Attitudes Towards Heat Treatment
Heat treatment engineers have always complained that their customers regard heat treatment as an ‘add on’ - an afterthought. This attitude is still to be found although 100 years ago I am sure it was the norm; heat treatment was still a ‘black art’. Techniques were unreliable, uncontrolled and inexact, so engineers continued to over-design by 100 per cent ... just in case!
Origins of Heat Treatment Companies
Manufacturers were more than willing to let someone else do their ‘dirty’ work, so as early as the 1920’s, specialist heat treatment companies were springing up in places like Birmingham.
Development of Heat Treatment Industries
Since most of these companies were small and ‘craft’ rather than technologically-based, they were unable to carry out R&D themselves, which effectively held back development. World War II changed all this, but again resources in the UK were stretched, so most of the advances came from the US. What ideas did come out of the U.K were usually exploited in the U.S., before export back to us.
After the war, US car giants were installing state-of-the-art, in-house heat treatment plants here and in Germany, and this, more than anything, pushed things forward, with the imposition of new standards in efficiency and quality.
The New Generation of Heat Treaters
Far from revolutionising the sub-contract scene, however, this held it back yet again, since the resources to invest in this new technology were not there. Only at the end of the 1950s did things begin to change, because the motor giants required overload facilities - safety valves - and increasingly sought to outsource more and more components. It is not surprising then that this spawned a ‘new generation’ of heat treaters. My own organisation was founded in 1959, as I believe was Nemo Heat Treatment, later to be transmogrified into Bodycote PLC!
Most of the plant installed was US-built - or at least US-designed, and most of the techniques and standards adopted were also those of the US - a situation which remained unchanged for the next 20 years or so.
Geographical Influences in the Heat Treatment Industry
Surprisingly, whilst new, progressive companies sprang up, and some of the more forward-looking ‘old boys’ adopted these new ways, many of the smaller traditionalists carried on regardless. There were several reasons for this; possibly the geography of UK manufacturing was the major influence.
Engineering - hence customers for heat treaters - can be found in every British town. Mainstream manufacturing, however, tended to concentrate into three main areas:
1. Birmingham and the Midlands
2. Lancashire/South Yorkshire conurbation
3. Greater London.
The Birmingham and Midlands Region
Metals engineering has centred around Birmingham for 200 years or more. The region is therefore ‘dense’ in terms of customer potential, and small, low overhead, street corner job shop heat treaters abounded. In the early 1960s the region had more than 40 such shops, many serving the tooling sector which, in turn, grew around Birmingham’s famed ‘metal bashing’ industry (pressing, stamping etc.). To be fair, many of these small shops were very good, and gave a quality service, which perhaps deterred the formation of ‘new generation’ facilities in this area.
It is worth mentioning that the West Midlands did have a number of very large heat treaters even before the war as a result of the forgings and fasteners (nuts and bolts) industry, which also grew up here. In this respect it was unique in the UK. Most of these large contract shops were what we term ‘rough’ heat treaters - very large scale hardening, tempering and annealing, in open, non-protective furnaces. There are still one or two major plants like this in operation, but the market is declining, and looks set to carry on doing so.
The Lancashire/Yorkshire Region
It was the decline of the textile industry more than anything else which brought about the move to large-scale engineering manufacture in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The region did not simply produce cotton and wool, it developed the machinery to do it. It therefore had a wealth of skill and experience which was in grave danger of being lost as the curtains closed on major textile manufacture - oddly enough also in the early 1960s.
These resources attracted aerospace, specialist components manufacturers, tool and mould making, and specialist machinery developers to the area, which, of course, in turn generated lots of demanding heat treatment.
It is probably no accident, therefore, that arguably the world’s most successful heat treatment group started life near Manchester - an area lacking the myriads of established, small job shops to be found in Birmingham. Heat treatment in Manchester remains in the hands of a small group of substantial, go-ahead companies.
As in the case of the West Midlands, this region did have one exception - Sheffield. Traditionally the home of steelmaking and cutting tools, this area had some large “rough” heat treaters plus a number of small job shops specialising in HSS cutting tools. Some of these still exist, but much of their local market has gone. Their specialist services have enabled them to pull in work from a large area to survive.
The London Region
Finally to the South East - probably a major engineering area (rather than centre), simply because it is so big! It is not known for any specialist product, but has a wealth of small/medium engineering and tooling manufacturers. Consequently, like the West Midlands, it too has a preponderance of small, localised job shops. Partly because of its diversity, but probably because all motorways lead to London, very few major new facilities have appeared in this area.
Although, as already mentioned, General Engineering goes on right across the UK, there is seldom enough heat treatment to attract major job shops to set up in other areas. In recent years relatively cheap transport has transformed the whole scene, so ‘area’ has become much less important.
The Current Situation
This leads us to the current situation. Despite localisation no longer being so necessary, since one heat treatment centre can now serve a very wide area, historic ties and practices still predominate. There are still something like 15 small, local job shops in the West Midlands, some little changed since the 1960s. Others, however, have grown, improved or become specialists in one or more techniques. Customer demand for ISO 9000 has had much to do with this, and several originally in this “local” category now operate pressure quench vacuum furnaces, plasma nitriding etc, to a high standard.
Traditional Heat Treaters
Few of the older large scale ‘rough’ heat treaters have survived, and most of those that have are now members of larger groups, providing just one part of an overall service to the equally small group of manufacturers of fasteners and forgings etc. that remain.
The New Breed of Heat Treaters
Turning now to the new breed of heat treaters, founded in the 1950s and ‘60s, most have either become major, comprehensive contractors, offering virtually all known types of heat treatment, or they have become one-track specialists offering induction heat treatment, or fluidised bed heat treatment, for example.
Categories of Heat Treaters
The first category has tended to grow large - Bodycote, for example, which now has plants in every region of the UK. No other group has developed on such a scale, with the number two - TTI Group, formerly Senior Heat Treatment Group - being substantially smaller, with eight sites in the UK. The next tier, which includes my organisation, the Wallwork Group, is in turn approximately half the size of TTI Group.
All these groups have grown, in the main, by acquisition, although some have set up some specialist new plants; for example, my group has set up an advanced surface engineering centre for PVD coating, ion implantation etc. Bodycote has invested in similar ventures, and has also installed some highly automated bulk heat treatment facilities. It has also installed contract facilities within major customer companies, such as Rolls Royce plc.
As geographical location is no longer important, this has led some of these ‘major’ heat treaters to set up their more high-tech facilities in rural areas, obviously making recruitment a little easier, but also because development grants are often available in such ‘underdeveloped’ areas!, and usually transport is not so important at this end of the market.
The established centres still contain the vast majority of our important customers, so most of the new, smaller specialist or single-track companies have settled in these areas. Not only is there a large customer base on hand, but obviously such major centres are competitively linked to most of the UK via the motorway network nowadays.
Trends in Heat Treating
Generally, traditional techniques - and I now include in this category atmosphere treatments developed in the 1960s such as carbonitriding - still predominate. Sealed quenches are, perhaps, still the most popular type of plant, and at the smaller end there are still many salt baths in operation. Obviously, the use of vacuum techniques has increased rapidly over recent years, with 10 bar pressure quenching and interrupted quenching now commonly available. Specialist techniques such as fluidised beds have been slow to catch on, although this is probably changing in response to environmental pressure. I understand that Bodycote are now operating some major units on Nitrocarburising.
In many ways, therefore, although there has been significant improvement in most areas, the industry does not look terribly different from what it was like during the 1970s. What is changing - quite dramatically - is our customer base. UK manufacturing has dropped from 45 per cent of GNP in the 1960s to below 20 per cent today. This decline looks set to continue, as e-commerce gives major companies an easy route to sourcing components from low-cost economies. I guess that the same grumbles are being voiced in Australia, but we are suffering excessively, in my view, partly as a result of not being fully inside the European Monetary System, and partly because of the conservative nature of our older established companies.
From this one must conclude that capacity has to be lost, either by some of us moving into other processes, or by plants being closed. Both are beginning to happen. There is, of course, a third way - only open to the really affluent - to move into other geographical areas. Bodycote and, to a limited extent, TTI are already doing this with some success.
At the other end of the scale, some of the very small job shops may well survive, since there will always be a small jobbing market, and some shops have very low overheads indeed.
This leads me to conclude that the most vulnerable sector is the small to medium company which has invested, but which lacks the resources to institute further radical changes. These are the ones that are already being swallowed up by the big groups, or are potentially going to close down, and this is happening now I know of several such companies that are for sale right now, for example!
Summary of the British Heat Treating Situation
Before closing with a brief look at mainland Europe, it might be helpful to summarise the current situation as a set of conclusions:
• British manufacturing is under enormous pressure and is contracting.
• Heat treatment is contracting with it - companies are closing, being acquired, or are up for sale.
• The big players are acquisitive, are diversifying, and are expanding outside the UK.
• Smaller players with resources are tending to move into specialist or even new technologies.
• The most vulnerable sector contains well established, but under-resourced small to medium companies.
Perhaps I should add to this that UK innovation has not declined, which is why I think the more go-ahead smaller players will survive. However, there is still a marked reluctance to invest in these new ideas, so I do not think this offers an overall solution.
The European Market for Heat Treaters
Finally, turning to mainland Europe, I think the situation is marginally easier, except perhaps in Germany. Countries such as Italy, Spain and now Poland, have become major component suppliers to some of the giants, but as far as I know, have a limited number of heat treaters. Italy has a good name for treating large dies in vacuum. France is, perhaps, most willing to adopt new technology, and has a large sub-contract base. Many of these plants have major plasma facilities, and several are using vacuum carburising on a considerable scale.
Germany - almost as conservative as the UK - also has problems, which stem mainly from re-unification. In technical terms it lags France, and still has some job shops to rival ‘down town’ Birmingham. At the other extreme it has some giant automated facilities and some well-equipped vacuum job shops. Conservative it might be, but having been educated along US lines, Germany, too, is willing to invest in proven new ideas. It too, therefore, remains a ‘force to be reckoned with’. Has anything changed?