Why Buy a Flame Hardening Machine?

Flame Heads

I’ve been working with a lot of folks lately trying to decide whether there is a business case for buying their own flame hardening machines, so I thought this might be a great blog topic. These are folks who range from family-owned machine shops to multinational companies.

A machine shop needs to be as flexible as possible, set up to do just about anything. They might get repeated orders of the same item, but those are the exceptions – and it’s rare that a business case can be made for a  flame hardening machine based on one customer’s purchase order. In these cases, it’s best if the machine shop looks at flame hardening as an additional service which they can offer to increase revenue and diversify their customer base.

Manufacturers are set up to do one or a few things in great numbers. They need to sharpen their pencils when determining the return on investment (ROI) of using commercial heat treating for their flame hardening vs. captive heat treating. It isn’t always obvious which is the best value. Usually tangential costs determine the decision, such as: the outsourced parts aren’t being done in a way that satisfies customers in the field, or the commercial heat treatment facility isn’t turning the parts around fast enough. Manufacturers decide they want to control the outcome of the heat treating process for reasons like these, even if it appears they are spending more upfront for a capital purchase than they do for an outsourced service.

The most obvious business case for bringing a flame hardening machine in-house occurs when quantities are high enough to calculate ROI in which the machine pays for itself over a year or two. Many of our customers do in fact reach this ROI goal. But other advantages include doing work just in time, you have control over the results and quality measurements, and in the case of a flame hardening machine, it only costs money when you run it (often a furnace has to run much longer than it is used, to warm up and stay at temperature). So measuring the true cost of the equipment needs to take into these considerations. We also find that once a company has a machine, they tend to find new applications for it. Because it’s easy to design new flame heads and set them up, flame hardening machines adapt well to today’s lean manufacturing environment.

But if you are a heat treater – either for a manufacturer doing it in-house or a commercial heat treater that’s performing the service for a manufacturer – you are most likely fighting a value and educational battle in getting funding for flame hardening. In my 25 years in the business, it looks to me like most manufacturers see heat treating as the “red-headed stepchild” in the process. They will spend half a million to a million dollars on brand new CNC facilities that turn out gorgeous milled steel parts, then balk at putting down $50,000 or $100,000 on machines that harden areas of those parts, leaving the parts only blackened, not shiny like before, and without any visible change that reflects the hardening of the steel surface that’s been treated. It’s hard enough to make capital purchases when the results are easily gauged by the naked eye, but try doing it for purchases with invisible results! Take heart – it can be done.

Where I’ve seen the business case get very easy for purchasing flame hardening equipment is when manufacturers want to improve the lifespan and performance of their flame hardened parts, and/or need to update their processes because they are losing trained personnel to retirement.  These concerns often drive a company to embrace a continuous improvement objective that will include a purchase of new, updated equipment that has more standardized operations, which leads to easier training and better measurement and controls. All this brings their production quality up to higher standards. Throw in the greater flexibility that an engineered flame hardening machine provides, allowing for easier takedowns and setups for new kinds of parts, and ROI is quickly realized.

I hope this helps if you are out there wanting to invest in new flame hardening machines and processes. Call me if I can be of any help. 919-956-5208, or mark@flametreatingsystems.com.