Meet an Endeavour Award winner – Norm Tucker, Heat Treatment Australia

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Heat Treatment Australia applies its expertise to high-value parts for areas including aerospace and defence, making them stronger, lighter and more durable. Brent Balinski spoke to the company about its expansion, which will see it open its new Los Angeles site in October.

Commercial heat treatment is not an industry a lot is said or written about.

It is a small, specialised area in Australia, and shrinking. According to Norm Tucker, Director – Operations at Heat Treatment Australia, the last four or five years have seen a major rationalisation of heat treatment shops locally, and this is likely to continue.

However, HTA has identified, nurtured and grown its place in its niche, through investment, patience and intense commitment. While others are in decline, it is doing the opposite.

About a decade ago, the Brisbane-based company saw the way forward as moving to a higher-value client base. This is a simple enough concept, and “moving up the value chain” has been advised repeatedly to industry over the years. It is, like many things, much easier to say than to do.

It hasn’t been easy – or cheap – for Tucker’s company, but investing in equipment, processes and more has been essential.

“It is a highly capital intensive business model and those companies not investing or who cannot afford to invest in new equipment and new technology are finding it difficult to succeed,” Tucker told Manufacturers Monthly, adding that capital investment and people were the two main components of the company’s business model.

“These are the key to our business and therefore we need to invest in and develop both of these key elements.  In terms of equipment investment, we always look to the newest available technology and in many cases push the equipment suppliers to drive the advancement of new technology.”

The investments (including in highly-specialised machines that can cost well north of a million dollars each) and going through rigorous certification processes have been crucial.

The company recently purchased a 25 bar vacuum brazing furnace (one of only three of its kind in the world available to service commercial users). Awaiting arrival are two new brazing furnaces (one for Brisbane and one for its newest site), a complete new lab of testing equipment, a rapid prototyping machine, and other capital investments.

Vacuum brazing bonds metal parts together in a furnace, without nuts or bolts, and resulting in extremely strong joints.

Other steps have included numerous accreditations, such as AS9100 QMS at the Brisbane site in 2008, NADCAP (National Aerospace and Defense Contractors Accreditation Program) approvals for vacuum hardening and tempering in 2009, and NADCAP approval for copper brazing and aluminium treatments in 2010.

It has received approvals for work with clients including Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Goodrich Landing Gear.

Lead times for such efforts are long, but are paying off. The business expects to double in size in the next five years. Projects ramping up include the Joint Strike Fighter, and opportunities that have followed from it. For this they have processed parts used in areas including “structural, weapons bay, missile and guidance.”

There is also movement into “new processes previously unavailable in Australia, including the important areas of titanium and additive manufacturing.”

HTA_Norm Tucker

“As a result of the early entry into supplying to the JSF program, we are also now supplying to multiple aerospace and defence platforms,” added Tucker.

And on October 27, the company will officially launch its fourth facility at Santa Fe Springs, about 20 minutes’ drive from Los Angeles.

It follows a busy few years for the family-run company, established in 1979, with numerous milestones as it’s moved from treating more basic metal items (such as lawnmower blades) to ones for critical applications.

Tucker heads R&D at HTA, and is “responsible from inception to implementation for these projects, and he knows each and every project intimately,” Karen Stanton, Tucker’s sister and the company’s Director of Corporate & Strategy, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“He works beyond what is the standard for other heat treatment companies to seek out the highest level, the newest technologies and to instigate new research and development programs.”

Tucker has lived heat treatment, learned through constant education (including in heat treatment, programmable logic control and project management), and attended many thermal process conferences and placements in companies in the highly-specialised industry, added Stanton.

Both Tucker and HTA have a high-profile in their industry community globally. Last year, for example, HTA won the Heat Treater of the Year Award from the USA’s Metal Treating Institute

The firm’s successes were also marked at this year’s Manufacturers’ Monthly Endeavour Awards, held in May in Melbourne.

Tucker’s work in the company’s journey – including a 30-plus year commitment to his industry, managing operations at all four sites, heading R&D, and helping ensure HTA is equipped and able to compete globally in its niche – saw him triumph in the Lifetime Achievement category.

As for the role that awards have played for the company, Stanton explained that they’re a “big piece of the puzzle that continues to motivate and inspire” businesses who strive for success. Also, the nomination process itself could be edifying.

“The actual application process is extremely beneficial as it forces the company to contemplate successes (and failures) and to consider how it has been achieved,” she said.

“You often uncover some great wins when you sit down to write an award nomination.”

The 2017 Endeavour Awards will be held on May 11 in Sydney. Nominations and more information can be found here.