Mr. Joern Rohde

ROHDE Schutzgasöfen GmbH

We are pleased today to have an interview with the owner and President of furnace builder ROHDE Schutzgasöfen GmbH of Hanau, Germany. Joern you are like many of us in the industry in that you got started in the heat treat industry because you had family in the industry, could you elaborate a bit for us?

Hi Gord! The company was founded by my father in 1979. I have grown up with “furnace building” like many others in the industry. As a kid I always worked at the company during the holidays to earn some extra pocket money. So I literally started sweeping the floors of the factory and then I worked in the different technical areas, learning from employees that had a lot of experience, until I started designing the furnaces. After finishing school, I started an apprenticeship as an industrial mechanic and at that time I did the service and maintenance work for our customers. During my studies of mechanical engineering I then started to work in the furnace design department. I graduated with a degree of Diplom”-engineer and when my father retired in 2009 I became owner and president of the company. I had to handle the first crisis then and it was a tough start, but everything turned out fine in the end. My wife Natasha manages the financial department and the human resources. We have two sons and of course we hope they will later continue the family business in the third generation. Konstantin is only 2 years old, so he is still very young but he loves Lego, which is already a good start. But Vincent, the older one is now 7 years old, and has already started to sweep the floors in the factory a year ago. At the moment he is already practicing a lot to build things with Lego and he is very creative. So let’s see, if we can encourage him to be a furnace builder in the future like Daddy.

Tell us about ROHDE Schutzgasöfen GmbH, the size of the company, number of employees, annual sales and what products you offer.

We currently have 27 employees and have around 4.000.000,00 € turnover per year. 2016 we moved to our new factory and this enables us to produce our whole equipment in Hanau near Frankfurt. We do not depend on suppliers, as we can build nearly everything on our own. Besides our skilled workers in the furnace building, service and maintenance, our workforce is formed by electrical engineers, mechanical engineers and process engineers. We are able to develop everything in-house. We manufacture all kinds of atmosphere furnaces and can offer ALL processes, that can be carried out in a retort furnace. What all our furnaces have in common is a gas-tight retort. The equipment mainly consists of standard assembly groups, that can be compiled at will by the customer. We also manufacture especially developed solutions for customers. Besides our furnaces, we have also been manufacturing salt recovery units (SRUs) for over 30 years and this has been a very successful product for us. We sell the SRUs directly to customers, but we also sell them to other furnace manufacturers, who include them in their furnace lines.

I was lucky enough a few years ago to see a very impressive example of a pit carburizing furnace which you designed and installed at a company in Bochum by the name of REESE. It is without a doubt the largest pit carburizing furnace I have ever seen. Could you tell us a bit about the project including the size of the furnace?

This furnace was especially designed for Gerhard Reese. The retort diameter is 5,5 m (16.5’)and the depth is 5 m (15’). Due to the design of the loading table, it can handle loads of over 200,000 pounds at temperatures above 1000° C. The furnace is equipped with 24 recuperated gas burners with a heating capacity of over 1900 kW with additional electrical heating for the loading table. Nobody in the industry wanted to design that furnace. Some people even told me, I was crazy when they heard that I was building it. The furnace was delivered in 2011 and is still working successfully.

Do you have many installations outside of Germany?

Around 45 % of our installations are outside of Germany. Many German affiliated groups want us to equip their foreign factories with our equipment, as they trust in our quality and service. The percentage of equipment that we deliver worldwide is constantly increasing. The industry of heat treatment furnaces and equipment is small, our reputation good and the number of customers is also constantly increasing. We have increased our workforce in the service department to be able to serve our customers around the world as fast as possible.

Are most of your products standard or custom designed?

We design whatever the customer wants. Our nitriding chamber furnaces (vacuum nitriders) and pit furnaces are standard products, designed in a way that when the customer places the order, he can choose between different additional options which can also be customized of course. But we try to fulfil every wish a customer may have, so if he needs a different size than our standard sizes, then we design it. We are very flexible in every way. As we always have a SPS controller, we can use any controller the customer wants and are still able to offer our process engineering. By the way, our furnaces need 30% less energy than similar ones from other German competitors, which means lower operating costs for our customers after the investment.

I have seen your SRUs (salt recovery units) in operation at a number of locations around the world and it is obviously a pretty standard product for you. How many of these have you sold over the years and can you tell us a bit about how they operate?

We have sold over 150 salt recovery units to customers worldwide. The operation of the SRUs is very simple. The wash water is introduced into the unit, the water is condensed and with the steam we pre-heat the wash water. What remains inside the unit is molten salt which can be either discharged back into the quench tank by a heated pipe or directed to a collecting tray where it can be saved for future use. All carbonates and impurities are filtered out and remain in the plate system until they are disposed of. What comes out of the system is clean salt which can be reused immediately. The return on investment is around 2 years as the clean salt can be reused and leads to a significant reduction of costs. The investment in a SRU unit does not only save the customer’s money, it also saves the environment.

Who buys these systems? What I mean is are these units more suited for a continuous operation such as a mesh belt austemper line or do you sell them in batch type situations?

In Europe manufacturers of continuous furnaces with salt quenching buy the salt recovery units from us and deliver them together with their installations, as a matter of fact North American furnace builders have also done the same thing. Thus the customers directly receive the recycling solution with their installation for salt quenching. I would even dare to say that in Europe there has not been a single recent installation that has not been equipped with one of our SRU’s. But our customers also include a number of heat treatment companies that use our systems on batch furnace installations. Again the only disposal involved is for some dirt and carbonates, all the salt itself is 100% reused.”

By the way many years ago I predicted that due to environmental regulations salt quenching would slowly be phased out-obviously I was completely wrong on that prediction. What do you see-is the use of salt in heat treating increasing, decreasing or staying about the same?

Salt quenching has been condemned for a long time for being dirty and harmful to the environment. However this is simply not true. As an example companies that have continued to use salt quenching are still very busy. The negative environmental balance is equalized by using our SRU. The advantages of salt quenching are very well known, very efficient heat removal, easy post-cleaning due to water solubility, it is non flammable and offers extremely low distortion of parts-as a matter of fact the only drawback is the quenching pace for very thick components. So, I have to say, I’m sure you have noticed it, I am a fan of quenching salt and that’s not only because I manufacture SRUs.

In your opinion what is the fastest growing type of heat treating in Europe?

I would say that gas nitriding is the fastest growing type of heat treatment here in Europe-a clean process with high potential. Developments in the field of nitrocarburizing and low temperature nitriding for steels with a high percentage of chrome will make this process even more interesting for a lot more components. Gas nitriding is much cheaper than ion nitriding and of course a lot more environmentally friendly than salt bath nitriding. Vacuum hardening is in my opinion the second growing part of heat treating, but it´s not our business right now.

The topic on everybody’s mind these days is COVID-19, how has it effected you and your business?

I hate this virus! Everybody is afraid of this virus. Customers have postponed projects and everybody with a running nose is on sick leave for two weeks, to make sure nobody gets infected. At our company there haven’t been any big changes: our employees are working and manufacturing furnaces and SRUs. Fortunately until now, nobody at our company has been sick with COVID-19 and therefore it is business as usual-kind of. The largest difference we see is that the phone doesn’t ring as much but we receive more emails as a lot of people are still working from their home office.

How do you see business in Europe for the remainder of the year and for 2021?

Everything is going to be ok! We still have enough orders, when the Corona crisis started we were very fortunate to have a large backlog of equipment and that has kept us busy. We have a very big advantage, which also helped us through the financial crisis 10 years ago and that is the fact that we are not focused on one industry-our customers come from many different industries. We have many open projects so we are looking positively into the next year. We recently developed a new furnace type and will be delivering our new fully automatic bell hardening centre (BHC) for overpressure gas carburizing processes in September of this year. This installation allows for oxygen-free gas carburizing similar to low-pressure carburizing with either salt or oil quenching without surface oxidation. The appropriate process has been developed in collaboration with IWT Stiftung Institut für Werkstofftechnik Bremen some years ago and is called Rox-free.

Where will ROHDE Schutzgasöfen GmbH be in 5 years? For instance can you see yourself setting up facilities in North America or China? Do you think your product mix will be the same? Joern I realize this is trying to predict the future which is not an easy thing to do so let me rephrase the question-where would you like to be in 5 years?

We are very active in the field of process development. Also if new furnace types are needed, we are the company to work with. This strategy allows us to always focus on customer needs and to be flexible in offering solutions. We will see what the product mix will be, as I think that our customers are the ones who will have the influence on that, telling us what they need. There will always be someone in the market who is offering cheaper equipment, but I hope that there is nobody who is better then us.

My family and I, we love North America. I would love to be able to serve the north American market directly from there and to set-up a subsidiary there. Of course we love Germany as our location for business and proudly offer equipment “Made in Germany”. But if the sales especially for SRUs continue increasing in the north American market, the next step will be a facility in the States. We do already have a collaboration with Honor Equipment, located in Charlotte, a company that stores our spare parts and offers technical service in the US for our installations.

We are currently not planning any investments in Asia. We manufacture high quality products and to ensure a solid installation we need time and money. We need qualified personnel who love their job and this is what we have been establishing during the past 40 years here in Germany. The existing “old” furnace concepts and types are currently being put to test in Europe. This is due to the high energy costs in Europe and therefore new energy-saving furnace designs are needed. We have already been improving our furnaces for a long time regarding energy-savings. And we can promise our customers that our furnaces need 30% less energy and gas than furnaces from German competitors. This means more profit for our customers with the same or even a better heat treatment result. So what we try is to constantly improve processes and products where it’s useful or saves money for our customers or for us.