Thomas Doppler, Aichelin GesmbH, Austria

We are excited to be able to offer you this interview with an individual we have a very high opinion of Mr. Thomas Dopler, CEO of furnace manufacturer Aichelin GesmbH based in Moedling, Austria.  

Thomas I am always curious about how people end up in the heat treatment industry. Could you share with us how you got started in the industry and ended up where you are now? 

 I did my first heat treatment at the age of 15 at high school (higher technical school with optional classes in metallurgy), followed by my studies in material science where heat treatment was one of the major subjects, especially steel and aluminium. These two materials have been guiding me through my entire professional life from the aerospace and automotive industry where I was working in R&D and Sales to my current position at Aichelin, which I joined 11 years ago. Heat treatment of steel and aluminium is our reason to be.  

Please share with us some details about Aichelin-what you have to offer, the size of the company, the number of locations and perhaps even a brief history of the company. 

AICHELIN Group is a leading provider of heat treatment solutions, such as industrial furnaces, induction hardening plants and industrial gas burners systems. The company’s roots date back to 1868. The long-established brand AICHELIN, as well as EMA Indutec, SAFED, BOSIO, AFC-Holcroft and Noxmat, make up the group and together employ more than 1,100 people. AICHELIN Group ranges among the world’s top 3 heat treatment companies. AICHELIN’s subsidiaries in Europe are located in Austria, France, Germany, Slovenia, and Switzerland; the worldwide presence of the company includes subsidiaries and branch offices in China, India, Russia, and the US, as well as a sales network in 22 more countries. The site in Mödling is the technological center for new equipment in Europe, with a focus on continuous heat treatment plants. Our scope of supply ranges from pusher, ring and roller hearth furnaces to belt and sealed quench furnace lines. AICHELIN GesmbH has been doing business in Mödling since 1960 and the Group’s headquarters is also located here. A great deal of our business is After Sales and we are constantly working on new developments such as our latest products heatXpress and #jakob. 

 Historically what type of furnace has Aichelin made the most of? Pusher? Cast Link? Sealed Quench etc.? 

Since we offer such a great variety of furnace types, this question is difficult to answer for the entire history of Aichelin. However, there is certain continuity with gas carburizing. Aichelin started the production of furnaces for powder carburizing according to licenses of the American Gas Furnace Corp. back in 1900. When the contacts to the USA were interrupted during World War 1, these furnace lines were further developed with Aichelin’s own know-how. Together with Robert Bosch (the founder of Bosch group, in person!) and his leading engineers, Aichelin had started tests even before the War in order to improve carburizing in gas. Back then, barrel-shaped retort furnaces were used, which was one of the most-requested Aichelin products of that time. Despite the limited control devices of that period, the test results were astonishingly good. Aichelin is therefore definitely a pioneer regarding gas carburizing. 

Typically who are your customers? Commercial or captive heat treaters? Auto parts makers or aerospace suppliers? 

The AICHELIN Group focusses on atmospheric heat treatment, for both continuous and batch furnace lines. We consider ourselves as one of the globally leading companies in this industry, with more than 150 years of history in Europe, more than 100 years of history in the US and more than 30 years of history on the Chinese market.  Therefore, we serve all kinds of customers, from the major OEMs of the different industries and the leading captive heat treatment shops of the leading tier 1s to commercial heat treatment shops. This also confirms our focus on the automotive market and its suppliers with all their applications, whereas the aerospace market is less our target. At the same time we are also serving customers in the bearing, fasteners and electric machinery industry.

As CEO of the Moedling division do you have much involvement with the other divisions such as China or North America? 

AICHELIN Group’s strength is the global position in the heat treatment market, with more than 1100 employees world-wide. For this reason, a very tight cooperation and close contacts with my colleagues in China & the US are part of our common success. We can help each other with know-how, resources and technical advice as well as with service support. 

Are you seeing or do you expect to see much competition in Europe from either North American or Asian furnace builders? 

No. There is a degree of customization of furnace lines for the individual needs on the 3 continents (Europe, the Americas & Asia). Therefore, the only cases when we see some mixture of overseas furnace builders with the locals is in case our customers go overseas and want a precise copy of what they have in their home country (with adaptations to local standards and equipment)

A common perception amongst buyers of new furnaces is that because they are high dollar items this must translate into high margins for the furnace manufacturer. How would you respond to this statement? 

New furnace business will never make you rich in the automotive business! The market power of “us” (the furnace builders) is far too small against the OEMs. We must therefore focus on continuous improvement of the furnace quality and technology and assist our customers throughout the long life of our furnaces with After Sales Services. This way we remain competitive over the years.  

 I understand that Aichelin has a new product which you are quite proud of “heatXpress”-could you please tell us why you are so proud of this particular system? 

The reason we are so proud of the new product, heatXpress, is easily explained: The step chain furnace has 10 major advantages compared to existing PHS (Press hardening Steel) heat treatment solutions.For example, the durability of the step chain transport system is more than 4 years in contrast to traditional systems using rollers, which must be replaced much more frequently.  Another example is the transport accuracy at every stage since there is no build-up of AlSi on the chains in the furnace.  A final example would be the tailored property options combined with the very short cycle times, which create an important advantage for companies who are looking for cost-effective PHS manufacturing. With our new product, heatXpress, AICHELIN has the right and best product for all PHS requirements now and in the future.        

 What is your number one concern these days? Finding people? Tough competition? A slowing economy? 

Over the last 20 years, our industry has gone through several major ups and downs. Our experience thus tells us that we need to stay flexible regarding the size of our individual furnace companies as such changes can occur within short notice.   On the long run, the most important concern are our employees! We must find them, train them, keep them and challenge them over the years. Only if we manage to have the best experts on the market (for mechanical and electrical design, processes, furnace installation, …), we may set ourselves apart in the dynamic market with respect to our competitors.

I am fascinated by additive manufacturing (or 3D printing) and I have now seen a couple of examples of small systems which incorporate a sintering furnace. Have you had any involvement in this technology? 

Additive Manufacturing is one of the technologies that will shape the future. Heat treatment is an essential part of this technology to reduce stresses and distortion for 3D-printed parts and to obtain the desired part properties. In my own opinion we will see this technology entering the heat treatment market on a bigger scale in the near future (2021 to 2025). We are already working on this technology, in cooperation with 3D-printing prototype manufacturers as well as with 3D printer manufacturers and already have parts running through our furnaces.

Since we’re talking about a changing world and changing technologies let’s look at electric cars. The predictions are that within a decade or two we will all be driving electric cars which by their very nature require substantially less components which means substantially less heat treating. Does this enter your long term thinking about the size of the heat treatment industry?

The heat treatment market has always been very dynamic. The trend towards electric cars (purely electric as well as hybrid) means a big change for us, as some of our customers are strongly in the gear box industry. We face these changes by doing what we have always done: We focus on providing our customers with just the right technology for their needs. An example: One of our big overseas customers supplies parts for the new TESLA models.

Lets keep talking about the future of the industry. Do you personally think that the product mix Aichelin now offers will remain fairly constant in the foreseeable future or do you see it changing?

We see a slight shift in our product and service mix. As we have a high number of existing installations in the market, our customers tend to use them as long as possible. The oldest Aichelin installations working in the market are more than 70 years old! It is our job to keep these installations as up-to-date as possible, from the switch cabinet with the latest safety technology up to the use of most recent energy-efficient combustion systems. Of course, industry 4.0 will play an important role in the future.

Thomas out of all the types of thermal processing systems which you can offer what is your favorite style? Personally I have always liked the versatility of batch IQ (sealed quench) furnaces and have never been overwhelmed by pit furnaces but that is my opinion-what are your thoughts?

Our goal is to provide world class heat treatment for our customers which reproduces exactly the quality our customers require. For this reason, my heart is with continuous heat treatment furnaces with a good degree of automation, as I believe they are the best way to ensure stable quality for many industries with a decreasing number of skilled personnel.

Last but not least is there any interesting developments at Aichelin which you can share with us?

The most exciting recent development is our digital maintenance assistant #jakob. Named after Jakob Aichelin, who founded our company 151 years ago, this tool will make maintenance so much easier, providing all the information the furnace operators or maintenance staff will ever need at a glance, whilst carrying out monitoring functions and predicting maintenance and parts needs. #jakob is AICHELIN’s answer to Industry 4.0 and IoT.