Is it only Ion Nitriders that you offer?

“So far we are only making plasma nitriders but would like to enter into the manufacturing of other thermal processing equipment as well in the future.”

Ion Nitriding has always been a very small part of heat treating. Why is that and do you expect this to change in the future?

“As every technology, it has is advantages and disadvantages.  In my opinion, the technology had a bad start in America.  Old type of systems like cold wall systems or straight DC systems had problems with temperature uniformity and arcing.  The new systems offer a much better temperature uniformity and the arcing problem is controlled by the power electronics built into the new plasma power supplies. We do expect to see it grow as the aerospace industry grows. The growth will be driven by the aerospace industry and environmental reasons like restrictions in the use of ammonia and cyanides.”

I am not an expert on Ion nitriding so I can’t really comment about how your technology differs from your competitors however several acquaintances have told us that they consider your technology to be much more advanced than your competitors. Could you share with us the differences?

“Well, I will not speak poorly about our competitors.  They were here before us and have a lot of experience and I look up to them.  What I can tell you is that we have tried to do our designs with the customer in mind and we have had the luck of listening to different customers who have shared their experiences with us about using different Ion Nitriders.  We do not save money in purchasing the best in class components to integrate into our systems.  We used very well known brands like Leybold, MKS, IFM etc.. We still have a lot to learn but are doing our best to satisfy our customers with nice looking, robust and easy to use systems.”

Moving to commercial heat treating could you tell us about your heat treating shops; where they are located, processes offered etc.?

“We have two heat treatment shops in Colombia, one in Bogotá and one in Medellín.  We also have a third one in Lima, Peru.  We offer hardening and carburizing in controlled atmosphere. Nothing fancy really since the market is quite small.”

I am curious about the size of the heat treating market in both Columbia and Peru. Do you have a good feel for the size in terms of sales? Or perhaps it might be easier to ask how many actual heat treaters there are in each country?

“Well, there are only three formal commercial heat treaters in each country. As I said, the manufacturing market is very small, thus the heat treatment market is as well.”

Are these growing markets for manufacturing and consequently heat treating?

“Perú is. Colombia is not right now.  About 7 years ago we started suffering from our own success.  The country was getting a lot of money from oil and that valuated the local currency compared to the dollar to levels that were not realistically reflecting the capacity of our economy.  It turned out that is became much easier to import everything from China than manufacture it here.  A lot of manufacturing companies closed, and some others left the country.  Shutting down a manufacturing plant is easy… turning it back up is not.  Now that the dollar price is high again to realistic levels, a lot of people wants to start manufacturing, but it will take some time before it goes back up again.”

Yourself and your sister Jimena are relatively young-what are your plans for the future? Growing the heat treating side of the business? Building more style of furnaces? In short where do you see yourself in let’s say 10 years?

“We would like to grow our heat treatment business but it depends on how the manufacturing develops in these countries.  We would also like to continue with Ion Heat developing more thermal processing technology where we feel we can be very competitive.  We see Ion Heat in 10 years being a world class thermal processing technology manufacturer. We are looking to expand our commercial efforts into other continents as well.”

On a final note I am looking forward to seeing your plants April of next year at which point we can give our readers more details and also a number of pictures of your plants. In the meantime I thank you for your time.