Life inside a Furnace. A marketer’s tryst with the molten state of affairs.
My eyes took a few seconds to adjust to the dark ambiance. My ears though had their sensors tuned and took in what was initially a low creak of metal colliding over another. With every step, the sound gradually grew and went on to fill the entire place, as I came closer. A huge pile of metal scrap was getting bulldozed and I could only smile at this sight as I knew a scrumptious meal was underway. In a distance I saw an orange glow straight ahead on the huge wall and I walked right up there. My backpack sat heavily on my shoulders with the stack of documents loaded neatly inside and a laptop with the presentation. All primed for the meeting ahead. A briefcase on one hand with a product for demonstration that was planned later that day, pulling down a part of me. A portable Pyrometer inside. And that was a proud marketer on a mission under the roof of one of the biggest steel foundries of India, in Coimbatore.
As I began to climb the stairs to Plant Operations room, I knew there was a big challenge looming large. The challenge of selling the instrument, of course. But that involves, besides a successful demonstration, a more complex task of confronting the conservative mindset of people of this field, make them invest their psyche into what I was bringing to their table and build trust from there. That makes it selling a solution than just a product.
A Foundry is where metal scrap is heated in a furnace at a high temperature till it melts into its liquid form. It is then cast into desired shapes by pouring it into a mould and allowed to cool down to solidify. The shapes can be of a valve body or a pipe fitting or an automobile component or any other machinery depending on the mould.
Since the primary process involves heating the metal, one parameter that becomes fulcrum of the process is Temperature. So the measurement and continuous monitoring of it becomes very essential for the process to be very efficient. A typical steel foundry will have its process temperature at 1500° centigrade.
The furnace operators use conventional invasive methods to measure temperature. A popular and a very traditional method is using Thermocouples or as they call it, Dip Thermocouples, that are dipped into hot molten surface of steel. And at that high temperature, irrespective of its quality, the sensor gets consumed by liquid steel in seconds. So furnace operators have to use a new one, every time they take a reading or sometimes it may take a couple of sensors for a single reading. The math involving cost per dip, frequency of measurement and multiple furnaces in a foundry, tells that this consumable is a top fixture in operations budget. Thus the need for Pyrometers arises. Pyrometry is a non-invasive way of measuring surface temperature of an object with the thermal radiation emitted from it. In this case, surface of molten steel. Its salience comes in its non-contact working, portability, ease of use, data logging capabilities and therefore it very effectively replaces conventional methods in more than just one way.
The steel in foundries looks pretty in orange. But more importantly it looks vulnerable in its molten state, bereft of robustness that we usually associate with it. Much like water, they stir it, pour it and whatnot. It is this very steel that goes into the construction of our buildings and bridges, that tucks underneath as foundations and rises tall as columns supporting huge structures, that gives us everything from a safety pin to an aircraft. Keeping text book references to its tensile strength and ductility aside, to witness first hand, the fall of that very steel to mere molten juice and later the rise of it to its solidified mighty new form, it surely does elicit compassion and inspiration alike, reflecting on life itself. This makes it very tangible at 1500°.
And that was the very reason why I did not mind a tad deviation from the status quo to take a tour inside to have a conversation with the operators and take few pictures of the place and its functioning.
P.S. Yes! The demo that day was a grand success and the customer, a month later… Acquired!
Life inside a Furnace.
360° of 1500°. A photo series.