The primary function of furnaces and ovens is to heat things up, but how efficiently that function is performed is the primary directive of Applied Test Systems.
ATS was founded by producing equipment for non-destructive testing for materials, mostly metals, according to COO Rob Carroll. But that task soon dovetailed into custom-designed furnaces and ovens for a wide range of industries, including heat-treating.
“We just started adding product lines,” he said. “A lot of it was driven by customers requesting something they couldn’t find elsewhere in the market, who weren’t satisfied with what they had and what was available at the time.”
Some of those products were used for creep testing and stress-rupture testing, used primarily for the metals, aerospace, and nuclear industries, according to Carroll. In order to use that equipment, the product has to be heated correctly for testing, which involves high-temperature characterization of metals, ceramics, and composites.
“Those required a furnace,” he said. “And, at the time, we really couldn’t find any on the market that would hold the uniformity — the tight temperature profile required. It’s typically a three-zone application. We try to hold a very tight tolerance between those zones, so we developed our own line of furnaces specifically for that application.”
More products sprung from that, including a line of universal testing machines for tension and compression of materials, according to Carroll.
“From that grew a lot of requests for furnaces and ovens that customers couldn’t find in the market,” he said. “They couldn’t find the quality; they couldn’t find the temperature uniformity or just the options for their applications.”
With increasing customer demand, ATS slowly added a full line of high-temperature furnaces and ovens, according to Carroll. More often than not, those customer needs resulted in custom-made solutions, mainly because no one else was capable of fulfilling them.
“We filled that role,” he said. “And that line has continued to grow and evolve from that into different markets, different applications, and different customer bases where we now sell worldwide with a line of furnaces and ovens. We’re really known throughout the world in a lot of industries for our quality and the unique features we can offer.”
However, the results of those often-one-off custom solutions end up incorporated into ATS’ everyday product line, according to Carroll.
“We do have standard product offerings for the furnaces and ovens, but I’d say 80 percent of what ships here is custom,” he said. “It’s a standard design, but it’s tailored to that customer-specific application, be it temperature range, be it the zones, ports, you name it. There’s pretty much nothing we can’t tackle here, because we have the capability to add a lot of features to the product.”
In that vein, ATS can boast of many certifications, including ISO 9001 and ISO 17025, used for calibrating laboratory equipment.
Multiple heat-treat uses
And even though ATS doesn’t specifically cater to the heat-treat industry, so many of its products are used for heat treating, according to Robert Antolik, vice president of sales.
“We might not be known in the heat-treat industry, because we’re not heat-treat experts, but, yes, a lot of our furnaces are used in the heat-treat industry, but it’s all different industries that they’re used in,” he said. “We have people shooting microwaves through them. We have people using them on testing machines. Some of our competitors that build machines buy our furnaces. We have companies heating things as large as 20 tons in some of our units, and then we make a small unit that might heat something that’s a couple of ounces.”
That flexibility is where ATS’ custom-design engineering often comes into play, according to Antolik.
“The customer may want to heat up a pipe in a certain section, and it might go vertically 20 inches tall and then curve to the right,” he said. “We can make all the custom designs to make that furnace adapt to those shapes. And then, being in the industry of testing machines, we can add a lot of PLC-controlled motions. In the heat-treat industry, you have gas flows and things of that nature, and we can add all that to it.”
Antolik added that ATS is one of the few companies that can offer that capability.
“I like to say that we’re an engineering company first and want to design what you need and not sell you what we have,” he said.
Because ATS offers custom applications for its customers’ needs, the company considers itself on the high end of quality, according to Antolik.
“We build a product that’s long lasting that can be rebuilt time and time again, giving the customer a good long-term value for their investment,” he said.
Giving customers what they need begins with ATS’ highly trained sales people, according to Antolik.
“Most of us actually were in engineering at first, and we’re kind of oddballs that can speak, also,” he said with a laugh. “We know what the customer wants, and we can design things in our heads, and, every time there’s something different, it’s a fun challenge. And if it’s very difficult, quite often we’ll run that through our engineering department, and we’ll have development meetings — we call them highly-engineered meetings — to see if we can come up with a solution for the customer.”
Offering solutions to problems
When a customer comes to ATS not knowing where to begin, Antolik said those types of customers are the ones ATS can serve extremely well.
“That’s probably the best kind of customer,” he said. “Instead of them coming and telling you, ‘This is what I want,’ I prefer them to say, ‘This is what I’m doing; tell me what I need. I’d like to heat something to this temperature, and it’s this size,’ instead of them telling me, ‘I want this model.’ We do this every day.”
“It’s much better when they give us a problem, and we just give them a solution,” he said.
That customer approach seems to be paying off as Carroll pointed out ATS’ repeat customer base.
“We have extremely loyal customers, which I think is probably the biggest achievement any company can obtain,” he said. “Pretty much once we have a customer on board, it’s not common we would lose that customer. That repeat customer who knows your product, buys it.”
That customer base runs through many industries, as well as universities and government research facilities, according to Carroll.
“A lot of government testing facilities in the U.S. utilize our furnaces, ovens, and production facilities,” he said. “We’ll develop applications for production line use.”
Heat is heat
ATS has certainly moved with the times since opening its doors in 1965, but as Carroll pointed out: As far as heating goes, heat is heat.
“That really will never change,” he said. “Change has come mostly on the control side. Years ago, you had mercury contractors that operated furnaces. Now, you have smart SCRs that can tell you exactly what wattage and voltage and power consumption are being used.”
With many large laboratories throughout the world using ATS’ furnace and oven lines, the company is constantly developing quality products that often become new offerings, according to Carroll.
“There’s always something new we have in the works,” he said.
As ATS continues into the future, Carroll said the company will continue to develop niche applications where customers need excellent temperature uniformity.
“That’s become a very important driver in the heat-treat market, and it fulfills those needs where customers want to see the value in a product that’s going to be long lasting, not a throwaway product,” he said.
The need for furnaces and ovens across a variety of industries and academic settings will only expand, and Antolik said ATS will be there to make sure its customers have the highest quality equipment available.
“Like I always say about the heating industry, just about anywhere you go, there’s somebody who has to heat something,” he said. “That industry is going to continue to grow, and there’s nothing out there that’s going to replace it. I just think it’s a good market to be in.”
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