Editorial Feature

The Metals Heat Treatment Industry in Australia

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Contract Heat Treatment in Australia began in the 1940s. Until that period, heat treatment operations were largely performed in-house or in industry groups. Large organizations like agricultural equipment manufacturers, the Commonwealth Defense Industries Railway Workshops, and the automotive companies had a culture of self-sufficiency in certain cases because of Australia's geographic isolation.

Origins of the Contract Heat Treatment Industry

The rise of Contract Heat Treaters (C.H.T) was due to the increase in a range of small engineering companies catering to Government utilities and large corporations. Generally, major staff in these early companies and, in certain cases, proprietors were trained in these organizations.

Growth of the Contract Heat Treatment Industry

In the following years, the multi-disciplined companies providing components and sub-assemblies to several industry groups began a demand for more diverse heat treatment services than it was feasible to carry out “in-house.”

The larger organization also acknowledged the need for someone to deal with the slack in capacity shortfall and provide services that enhanced on their own. Vacuum hardening of tool steels over traditional salt bath treatments is one of the more apparent services.

The Australian manufacturing industry has always been highly competent at performing short runs of low volume complex components, a skill that is still keeping the Australian industry competitive in the highly competitive marketplace.

The Contract Heat Treatment Market Size

The market size of the Australian heat treatment industry in 1992 was estimated at $170 million, ruled by in-house heat treatment. An estimated $30 million yearly was spent in contract heat treatment shops. These contractors are not essentially those who obtain the majority of their income from contract heat treatment but include companies whose key focus lies in other areas of engineering.

The Manufacturing Center of Australia

Melbourne is progressively becoming the hub of component manufacturing in Australia, as was witnessed after the tragedy at Longford in 1999. Without the availability of natural gas for the Melbourne industry, it was just a matter of days before automotive and white good manufacturing plants in other states were forced to shut down because of a lack of component supplies.

As a result, the competition in the Melbourne contract heat treatment market became robust. The high volume atmosphere heat treaters have all attained good results in the last three years, with substantial growth in demand for heat treatment services.

The Economics of Heat Treating in Australia

Despite the growing demand and substantial capital investment, there has been limited opportunity for price rise in the last five years, and in a few areas prices have actually dropped. This is good news for users of heat treatment services but investing in new equipment and technologies becomes a challenge for all contract heat treatment companies.

Industry Rationalization

In the last decade, it was slowly realized that in order to progress, a contract heat treatment shop cannot be a one-stop solution to all customers. Although there are still companies that provide services ranging from salt bath carbonitriding to vacuum hardening, most have chosen to focus on specific areas of the market. These can be roughly split into high volume low-value processes usually utilizing batch and continuous atmosphere furnaces, and low volume high-value processes involved in the tooling and sophisticated surface engineering fields such as vapor deposition. This rationalization of the industry has in certain cases resulted in company closures or mergers.

Increasing Skill Levels within the Industry

According to this article’s author and the customers with whom he spoke, there has been a surge in the business professionalism of the industry in the last decade. With this development, the skills of the managers have also increased. It has been acknowledged that to achieve success in today’s environment, companies must have a mixture of high management skills and the conventional high level of technical skills.

The Current Situation

To try and determine the current scenario, it is useful to reflect on history. In the early 1990s, the Department of Industry, Technology & Regional Development commissioned Techsearch Inc. (the business arm of the University of South Australia) to conduct a study into the Australian heat treatment industry. Although time is not sufficient to completely analyze what exactly has changed since then, the author has used a few of the recommendations listed in the study as a benchmark of where the industry has advanced.

  • “Heat treatment specifications should include detailed data on parameters other than the surface and or core hardness.”
  • “Suppliers of heat treatment services should move quickly to close the gap between best practice and actual shop floor practice.”

Factors Affecting the Quality of Heat Treated Components

Control on factors, such as fixtures used, atmospheres, furnace loading, loading and control of fixtures, the robustness of the process chain, and furnace and operator capability, has a direct impact on the ultimate quality of the component. The control of these and other factors have been linked with the “black art” status of the thermal processing of ferrous and non-ferrous materials because the information was locked up in the minds of practitioners.

Quality Systems and Quality Control

Quality systems have forced companies towards a greater degree of documentation of not only process factors but ways for jigging and handling components to guarantee that dimensional alterations and results are constant from batch to batch. The growing use of computer technology to store photographic and written data will ensure that this kind of quality assurance will continue to improve product conformance and diminish the “black art” component of the industry.


Accreditation to the international quality standard ISO 9002, (as a minimum), is essential across the board and although no longer believed to be a competitive benefit, C.H.Ts are currently using quality management systems as a tool of constant upgrading.

Improvements by Design

Continuous development cannot survive in isolation and as observed in the study “manufacturers should liaise with the heat treater at the earliest stage of component design and development.”

There has been a growing awareness that the selection of material at the design stage and the integration of good heat treatment processes not only result in consistently higher quality products but also provide “value-adding” by minimizing post-heat treatment operations such as reforming or grinding.

Heat Treaters Expertise—A Design Resource

Manufacturers are becoming aware that there is a substantial resource of information and know-how within the heat treatment industry and usually this resource is provided as part of the entire service. It would be imprudent to propose that a heat treatment service provider could replace a designer or design team; however, all information in these early stages should be taken into consideration. The design team should have the skill to act on all the important information available.

Qualified Staff and the Industry

Drawing and retaining experienced staff is still a huge problem in an industry dominated by comparatively small “family” companies. An obvious career path is not evident to outsiders and the requirement for years of wide-ranging experience is unappealing to the present-day high fliers.

Training the Industry

One of the big issues identified in the study and an important recommendation for future progress is the availability of “training courses tailored to all levels of the industry from semi-skilled to highly qualified technical personnel and that these courses should be established under the guidance of one centre.”

This is still an area that needs improvement. During a recent meeting of the Contract Heat Treatment Association of Australia (C.H.TA.A), four companies described the training modules used by them. The training modules ranged from specific correspondence courses to group video training. Although all the different techniques had achieved success, the need for a unified system was stated.

The response from leading institutes was that the mandatory minimum class numbers cannot be made up because of the small size of the industry and the different academic levels needed. This could be somewhat short-sighted because appropriately promoted and designed courses should be of importance to companies that have internal heat treatment facilities or to users of contract heat treatment services. The C.H.T.A.A has recognized the provision of training programs as a key goal of the Association.

The Contract Heat Treatment Association of Australia

The C.H.T.A.A was founded some 30 years ago, and since then it has had its high and low points of activity. During 2000, the Association was revived and was  set to become an independently incorporated body under the patronage of the Institute of Material Engineering Australia. In the initial days, some of the goals that members would like the C.H.T.A.A to handle are given below:

  • Occupational health and safety problems
  • Collective purchasing of energy
  • Education and training
  • Raising the profile of contract heat treatment
  • Environmental concerns and the role of heat treatment plant operators

The Role of C.H.Ts

It must be kept in mind that C.H.Ts by definition are there to meet customer demands. Just because C.H.Ts do not provide a specific service at present does not mean that they will not be offering it tomorrow.

Capital Investment

Return on capital investment for contract heat treatment is still comparatively poor than other areas of the manufacturing industry. Usually, major capital investment has to be made at payback periods of 10 years or more and, as a result, there is substantial spending in refurbishment and upgrading of already prevalent equipment.

The Size and Influence of the Industry

The contract heat treatment sector is still a minor industry when compared to the industries it caters to. Therefore, it is the customers that make decisions in the implementation of new and emerging technologies. There has been a common conception from outside the industry that C.H.Ts are unwilling to branch out and invest in new technology which is far from the truth, according to the author. It is basic economics that spurs these decisions unaccustomed to the unfamiliar ones.

The entire manufacturing industry needs to play an active part in considering new processes, and the contract heat treatment companies in Australia simply lack the resources to buy new technologies and equipment in the anticipation that they will be taken up.


To conclude, C.H.Ts cannot predict all the challenges that may emerge in the future, and this is what keeps the industry vibrant and interesting to work in.

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