Bill Jones / Solar Manufacturing / Solar Atmospheres

Vacuum Heat Treating/Mr. Bill Jones. Today (November 20, 2012) we have an interview with one of the best known names in the vacuum heat treating industry, Mr. Bill Jones, CEO of both Solar Atmospheres (commercial heat treating) and Solar Manufacturing (new vacuum furnaces). In our opinion Bill is one of the most experienced individuals in the vacuum heat treating industry that we have met and also (with all due respect to Bill) an individual with more longevity in the industry than just about anybody else. Read on for some very interesting history about where the industry has come from, where it is going and what changes have been the most significant.

Bill your’s is one of the most recognizable names in heat treating in North America and I would venture to say even outside of North America but I have to confess I don’t know how you actually got started in the industry. Would it be possible for you to tell us how you were introduced to the heat treating industry and how you have progressed through it?

“Thank you for the complement, Gord. I was introduced to the technical world through my father who worked for the Philadelphia Electric Company. On graduation from Penn State with a degree in Electrical Technology, I went to work for a small company building first order process electronic instrumentation for the DuPont experimental station in Wilmington, Del. These instruments among others were photometric, including a two color optical pyrometer and an electrolytic dew point analyzer. This introduced me to the industrial furnace industry. In 1963, I was approached by the fledgling Abar Corp. and joined the company as the 8th employee. A few years later, three of us bought out the original owner and ran the company for several years, but because of our poor business experience we were forced to sell to King 5th Wheel in 1967. I was the only one of the original owners to survive and remained with the company for 17 years, serving as President for the last 5 years. Then in 1979 with a change in King 5th management, I left and formed Vacuum Furnace Systems, VFS along with several others from Abar. My wife and I started the company with $40k in savings, a $40k mortgage on our house, and a $250k government backed SBA loan. Our first sale was to Metal Treating Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio with Jim Williams as President. In 1983 with my son, Roger we formed Solar Atmospheres, Inc. in a corner of our original VFS plant. We purchased a used F J Stokes vacuum furnace out of a junk yard, and later a very used Ipsen Model 924 from a used equipment dealer in Detroit. We completely modified these early furnaces to VFS designs, and this started us off in the commercial heat treating business.”

The names Solar Atmospheres and Solar Manufacturing are well known but I would certainly appreciate a brief idea about the size of the companies and their capabilities.

“Today Solar Atmospheres is our primary business with 3 plants in Souderton, PA., 1 plant in Hermitage, PA and 1 plant site in Fontana, Calif. The combined sales this year will be $41 million. Solar Manufacturing will be $16 million. We also own a transformer company, MSI which builds, among other things, power supplies for vacuum furnaces with sales of approximately $4 million. Employment at all operations is approximately 225. Solar Atmospheres is primarily a broad base vacuum heat treating and brazing processor with 55 vacuum furnaces running 24 / 7. Solar Mfg. builds approximately 20 new vacuum furnaces per year.”

You have seen vacuum heat treating progress and grow over the years (indeed you can take pride in the fact that many of the changes are due to your ideas)-in your opinion what development or innovation in the vacuum world has had the most significance?

“The round hot zone with internal gas quench nozzles and recirculation gas system, the VRT power supply, a modern leak free vacuum chamber with high vacuum pumping system, and modern electronic Honeywell instrumentation all introduced by Abar approximately 1970 and on, are all innovations in the vacuum world that have had great significance. VFS introduced the round graphite heating elements and graphite insulated hot zone and further developed the hot zone, the gas quench system, VSD for the quench blower, PLC logic controller, and computer controlled instrumentation. Solar Mfg. and others have continued these developments and more, such as over pressure gas quenching technology allowing the processing of alloy grades like 4140 and O grade tool steel, and the perfection of vacuum carburizing, and the introduction of vacuum gas nitriding.”

We now see 20 bar quenching (and higher), vacuum carburizing, vacuum nitriding; what is the next logical step in the evolution of vacuum furnaces?

“The vacuum furnace market has been growing approximately twice as fast as other furnace markets since 1990 or so. This is because the vacuum furnace is environmentally friendly, increasingly more efficient, operator-friendly, and most important, adaptable to increasingly broader market applications. The vacuum furnace has to be engineered to perform these functions as presented, such as the annealing of large Ti heavy 80,000 lb workloads in high vacuum, and inert gas cooling in a 38 hour cycle or so. Prior retort furnaces take more than a full week. We see processing of what we call raw materials as the path forward, such as nano grade powders, and high temperature processing of special ceramic and graphite materials. These all require furnace design modification, and the application of controlled hydrogen gas and other partial pressure gas additions to perform those processes prior reserved for atmosphere; in other words, the shifting of the heat treating market from atmosphere to vacuum.”

You mentioned you started VFS many years ago and then subsequently sold the company. In retrospect was this a good business decision?

“This was a painful experience for the Jones Family and thus a bad decision to sell VFS, as we lost 5 years in the furnace market place. The major reason to start Solar Mfg. was to buy the type and quality furnace that was not available from competition. The advantage of Solar Atmospheres and Solar Mfg. is the close relationship to understand technical applications and furnace issues, and interchange facts and ideas on a daily basis between companies.”

I know from personal experience that profit margins for heat treating equipment of all forms has been falling over the years and yet there are just as many or more builders of new vacuum furnaces than ever before. Do you feel there are too many vacuum furnace builders in the market? Along the same lines are there some competitors that you have more respect for than others?

“No, competition is good for the industry and helps to keep us all humble and sharp. Our number one competitor is Ipsen, and my guess is they eye Solar Mfg. closely at least here in the USA. Ipsen has a deep and convoluted history, but none the less is a survivor and will prevail. So will Solar Mfg.”

Another vacuum furnace builder came out with an interesting product line several years back which has proven to be quite successful. The basic concept is a very competitively priced vacuum furnace, fairly standard which is available with a very quick delivery time. Does Solar Manufacturing have any plans to offer a similar product?

“You refer of course to the Ipsen Titan. No, we do not intend to offer a “Titan” concept. Our view is that the furnace business will not accept a cookie cutter type concept long term, as all furnaces need to adapt to location, application, instrumentation, and other specific furnace requirements by customers. Rapid delivery and price is always an advantage. However, a vacuum furnace is not a commodity but rather an expensive piece of capital equipment with an expected reliable trouble free life of 30 years. What sense does quick delivery and low price make when compared to longevity and performance if compromise of specifications and components is ignored?”  

What drives you? With all due respect I would imagine that with two successful companies that money is not an issue for you but I know that you put in a lot of hours. Why at this stage or your life are you working as hard as you ever have?

“I am an entrepreneur driven by technology and the challenge having come up the hard way; I know no other way of life. People ask me about my hobbies. I always point them to the plant where I have my “sand box”. I must admit though with current tax plans and the idea of spreading the wealth now coming out of Washington, it gives one pause to think. I have worked harder in the past and time flies at expense to family. I encourage my engineers and management not to make the same mistakes I have in this regard and am trying to shift to a lower gear.”  

Lets move from Solar Manufacturing to Solar Atmospheres your commercial heat treating company. I have visited your Souderton, PA, Telford, PA and Fontana, CA locations and all are extremely impressive in particular the large vacuum carbottom furnaces. I know each must represent a multi million dollar investment and a great deal of engineering time. How did you decide to make such a large investment in what is a fairly unusual design of vacuum furnace? Now I have to ask you this also-when you started down the road of the first one did you have any fears that the design might not work or that it would not turn out to be a good investment?

“The first car bottom design came about as a need to process six large Ti coils where we could only process two in our large 12’ front loading furnaces here at Souderton, PA. Our customer insisted we have a plant in Pittsburgh, PA to run the coils or they would buy their own furnaces. Bob Hill, my son, Roger, and I decided very quickly we needed the Hermitage, PA plant and I made the decision to build the car bottom furnace literally on the spot prior to quotes, designs, building, or money. We assembled a team of engineers from within Solar, VFS, and our most important other vendors, to design and build the first car bottom. I acted as Chief Engineer along with Roger Jones, Bob Hill, and my son-in-law, Bruce Craven. We made all final decisions based on our experience processing two coils. The furnace was built and installed in Hermitage. After initial shake down, TC survey, and vacuum checks we loaded six heavy coils into the furnace and made the first heat treat run without a hitch. The car bottom was a complete success and we have built 10 since. VFS made the actual first build. At that time VFS was owned by Ipsen. Ipsen Germany feared the furnace to have many technical problems and asked me to allow them out of any responsibility. I agreed in exchange for all design and patent rights. Done. No, I knew we had a sound design from the ground up and never looked back.”

With the 3 commercial plants in the US do you have any plans down the road to add other locations either in North America or outside of North America?

“Yes, we do, and probably in the South Eastern USA. However, we really need to see how things work out in Washington and to our economy. We can’t build a plant if bank money is not available or if industry is in free fall. My personal view is a flat 2013 and hopefully improvement in 2014.”

This question is not specific to Solar but is rather a general question about commercial heat treating. Your customers represent some of the largest companies in North America, many of them in the aerospace industry. Do you see any signs that that they plan on sending more heat treating to commercial shops in the future, about the same amount or bringing more heat treating in house?

“In general, no. There are some exceptions but these may turn out to be short term until they can buy and install their own furnaces. This is usually a “win / win” for Solar, but not always.”

The largest commercial heat treater in the world “Bodycote” has so far this year made two large acquistions in North America. Commercial heat treating is tremendously fragmented with many relatively small players. Do you feel that one player dominating the market to such an extent is a good or bad thing?

“We see no impact to Solar for a number of reasons. Most of Bodycote is standard heat treat operations for auto, off road, production and the like. Solar is specialized in vacuum technology and niche applications nimble and fast on our feet with decisions based here in the USA and not in the UK.”

Nadcap is a universal standard in the world of aerospace heat treating and I see no signs that this will ever change. However I have heard many times that commercial heat treaters are held to a higher standard than the actual “primes” who don’t follow the rules as closely. As a Nadcap accredited commercial heat treater would you care to comment on this?

“This is a touchy subject, Gord. However, we kind of share the view that the commercial shop has to dance harder and truer than a prime. But we have never been invited into their shops to witness their audits. That would be great fun.”

So what does the future hold for Mr. Bill Jones, Solar Atmospheres and Solar Manufacturing?

“Of course my work days must near an end. I don’t want this to happen but I am secure in my future as you have noted. We have been working on succession plans of course. As most of our customers and suppliers know I have a strong working family in place to the third generation and I have assembled a strong engineering and management team. A good example is our California Plant, up and running, growing, standing on their own feet without Bill Jones or anyone else making day to day management decisions. Many knowledgeable people have commented to me and in fact congratulated me on building such a fine, deep team around and under me throughout our companies.”

On a final note I know many of the people at Solar and have a tremendous respect for many of them. Is there any you would like to single out for special praise?

“I have already mentioned Roger Jones, Bob Hill, and Bruce Craven. Of special note is Don Jordon, Chief Metallurgist; Derek Denis, President of California; and Chuck Miller, his Chief Engineer; Dan Landis, Solar Chief Maintenance Engineer; Ed Engelhard, Head of Solar Quality; Trevor Jones, Solar Process Development Engineer; Jamie Jones, Solar Plant Manager; Ken Bauhof, Vice President Special Processes; and Ginny Osterman, PhD. At Solar Manufacturing, I would like to mention Jim Nagy, President; Pete Reh Vice, President of Sales; Bob Wilson, Chief Engineer; Bob Daley, Chief Electrical Engineer; and Rick Jones, International Sales Manager. At MSI, I would like to recognize Mike Afflerbach, President and Chief Electrical Engineer, and there are many, many more!”