President, Gasbarre Industrial Furnace Division
We are very pleased to be able to offer you an interview with Mr. Ben Gasbarre, President of one of the larger furnace manufacturers in North America Gasbarre Industrial Furnace Systems.
Ben we have known each other for a number of years, I have to say I have been looking forward to asking you a few in depth questions about your background, the history of Gasbarre and your thoughts about the heat treatment industry and where it is going.
Thank you, Gord. Appreciate the opportunity to speak with you.
Since Gasbarre is a family owned business I certainly don’t have to ask how you got involved in the heat treatment industry but I would like to ask about your earliest memories about working at Gasbarre. What was your first position at the company?
My memories of Gasbarre go back to when I was young, visiting my Dad, and walking around the manufacturing floor. In the summers I worked in shipping and receiving and in customer service roles at our Press Division in DuBois, PA. I didn’t get my first taste of the furnace division until I graduated from college, at which point I started overseeing manufacturing and scheduling at our furnace facility in St. Marys, PA. Over time, I took on more responsibility in purchasing, inventory control, and project management. I learned a lot in my first few years about our manufacturing processes, but most importantly, I learned how the furnaces worked inside and out, and how they were used by our customers. Today, I spend most of my time focused on growing our business through customer relationships, ensuring that we are providing the best customer service and driving technology changes across all furnace lines.
Tell us a bit about the company, specifically as it relates to supplying thermal processing systems. For our readers that are not that familiar with Gasbarre we should briefly mention that Gasbarre also provides other solutions for manufacturing, generally related to the powdered metal industry.
Gasbarre was started in 1973 by my grandfather, George Gasbarre Sr., we started as a compaction press manufacturer for the powdered metal industry, which we still supply today on a larger scale. Since that time we’ve acquired eight different companies, and have started up an additional two. Today we design and manufacture compaction presses for powdered metal, ceramics, and hard metal applications. We design and manufacture precision tooling for compaction presses. We also design industrial automation solutions, and supply contract machining and fabrications for a wide range of industries such as oil & gas, glass, rail car, and mining.
Of course we have the Thermal Processing Systems division, which started with the strategy of diversifying our product line through complimentary products. Our first was the acquisition of Sinterite in 1989 to supply sintering furnaces to the powdered metal industry, then in 2003 we acquired C. I. Hayes, which enabled us to enter the higher temperature market with their atmosphere pusher furnaces and vacuum furnaces. In 2011 we acquired J. L. Becker, which allowed us to enter the broader heat treat market with our line of batch atmosphere equipment. We have made substantial changes both organizationally and in regard to our product technology and services since the acquisitions. In 2018 we rebranded all our product lines under the Gasbarre name you see today. Our focus is not on the name of the equipment, but supplying the proper type of equipment for our customers’ application. Today, thermal processing equipment and related products accounts for about half of our sales. Compaction press and tooling is about 35%, with contract machining and fabrication being about 15%.
What products do you supply to the industry?
I believe we have one of the broadest product offerings in the market. In some cases that can be seen as a “jack of all trades, master of none” situation, but with us that isn’t the case. The way we’ve grown the business has allowed us to maintain technical knowledge and expertise for each of the product lines. Our core products include: continuous mesh belt and pusher furnaces for annealing, brazing, and sintering. Both batch and continuous vacuum furnaces for nearly any process, and can adapt oil and gas quenching, or slow cooling. Batch atmosphere equipment for most heat treat applications including annealing, hardening, nitriding, tempering, etc… We also provide aftermarket parts and service. We have extensive fabrication capabilities for muffles, retorts, fan shrouds, and fixturing. We are also ISO 17025 accredited for control calibrations.
My first impressions of Gasbarre (and these go back quite a while), is that the company is very strong in mesh belt sintering furnaces which is no surprise since Gasbarre was started in the sintering capital of the world, St. Marys, PA. I know you are still very strong in this area but recently I have seen the company expanding into other areas such as nitriding. Why nitriding furnaces and why now?
Yes, as mentioned earlier, we got our start in the powdered metal industry, and still have a large presence in the market today. The sintering furnace product offering equates well to processes such as annealing and brazing, which have helped grow that portion of the business.
Regarding the nitriding, it is no secret that has been a growing process for many years. We saw a hole in the market where most OEMs of that style equipment are based overseas, and there was an opportunity for a domestic provider offering the latest in nitriding and FNC technology. While we have made plenty of equipment for nitriding over the years, Gasbarre wasn’t well known for it. We brought on personnel familiar with selling the process, maintaining the equipment, and who have managed operations and metallurgy based around nitriding and FNC. From there we updated our designs and controls to ensure compliance to AMS standards, have technology for improved cycle times, process control, and repeatability. The horizontal style nitriding units are gaining more traction in the U.S. and we’ve been able to impact the market with our ability to design, manufacture, and service the equipment all from the United States. Again, that is not something most OEMs of these style furnaces can say.
As more and more processes are converted to nitriding and FNC, we look forward to being apart of it, and supporting the domestic industry in its continued growth.
The company has grown over the years through organic growth, but also through acquisitions. CI Hayes and the JL Becker Company are two acquisitions over the years that come to mind. Going forward do you see more acquisitions or are you content with the organic growth you have been seeing?
You can never stop looking for additional opportunities for growth. From my past comments, you can see acquisition is a large part of what we’ve done. At the same time, we know we have a strong product offering, and can continue to advance our products and services to expand our footprint in the market. Currently our focus is organic growth and product/service development, but we are always open and opportunistic if the timing is right and the fit is right for acquisition.
You have one particular product line which has always fascinated me, continuous vacuum furnaces. I say fascinated because it is a very unique concept and one which you don’t see that often. Is this a large portion of your business and do you have any competition?
You are correct, the continuous vacuum furnace is a unique product in the market. The process flow of the equipment fits well into many medium to higher volume manufacturing environments. Our design also takes maintenance into consideration, and allows easy access to the heating chamber and other areas of the equipment. With the heating chamber maintaining vacuum it creates the purest of environments for part quality and repeatability. We’ve had certain captive heat treaters justify a continuous vacuum furnace on part quality alone. We’ve also seen conversion from high temperature atmosphere pusher furnace processing to the continuous vacuum furnace. This allows the same type of part flow through the manufacturing process, while also gaining significant savings in atmosphere and energy consumption using vacuum over atmosphere technology.
Over the years we have seen a lot of activity in this product line with aerospace OEMs, tool manufacturers, and even some commercial heat treaters. Of late more interest has come for the benefits of high temperature sintering as it relates to both powdered metal and additive manufacturing applications. We certainly see it as a differentiator in the market, and a product line that has growth opportunity.
COVID-19. How has this effected your sales volumes, sales strategy and the topic of most concern for all manufacturers these days-your ability to find and retain employees?
We are definitely back to more normal levels (and above in some areas) since COVID hit in early 2020. The fall of 2020 is when we saw things start to come back, and since January business has been strong across the board. Between our work on the digital marketing side, and our ability to service and retain existing customers, we’ve been able to grow our backlog to levels we hadn’t seen since 2018. We have been fortunate on the personnel side in that we were able to increase our manufacturing capacity by almost 50% as things picked back up. We are continuing to recruit to keep up with demand, and have upcoming plans for expansion on the furnace side that will be announced soon.
Lets switch gears slightly and look at the global market. Are sales outside of North America significant for the company? The second part of this question would be global competition. Do you often run across Asian or European competitors when quoting in North America?
Throughout our history we’ve seen our international business account for anywhere from 15%-30% of our business. Obviously with the dynamics of COVID that has been reduced over the last couple years. While we have international representation and service, our focus on the furnace side is North America. It is a large market with plenty of opportunity.
With our diverse product offering we run across all different kinds of competition depending on the product or market. For instance the continuous mesh belt market in Mexico sees competition from Europe, Asia, and the U.S. depending on the company’s ownership. As I mentioned earlier many of the players in the nitriding equipment market are European. Then when we get into the vacuum and more conventional heat treat equipment the competition is mostly domestic.
The competition does vary quite a bit, and again, we see our advantage as being a strong player in each of these areas, and can offer an objective approach to providing a solution to our customers. We don’t go into an opportunity pushing a single product. We can objectively look at what the customer wants to do, and offer batch or continuous style processing, or even weigh atmosphere versus vacuum technologies.
Lets look to the future for our next questions, first up would be the upcoming ASM show in St. Louis, MO this fall- the first North American heat treat show in 2 years. Your company will be exhibiting there, what are you expecting attendance to be like? To phrase it another way do you think the average North American heat treater is over their fear of COVID and ready to “mingle”?
I attended the Metal Treating Institute’s spring meeting in May and I have to say attendance was great, and people were eager to have the personal face-to-face interactions. We recently exhibited at the MPIF (Metal Powder Industry Federation) show, and while attendance was down compared to normal years, the activity level and quality of collaboration at the event was high.
I still think we have a mix going into the ASM show in September. People are ready, the market is ready, but companies are still going to take advantage of cost savings as it relates to travel and other aspects of attending a show. Obviously the new COVID variants are a cause of concern. With that said, we are excited about the show, we believe attendance will be good and we expect to generate opportunity from it.
This question is the most interesting in my opinion but also far and away the hardest to answer; What does the future hold for the heat treatment industry? For instance do you see the possible growth of electric cars dramatically changing the amount and type of heat treating? Are greenhouse gas emission concerns going to change the style of furnaces?
You are right, we’ve paid special attention to some of the market conditions you are referencing. While it seems inevitable the market will change with the electrification of vehicles the real question is when. All of our industry organizations have an eye on this and are supporting companies that will need to adapt. We as a company are working on the next phase in finding the opportunity that will be created from electric vehicles, additive manufacturing, and the expected growth in vacuum heat treating. With that said, we have a lot of optimism in the growth of current markets over the next several years, we are proud and confident in the product offering Gasbarre has created, and we look forward to advancing our products into the future!
Ben I very much appreciate the time and looking forward to seeing you in the near future.