Low Pressure Carburizing Benefits EV Market, In-House Heat Treating, Energy Initiatives and Automation
The challenges discussed in our recent “State of the Gear Industry Survey” follow a similar pattern across the entire manufacturing sector. Skilled labor issues, stricter energy regulations, and a desire to upgrade equipment are just as relevant in heat treating.
Today, gear manufacturers would like to replace costly subcontract work for in-house capabilities, and provide additional robotic, automation and green energy benefits to their customers. Low pressure carburizing (LPC) provides a path to these technologies.
“Because low pressure carburizing (LPC) is highly repeatable and the recipes just run and run with very little adjustments or tuning, we’re seeing a lot of this technology going in-house at GM, Ford and Stellantis,” said Bill Gornicki, director of sales at ECM USA, Inc.
“In addition, thanks to all the new players in the global electric vehicle (EV) market, we’re seeing new production in China, Europe and India all going to LPC as well,” said Dennis Beauchesne, general manager at ECM USA, Inc. “LPC technology provides a better environment to operate in. It’s more like a machine tool with processing that provides precise and repeatable results, capabilities everyone is looking for in the EV sector.”
Clean and Green
ECM Technologies developed Infracarb in the 1980s. The Infracarb process is fulfilled under low pressure. The carbon donator gas is Acetylene C2H2 – used during the enrichment phases, and nitrogen N2 is used during the diffusion phases. The process temperature is generally higher than traditional carburizing, between 880 and 1,050°C thanks to the vacuum technology. The high temperature processes help reduce carburizing cycle time in comparison to traditional atmosphere carburizing.
Gornicki said the technology opposes everything most people think about when they consider the history of heat treatment.
“They’re quiet machines. There’s no flame, soot or oil. The UAW absolutely endorses this equipment because it’s a pleasure to work with,” Gornicki said.
Beauchesne added that ECM has introduced a line of eco-friendly furnaces that will take the place of standard batch IQ furnaces. The organization has won two awards (one from Europe and the other from China) to reduce the carbon footprint.
“LPC, in itself, is about a 95 percent reduction in gases being used,” Beauchesne said. “We’re using around 5 to 10 percent of the gases you’d find in an atmospheric furnace. Our goal is to provide eco-friendly equipment that fits with standard equipment so customers can upgrade their heat treat departments more cost effectively over a longer period of time, rather than replacing everything they have at once. This also allows our customers to do other processes that vacuum furnaces provide benefits to such as hardening, brazing, etc.”
These green initiatives benefit everyone involved in the supply chain, according to Gornicki.
“Automotive companies are judged not only by their own carbon footprint but also the carbon footprint of their vendors. If they’re using commercial heat treat and atmospheric furnaces that all counts toward their carbon footprint. The incremental ability to shift from an existing atmosphere furnace to a vacuum line over time or have both processes on the same line can be advantageous,” he said.
The Automated Heat Treat Process
ECM has moved rapidly into automating additional heat treat processes. Beauchesne said the company will be installing its first robotic system in the United States later this summer, a system that will handle everything from parts, loading fixtures, loading the furnaces, cooling stations, temper ovens and returning the parts back to the customer.
“We’ve done a number of these around the world, and we want to have more in that marketplace, not just incorporate robotics with ECM equipment but also to be standalone loading/unloading systems in general,” Beauchesne said.
Gornicki added that upgrades to the baskets, the grids and other equipment benefits the move toward more automated systems. “We’re using Carbon-Carbon Composite (CFC) materials that don’t change shape. When you have wire baskets and old alloy that’s twisted and bent, robotics and automation doesn’t work as well,” he said.
The company plans to announce future robotic and automation capabilities later in 2022.
Solving the Heat Treat Skills Gap
The lack of skilled/qualified personnel remains one of the greatest obstacles. There are fewer people on the planet, in general, and a lack of material or thermal dynamics engineers graduating from universities. In order to find the right personnel, the company needs to be proactive.
“The engineers that developed many of these furnaces from the 70s and 80s have retired or moved on. Those skills and that expertise is not being proliferated into the coming generations,” Gornicki said.
The company combats the skills crisis by staying involved in educational and training developments at the association (ASM, AGMA) university (Colorado School of Mines) and corporate (internships, global outreach from France) levels.
The USA Synergy Center located at ECM’s Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin headquarters, showcases ECM equipment and provides pre-production testing. This fully functional test lab houses capabilities to perform many thermal processes across many markets. Customers can work with ECM USA experts on their future test projects to confirm and evaluate thermal processes using actual production equipment. After this process is concluded, production equipment specifications can be assembled into full equipment proposal and budgets can be prepared.
“One of the distinct advantages of vacuum technologies is that you develop a process, and you can literally download or e-mail it to somebody. They can run the exact same process,” Gornicki said. “Our Synergy Center allows us to develop the recipes that our customers ultimately run. You’ll get the same results whether you're in the testing facility or in the field.”
An Emphasis on R&D
Beauchesne said R&D at the Synergy Center is beneficial to the North American market, but ECM worldwide provides a variety of additional tools and resources in areas like semiconductors, battery technology, etc.
“With the help of our global network, we can provide the latest and greatest technology available out there—eMobility applications, for example—and incorporate those technologies in our vacuum furnace lines,” he added.
Future Considerations in Heat Treatment
ECM is interested in helping the entire gearing community bring their heat treat operations in-house.
“Many gear manufacturers have lower volumes that are actually using outside heat treat sources. They’re not happy due to the workflow or specification requirements. We’re interested in helping these organizations build a laboratory or install/upgrade their heat treat systems,” Beauchesne said.
Gornicki added that the company works with gearing engineers to help them understand why they should be specifying LPC vacuum carburizing as opposed to generic carburizing. “We try to work with them regarding their downstream needs, how they can machine and grind less and encourage them to bring the detail of the LPC onto their drawings and specifications,” he said.
ECM has a CMM in their Synergy Center to provide before and after heat treat testing regarding distortion control. NVH and distortion control are topics that are relevant as the EV market continues to gain traction.
“It’s not just about metallurgy anymore,” Beauchesne said. “We realize that noise is a huge part of gearing whether it's an e-drive vehicle or an ICE or a jet engine or a helicopter.”
For more information:
ECM USA, Inc.