Now that's what I call Process Improvement
- June 14, 2011
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The basic process of heat-treating steel has changed little in the modern age, and engineer Suresh Babu is one of few researchers worldwide who still study how to tune the properties of steel in detail. He’s an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Ohio State, and Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Center for Integrative Materials Joining for Energy Applications, headquartered at the university.
“Steel is what we would call a ‘mature technology.’ We’d like to think we know most everything about it,” he said. “If someone invented a way to strengthen the strongest steels even a few percent, that would be a big deal. But 7 percent? That’s huge.”
Yet, when inventor Gary Cola initially approached him, Babu didn’t know what to think.
“The process that Gary described – it shouldn’t have worked,” he said. “I didn’t believe him. So he took my students and me to Detroit.”
Cola showed them his proprietary lab setup at SFP Works, LLC., where rollers carried steel sheets through flames as hot as 1100 degrees Celsius and then into a cooling liquid bath.
Though the typical temperature and length of time for hardening varies by industry, most steels are heat-treated at around 900 degrees Celsius for a few hours. Others are heated at similar temperatures for days.
Cola’s entire process took less than 10 seconds.
So, better product, shorter process, less energy input required… what was the tradeoff again? Just a great example that sometimes an improvement is just that: an improvement.