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Solar Atmospheres Inc.

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High-Tech Vacuum Heat Treating Firm Develops Global Reach in Metal Processing

Heat Treating
R&D and engineering are value-added assets for customers

Mark Shortt
Editorial Director
Design-2-Part Magazine

Product manufacturers that are facing metal processing challenges have, literally, hundreds of heat treating companies to choose from. Although most of them know how to heat treat steel, it's not so easy to find heat a treater with expertise in titanium hydriding and degassing. "How about a heat treater that can vacuum stress-relieve 36-foot long titanium weldments with a maximum end-to-end flatness tolerance of 0.030 inch or less?" says Tim Williams, marketing manager for Solar Atmospheres, Inc., a vacuum heat treating, brazing, and carburizing company headquartered in Souderton, Pennsylvania. "Or try to find a heat treater that can build a complex low-pressure vacuum carburizing process from the ground up."

The point is well taken: Solar Atmospheres provides more than simple heat treating services. Instead, its dedication to R&D and engineering enables the company to meet the changing needs and requirements of companies in various markets. "Solar Atmospheres has PhD and engineering specialists in place to evaluate and help bring processes to fruition that have never been done before," said Williams in an email message to D2P Magazine. "Always thinking about new processes and technologies ensures Solar is in a position to meet the needs of an ever-changing marketplace, no matter what the exact market."

Solar Atmospheres (www.solaratm.com) has been solving customers' metal processing challenges since its founding in 1983 by current CEO William R. Jones. Today, Solar Atmospheres is known for its use of energy efficient, cost-effective, and technologically advanced vacuum heat treating and brazing furnaces that eliminate oxidation, minimize distortion, and provide customers with bright, scale-free results. The company's furnaces range from lab size to 36 feet in length.

Earlier this year, Solar Atmospheres Founder and CEO William R. Jones was named the winner of the 2010 Eastern Pennsylvania and Region 3 Small Business Exporter of the Year awards. In a statement from the Small Business Administration's Philadelphia District, Dave Dickson, the SBA's Philadelphia District Director, said that the award recognizes "an individual who uses creative overseas marketing strategies and effective solutions to export-related problems to grow their business." The SBA also applauded Jones for his enterprising initiative and contributions to the nation's business community and economy.

The award recognized Jones' achievements in establishing an international market for the vacuum furnace systems manufactured by Solar Atmospheres' sister company, Solar Manufacturing. Solar has sold eight furnaces, which provide heat treating, brazing, carburizing, and nitriding of metal parts, to international customers ranging from commercial heat-treaters to aircraft component manufacturers and captive in-house heat treating operations. Among its clients are one company in Australia, two in China, one in Russia, and four in Singapore. The company has also rebuilt furnaces currently being used in Mexico, Israel, Taiwan, and Korea. Its international clients, Williams says, are using the furnaces most often for aerospace parts and specialty metals applications.

Several of the company's top suppliers are also U.S.-based small businesses. Solar's materials, quality, and engineering personnel regularly spend time training and coaching these suppliers to help them improve their businesses. The company has assisted in developing new processes and products, as well as documentation ranging from legal documents, such as Non-Disclosure Agreements, to ISO compliant quality procedures. "We actively support vendors to be better suppliers to Solar, which in turn has assisted them in being more competitive in a global market," says Williams.

Solar Atmospheres operates three plant sites in the Souderton, Pa., area, and one in Hermitage, Pennsylvania. The company will also be opening a new plant in Fontana, Calif., next month that will serve the states of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Oregon, as well as Washington, Idaho, and Utah. Today, Solar services customers in the aerospace, titanium, electrical power generation, and oil and gas markets, among others.

Examples of the types of parts that the company heat-treats for these industries are many. For the aerospace industry, Solar Atmospheres provides heat treating of landing gear components, structural airframe components, engine components, main shafts and blades, floor grid assemblies (seat tracks), window and cockpit frames, and raw material (titanium) for aerospace end use. In the power generation market, the company heat treats blades and vane segments for gas turbine generators, and Inconel bar stock up to 36 feet long for down-hole drilling and compressor pump housings. "We also braze heat exchangers for solar power and use diffusion bonding hard face coatings on boiler tubes," says Williams.

Solar's services provide customers with advantages that ultimately lower their total cost. Its value-added approach leads to less downstream processing, allowing customers to save time. And because Solar's vacuum heat treating produces low distortion and no oxidation, parts can be produced to near net shapes.

"First, using vacuum can eliminate or significantly reduce costly, post-heat-treat cleaning or finishing operations," Williams points out. "Many parts come out of a vacuum furnace clean and bright, and may be delivered directly to the customer. Second, for tool steel and certain high-strength steel grades, gas quenching may be employed, which is less severe and creates less distortion than oil quenching. This typically translates into elimination or reduction of post-heat-treat straightening operations. Third, having the ability to process massive loads means high-volume customers may realize a savings simply by way of volume.

"For a heat treater, loading and unloading a furnace is a cost," he continues. "Handling fewer load changeovers allows us to typically pass along cost savings. Lastly, again related to massive loads, Solar is able to deliver more parts in less time, meaning customers can reap the benefits of meeting their customer's delivery requirements with less overall logistical cost and redundant paperwork."

California Plant will Serve Growing Heat Treating Market

Solar Atmospheres broke ground in May for a new plant in Fontana, California, that will serve the aerospace and other industries on the West Coast. Headed by President Derek Dennis, the new Solar Atmospheres of California facility is scheduled to open officially in the first week of September. In addition to aerospace applications, the plant will handle applications that include high-end metallurgy (titanium, tantalum, and columbium); alloys of stainless steel; and the heat treatment of tool steels. Solar Atmospheres CEO William Jones called the decision to build the Fontana plant, at a cost of approximately $9 million, "a major and serious decision considering the current market conditions." But he's confident that the project will be worth the investment in the long run: The company is projecting sales of $12 million in two years.

"From market research, Solar determined that the heat treating business for the greater Los Angeles area is currently over $100 million per year," Jones wrote in an email to D2P. "We believe that with our high quality and high production operation, coupled with attentive customer service and our new state-of-the-art vacuum furnaces, the market will easily support our company's new venture. We have done extensive market testing with key customers to support our conclusions."

The new plant site is located in San Bernardino County, slightly northeast of where Interstate 15 and 10 intersect. It's approximately 40 miles east of downtown Los Angeles in the area known as the "Inland Empire." Once in full production, the company will run a 24/7, five-shift operation that's expected to start in mid 2011, according to Jones. Solar Atmospheres of California is expected to employ about 30 people within the first two years of operation. Although most personnel will be from the local area, selected specialists will be relocating from the Solar East Coast plants to assist in the initial plant start-up.

All furnaces for the new plant are engineered and built by Solar's sister company, Solar Manufacturing. The new plant will start with four production furnaces of varying sizes: a 24-ft deep, high performance, car bottom type vacuum furnace with load capacity of 50,000 lbs; a six-ft deep, 10 bar quenching capability, high vacuum furnace that can process up to 3,000-lb loads and will allow processing of many types of parts, including those requiring Solar's patented low-pressure vacuum carburizing service; a five-ft deep, 2 bar cooling, high vacuum furnace; and a five-ft deep, re-circulating air temper furnace. Jones described some examples of the different types of parts suited to each of these processing furnaces.

"The 24-foot car bottom furnace is ideally suited for processing titanium and high alloy stainless steel materials for aircraft production, and other materials like long tubing or pipe," he stated. "This would include titanium forgings and heat treatment of various sheet metal-like materials. The double z-car loading system allows Solar to semi-continually process with limited to zero downtime for setups.

"The six-foot deep vacuum furnace with 10-bar quenching capabilities is well suited for processing gearing, bearings, and shafts for all types of aircraft engines, transmission, landing gear and the like, as well as high alloy tooling, such as 4340 grades. The 2-bar vacuum furnace is specifically aimed to vacuum braze aircraft alloys, defense-related materials, and medical or electrical applications, like the heat treatment of electrical super conducting coils. The five-foot re-circulating air temper furnace will be used for tempering, aging, and stress relieving of materials from the 2-bar vacuum furnace and the heat treating and aging of certain aluminum materials."

The three most common categories of furnaces, according to Jones, are horizontal front loading, vertical pit or top loading, and vertical bottom loading furnaces. "A car bottom furnace is a version of a horizontal front loading furnace where the entire bottom rolls forward or backward from the main furnace section, like a railroad car," he explains. "Work is loaded directly on to the car and moved back in to the furnace. With a vacuum furnace, the main round vacuum vessel is intact and the car slides out from inside the chamber, and is part of the hot zone bottom."

To reduce and minimize setup time, Solar utilizes a double load-car loading system. While one car is processing parts in the furnace, workers are setting up the other load-car for the next job. "When the cycle is completed and the load is removed, the next job is ready for immediate loading," says Jones. "This allows Solar to operate efficiently and maximize equipment throughput and, more importantly, meet or exceed our customers' required lead-times."

Earlier this year, Solar Atmospheres of Western Pa. (SAWPA) signed a long-term supply agreement with RTI International Metals, Inc., to provide vacuum heat treating, vacuum creep forming, and fluorescent liquid penetrant inspection of structural titanium components manufactured by RTI for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Solar is the exclusive vacuum heat treater for the 787 PAX Floor Pi-Box Seat Track Program.

"The new 787 seat track consists of a Ti6-4 extrusion that is laser welded with Ti 6-4 strips to form a box," says Williams. "We take this warped weldment and vacuum stress-relieve it, while simultaneously creep flattening the weldment to within 0.030 inch over the 32-foot length. Then Solar dimensionally inspects each piece, followed by a 100% liquid penetrant inspection of the welds."

One of the emerging power generation sectors on the West Coast, especially in states like California, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah, is geothermal power. Many of the components needed for underground geothermal systems are similar to the types of piping and tubing required by the oil and gas industry. We asked Jones if Solar Atmospheres might, at some point, provide heat treating services to the geothermal power industry.

"It is possible," said the company's CEO. "Some of the piping or tubing that we currently process is for customers in California. The end application may well be chemical, aircraft, or geothermal. We process tubing and piping to many industries where we don't always know the end application or customer. Some of the materials we process end up in petrochemical, electric power generation, and other industries."

High-Temperature R&D Vacuum Furnace Supports DoE Mission

Just last month, Solar Manufacturing shipped a new Model VTL-714 Vertical Top Loading high temperature R&D furnace to the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), in Albany, Oregon. Owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), NETL is part of DOE's national laboratory system; it supports DOE's mission to advance the national economic and energy security of the United States. The new furnace, a model VTL-714, will be used to homogenize and heat treat refractory alloys, according to Pete Reh, vice president of sales for Solar Manufacturing. It will also perform diffusion couple experiments and other proprietary heat treat work, he said.

"This is the second vacuum furnace that Solar Manufacturing has shipped to NETL in Albany, Oregon," said Reh in a statement. "The first furnace shipped in 2006 was a model HFL-2624-2EQ."

The Model VTL-714 Vertical Top Loading, high-temperature R& D vacuum furnace offers a Hot Zone size of 7.5-inch diameter x 14 inches high. Its maximum operating temperature is 3000 degrees Fahrenheit; insulation is graphite felt with FlexShield hot face. The vacuum furnace also includes graphite heating elements, a 35 CFM two-stage vacuum pumping system, and a partial gas system of argon and nitrogen. The controls are SolarVac 3000, including Honeywell DCP 550 and Allen-Bradley Micrologix 1500.

This technical information has been contributed by
Solar Atmospheres Inc.

Click on Company Name for a Detailed Profile

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