For years, companies and manufacturers in the specialty metals industry have been unable to identify certain defects in the metals, or ingots, caused during the vacuum arc remelting (VAR) and electro-slag remelting (ESR) processes. Imperfections that occur during VAR melting can cause catastrophic failure during the ingot’s final application. Manufacturers complete thorough nondestructive testing of all ingots before sales to ensure that they eliminate defects that could lead to failures prior to sales, thus avoiding potential safety risks from parts made from these materials.
The added cost and inefficiency of such testing and the safety risks associated with the lack of control over furnace operations during the VAR process did not sit well with many manufacturers. Enter the National Energy Technology Laboratory’s (NETL) arc position sensing (APS) technology.
Developed by Drs. Paul King and Rigel Woodside, the APS system allows manufacturing operators to digitally monitor arc location during melting in real time through noninvasive magnetic sensing. Based on NETL’s patented electric current locator (ECL) technology, the APS technology utilizes the Maxwell-Ampere Law to relate magnetic fields to electric currents in cases where diffuse current paths are not available, such as in VAR and ESR melting.
Through a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) established between NETL and the Specialty Metals Processing Consortium, King and Woodside completed research and development (R&D) of the APS technology in 2009 while Woodside was working on his doctorate under Dr. King’s tutelage at Oregon State University. During that time, both King and Woodside were employed by NETL. Much of the initial development of the APS system took place at NETL in Albany, Oregon, and was validated on an industrial VAR at Allegheny Technologies, Incorporated’s (ATI) Albany operations, where continuous operating data that was collected revealed exciting new operating characteristics and conditions that had previously been inaccessible through traditional measurements.
Shortly after completion of the technology, King and Woodside began to receive considerable interest from industry, as well as several accolades. In 2013, the APS system earned an R&D 100 Award as one of the year’s top innovations and an FLC Far West Regional Award for Outstanding Technology. In 2010 Woodside also received the IEEE 12MTC Best Graduate Paper Award for his outstanding development of the APS technology.
Based on the positive industry feedback, King and Woodside knew they had a novel technology that could be commercialized to benefit the specialty metals processing market. In 2014, King left NETL to focus on commercializing the APS technology. The two formed KW Associates, LLC, later that year, and in 2016 began doing business as Ampere Scientific (AmpSci).
In 2015, AmpSci undertook a service contract with ATI to design, build and install an industrial hardening APS system at the company’s Millersburg location. AmpSci’s work was awarded an Oregon BEST Commercialization Gap Grant to further develop the APS system and create an online tool for arc event identification.
AmpSci has since deployed the APS system, now branded VARmetric, which includes software tools ObserVAR and AnalyVAR, and which allows operators to see inside the remelting process as well as define, detect, and process arc distribution data during melting. AmpSci often compares VARmetric’s visual detection capability for remelting furnace systems as similar to that of an MRI machine to the human body, in that before its existence operators were unable to see the full parameters and data of their work. In addition to advancements in the technology, the company has grown from two employees to five, and is looking to add more in the near future as the product and clientele progress.
The development of the APS system, VARmetric, and the success of AmpSci continue to evolve and provide safety-critical, energy-efficient applications to a growing number of industry manufacturers.
The APS system has truly revolutionized the specialty metals manufacturing industry by allowing operators to physically see, obtain and analyze data from the VAR melting process that was not possible before the development of this technology. In using the APS technology as the driving force behind the additional tools that AmpSci is developing, manufacturers and operators agree that VAR analysis capabilities have advanced far beyond what anyone in the industry thought possible. In addition, the specialty metals industry will save millions of dollars in energy costs due to a drastic decrease in nondestructive ingot testing that previously would frequently occur. The success of this commercialized technology continues to reach its full potential as many companies in the industry begin to adopt the APS-driven VARmetric system and apply it to their commercial needs.