Patrick McKenna Interview / Ipsen 

We are very pleased to offer this interview with Mr. Patrick McKenna, President and CEO of Ipsen USA.

Pat, I have lots of questions for you about Ipsen, where the company has come from and where it is going however before we go there could you share your background with us? How you got into the business and how you ended up as President of Ipsen USA?

“Thank you for the opportunity, Gord. I started in the industry in the early 90s, as an Engineering Intern at A. Finkl & Sons in Chicago. They are a specialty steel producer and now part of the Schmolz + Bickenbach Group. With in-house melting, forging, heat treating, and machining, it was a great place to learn. The plant operated 24/7 and I remember feeling honored when I was given keys to the office. With a starting wage of $10/hour and unlimited overtime, I was eager to put in as many hours as possible learning my trade.

After earning a degree in Mechanical Engineering, I continued for a time as Project Engineer at Finkl, but ultimately decided to move on. My next stop was Ipsen. I was hired into the Engineering department, but eventually transitioned into Product Management and Sales.

Later, I moved to the West Coast where, together with Rich Penrose, we started Nevada Heat Treating and California Brazing. Rich and I were business partners until January 2015, when I decided to return to Ipsen in the role of Vice President – Sales. The 15 years spent operating a commercial heat treating and brazing facility have proved invaluable during my three years back at Ipsen.

In August 2017 the previous President and CEO of Ipsen USA, Geoffrey Somary, was promoted to COO of Ipsen Group. I was given the opportunity to become President at that time.”

Everybody in the heat-treating industry knows Ipsen but few know the background of the company-could you share that with us?

“Harold Ipsen, a Mechanical Engineer from Brown University, started Ipsen in Rockford, Illinois in 1948. His first ‘heat treat project’ was repairing a kiln for his wife, a pottery hobbyist. Harold later began designing and building furnaces for the steel industry, eventually leading to some of the first batch integral quench furnaces. Sadly, Harold perished in a plane crash in the 1960s (he was at the controls) along with other senior members of his Executive Team. Shortly after, the Ipsen family decided to sell the company.”

 If it is OK with you I would like to focus my questions today on the North American market and interview Geoffrey Somary about Ipsen globally at a future date. How big is Ipsen North America both in terms of physical size, number of employees and total sales?

” Ipsen USA is comprised of (3) manufacturing facilities:

  1. Cherry Valley, IL
  2. Souderton, PA
  3. Pecatonica, IL (Ipsen Ceramics)

There are 250 direct employees between these three facilities, generating approximately $100 million in annual sales.  Almost half of those sales are in aftermarket, which includes parts, upgrades, pyrometry & calibration, maintenance, and other types of services.”

Could you describe your sales efforts for us? As an example do you sell through independent reps? Direct sales? A combination of both?

“We utilize a combination of direct and indirect (independent) Sales Representatives. We refer to both as Regional Sales Owners. We also have overlapping sales coverage with Regional Sales Engineers and Regional Service Managers, all of whom are direct employees. Lastly, we have subject matter experts who travel to support our sales efforts.

Ipsen feels strongly that spending time with customers and maintaining close relationships with them is extremely important, and in my position I am also able to spend a significant amount of time traveling to support our customers and their projects too.”

When I think of Ipsen in North America I think mainly vacuum furnaces but is this correct?

“You may be surprised to learn that, many years ago, Ipsen was 100% atmosphere. In the 1980s, Ipsen merged with ABAR Corporation – a leader in vacuum furnaces – and production in North America began shifting to mostly vacuum. Today, atmosphere and vacuum are balanced globally while in North America we are about 80% vacuum and 20% atmosphere.”

Are vacuum carburizing systems a large part of your “repertoire”? I know you have built systems over the years but vacuum carburizing is not the first thing I think of when I think of Ipsen.

“Yes, we have built many vacuum carburizing furnaces over the years. It’s an increasingly important part of our overall North American product portfolio.”

Over the years Ipsen has bounced in and out of the atmosphere market at least as far as Canada, the US and Mexico goes. What is your current thinking?

“The Ipsen atmosphere furnace installed base in North America is very large and continues to be a target growth area for us.  The market has been very receptive to our recent product offerings. I’m pleased to report we currently have a large number of North American atmosphere furnace orders in our bookings backlog, including a roller hearth normalizing line and a rotary hearth furnace.”

How many furnaces per year does Rockford build in total of all types?

“We manufacture between 60 and 80 new furnaces per year in Rockford, and 6 to 8 furnaces each year (VFS brand) in Souderton. About three-fourths of these are shipped to North American customers.”

 The Titan line of vacuum furnaces was launched a number of years ago as a very standard, price competitive product-has this been a success and how many have you sold over the years?

“Yes Gord, this platform product line has been very successful. To date, we have built almost 300 TITAN vacuum furnaces (both vertical and horizontal).”

 Pat, are these the good times, bad times or in between times for furnace builders in North America? When do you think this is going to change?

“The last three years have all been record bookings years for us, Gord. However, there seems to be a bit of a pause recently, with less urgency in the marketplace. Quotation activity is as strong as ever, which is a positive sign, but there has been some hesitancy in order placement.”

 I’m going to annoy a few vacuum furnaces builders with this question, however it is a question which I am asked from time to time so I believe it to be very pertinent. How much difference is there between different brands of vacuum furnaces? An impartial, cynical observer could say that all vacuum furnaces consist of a pressure vessel, a pumping system from one of only a handful of suppliers, a standard control system (again from a very short list), a few heating elements and a common design. Which would lead them to ask how much actual difference is there between various builders?

“A fair question, Gord. Yes, the systems needed for traditional vacuum furnaces are the same (e.g., chamber, controls, pumping system, hot zone). However, I think there are many details in the design of each system that really impact performance (e.g., heating, control, uniformity, quench rate, ultimate vacuum, partial pressure effectiveness).

One simple example is that there is a very wide cooling rate performance difference between the different brands of high pressure gas quenching vacuum furnaces.   Although quench pressure matters, more important is the mass flow rate of the gas hitting the workload, as well as the rate in which your heat exchanger can extract the heat from the quench gas. We often do side-by-side comparisons with other brands and have consistently proven the superior performance of the Ipsen design.

There are also more subtle differences we incorporate in our designs that increase reliability, improve ease of maintenance, allow for easier compliance with aerospace specifications, etc.

When buying a furnace it’s more than just buying a piece of equipment – you’re really entering into a long term relationship with a heat treatment solutions provider. It’s consultative selling, strong technical support, process expertise, a responsive parts and service infrastructure … it’s the totality of the organization behind the furnace.”

 The last question leads into this one-in your opinion are there too many furnace builders in North America?

“It may surprise you, Gord, but I really don’t think about that question at all. We have competitors that we respect and the market will determine how many furnace builders there should be.”

If you were asked what is the fastest growing heat treat technology on the market today what would you suggest?

“Heat treating technology evolves slowly. At the present time, I’m not seeing a disruptive technology that will significantly shift the equipment business from traditional vacuum and atmosphere furnaces.

With regard to traditional equipment, we see customers demanding increased connectivity, more sophisticated monitoring and process control, and real-time predictive maintenance capability such as Ipsen’s PdMetrics.”

Is there anything realty exciting coming up at Ipsen which you can share with us? Or how about a really tantalizing “teaser” about what might be coming up?

“There’s a lot in the works. For one, Ipsen is continuing to put a lot of focus on supporting customers with aftermarket services. You will see our service team grow in size and capability, and be even more accessible to customers across North America. We look for 2018 to be a big year for Ipsen in regards to expansion of our service team, which will put us in even closer proximity of our customer base. We also continue to improve our ability to service all furnace brands.

As far as projects, Ipsen is fortunate to be able to partner with customers that are the leaders in their industries. We can’t share specifics in many of these situations, but one recent example is a vertical, high pressure quench vacuum furnace with a 1,000 horsepower quench system. We also are currently manufacturing the largest horizontal vacuum furnace we have ever built.  To the best of my knowledge, it is the largest vacuum brazing furnace in the world.  This single chamber vacuum furnace utilizes eight 35” diffusion pump systems!

It’s exciting to see Ipsen at the forefront of these market opportunities and I look forward to sharing more about our unique projects with you and your readers in the near future.”