Heat-treating is a way of strenghtening metal, and the demands on parts handled by Specialty Steel Treating Inc. are always increasing. “There’s a whole array of different heat-treat processes and applications,” Vice President Mark Sosnowski explains. “You heat-treat to strengthen parts for their planned service life.”
Among the processes offered by Specialty Steel Treating are gas and vacuum carburization; press-and-plug, roller and bath oil quenching; vacuum heat-treating,normalizing,carbonitriding and gas nitriding; and neutral and precipitation hardening. The company serves a variety of industries: 40 percent aerospace, 25 percent industrial, 10 percent truck, 8 percent heavy equipment, 7 percent rail, 5 percent automotive and 5 percent firearms.
The 60-year-old company has 94,000 square feet of manufacturing space in its three operating facilities in Fraser, Mich., where it is also headquartered. Manufacturing occupies44,000 square feet in Farmington Hills, Mich., and 42,000 square feet inEast Granby, Conn.A 31,000-square-foot distribution center for the company’s Michigan operations also is in Fraser.
Each plant has its specialty. The plant on Commerce Road in Fraser specializes in aerospace parts for commercial and military aircraft that are flight-critical, such as transmission gears, bearings and shafts. The plant on Malyn Road in Fraser produces tapered bearings. “We’ve grown the facility to do industrial and aerospace bearings as well as railroad wheel bearings,” Sosnowski says. “We are one of the only commercial heat treat companies to offer full CMM inspection of hardstock for our customers.”
Farmington Hills does more automotive and truck parts, and the East Granby facility produces aerospace parts for military and commercial aircraft and also parts for firearms as well as other industries.
Part quantities can range from five pieces for the aerospace industry to many thousands for the industrial and automotive industries. “The higher volumes are going to be at the Malyn and Farmington Hills facilities, and lower volume aerospace configurations will be processed within the Commerce facility,” Sosnowski says.
Certification and Inspection
Specialty Steel Treating was chosen for the pilot program of the National Aerospace and Defense Contractors Accreditation Program (Nadcap). Nadcap is a worldwide cooperative program of major companies designed to manage a cost-effective consensus approach to special processes and products, and provide continual improvement within the aerospace industries. Because Specialty Steel Treating participated in the pilot program of this accredidation program in 1994, it was the first company to be Nadcap-certified. The company’s variety of additional certifications, such as ISO 9002, TS 16949 and AS 9100, is one of its strongest competitive advantages.
Specialty Steel Treating Inc. inspects its parts and performs destructive and non-destructive testing on them. These inspections can include but are not limited to microhardness and microstructure, surface and core hardness and tensile strength.
“What we do in our metallurgical labs is we simply inspect the properties that we alter,” Sosnowski explains. “During case hardening, you’re putting a harder case on the part so the surface is harder than the center for wear resistance, but then there’s still relative ductility in the part. This design is desireable for certain gears and bearings to maximize service performance and life.
“Some of the tests are destructive, where we will cut or section a part to prepare for micro-analysis,” Sosnowski continues. “We will examine microstructures through one of our microscopes, and use one of our microhardness testers to test for case depth via a microhardness profile. A small sample of parts are sectioned for destructive testing and a larger sample of parts are hardness-tested. For some applications, we do 100 percent nondestructive testing via eddy-current testing.”
Specialty Steel Treating works with its customers to develop innovative and proprietary processes. “We have customers that we’ve been doing business with and grown with for well over 30 years. ” Sosnowski notes. “As they succeed, we succeed. Also, we are under very strict non-disclosure agreements with our customers. What we help develop here ourselves or together we keep to ourselves – it’s our intellectual property and our competive edge. We hold our partnerships with our customers to a very high standard.”
As far as competitive advantages, Sosnowski cites “our willingness to invest with our customers and our tight quality system that we have in place. We will never compromise quality or our customer’s brand image.” An example of Specialty Steel Treating’s willingness to invest in its business is the $1.6 million it spent recently to install an innovative furnace that is completely automated with multiple robots.
Besides long-time customers, the family owned and managed company also has long-time employees. “We have a low turnover because of our family history and the level of respect that management has for the all associates,” Sosnowski says.
Specialty Steel Treating recruits employees from technical colleges and through the internships it offers. “Where we’re having difficulty hiring is for the quality technicians and the more entry-level positions,” Sosnowski reports. The company offers its employees extensive in-house training both in small classroom groups and on the job.
“We have a solid training program,” Sosnowski asserts. This is crucial when employees are heat-treating challenging part configurations, such as large double spiral bevel gears for a helicopter transmission. These are challenging to heat treat to tight tolerances and hold to a very tight distortion limit. At times, operators’ work requires them to be near ovens that are operating from 300 F up to 1,800 F. It also can mean working with liquid nitrogen for processes that occur at minus 300 F.
Value Stream Mapping
Specialty Steel Treating has been achieving lean manufacturing milestones with value stream mapping. “We’ve taken processes and value stream mapped the entire process to identify areas of waste and redundancies in an effort to reduce lead times,” Sosnowski says. “We had lead times for some part families of over 30 days – now it’s less than 14 days – by identifying waste. We identify every touchpoint from paper to part – from the time an order is received until it is loaded on a truck – and every step along the way.”
Depending on the complexity, this process can take approximately a year. Specialty Steel Treating employees will use several walls of a conference room to diagram the entire production cycle of a part on sheets of paper that wrap around the room. Then sticky notes are placed on the diagram to identify every step in the manufacturing process. This creates a value stream map of the part’s current state, which enables employees to see where redundancies and waste occur.
Then the employees create a map of the new part-manufacturing process with all the action items and tasks listed in place on sticky notes that need to be done step-by-step to accomplish the improvement. These tasks and action items are tracked until each one is completed. “It’s a long process,” Sosnowski concedes. “The first one we did was a big one. Once you identify those, you try to fine-tune yourselves. Now we’re getting into small, more micro-processes vs. the whole macro-process.”
A similar approach by Specialty Steel Treating called the fast response board posts daily production and quality information to provide communication among different shifts – production runs 24/7 – and fast resolution to issues as they arise. “Each manager reports their department’s performance – and whether they had any problems the night before – so everybody knows what everybody is working on,” Sosnowski explains.
Sosnowski attributes the company’s success in its 60th year of business to three key points: performance, integrity and improvement. “Performance to exceed customer expectations with regard to quality, delivery and cost,” he lists. “Integrity to maintain the highest level of integrity to our customers and the industry. And improvement to maximize productivity and efficiency of all business activities through a program of continuous improvement.”
Specialty Steel Treating is in its third generation of family ownership and management, and the fourth generation is becoming involved in the business. For the future, the company expects additional growth in the aerospace and other sectors.
“We’re going to continue to invest in current and new technology,” Sosnowski says. “We are big players in gas and vacuum carburizing, and we will continue to invest in our ability to control quench distortion on challenging configurations. We are also considering new processes and services that we don’t even do today.”
Sosnowski forecasts offering additional processes, in the next two years. “Our continued success is driven by forming partnerships with our customers,” he continues. “Not only do we continue to supply the highest quality in the industry, our service and focus on specific customer needs is paramount to our growth and success. We continuously seek ways to improve our processes and services. We strive to better ourselves, our equipment and our industry presence as we build loyalty with partnering customers.”
Employees are crucial to Specialty Steel Treating’s success. “Our associates’ job satisfaction is evident by the tenure of our associates,” he adds. “While there are new team members being added to the company as growth continues, the average tenure of the team member is over 15 years, and many associates have well over 25 and 30 years with the company.”
“People make a company,” Sosnowski emphasizes. “We have exceptional associates at Specialty Steel at every level. The dedication, service and expertise our staff presents to the company and industry go from the president to each associate, and this is the main reason for our success throughout the years.”