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21/10/2018 How to Determine the Best Heat Treatment for Your Parts

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How to Determine the Best Heat Treatment for Your Parts

Many metal parts can be tailored to speci c applications with heat


treatments. But engineers should know the details on various types of
treatments to get the most out of them.

Rich Johnson, Edward Rolinski, Mike Woods | Oct 12, 2018

Long before many of today’s technological advances, people have heat-treated


metals to improve their physical and chemical properties for a given application.
In the middle ages, blacksmiths forged and tempered metals (albeit in a
relatively crude fashion) to create blades, tools, and goods for everyday life.
Now, metallurgists and material engineers have a much broader array of
specialized techniques and equipment to tailor materials to specific applications.

But there are many different heat treatments, such as quenching, tempering,
aging, stress relieving, and case hardening. To eliminate confusion, here’s a look
h h l ih h i
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at the most common heat treatments, along with their purposes and their pros
and cons.

This shaft is undergoing induction hardening. Localized heating on the shaft


(red/white glow) is immediately followed with a sprayed-water quench that
rapidly cools it.
Annealing

Annealing involves elevating a metal’s temperature until it is in an equilibrium


state, as defined by its phase diagram. It is used to change the metal’s physical
properties such as its hardness, but there can also be local chemical changes,
depending on phase transitions. Annealing treatments usually follow machining
processing, such as machining and grinding, or even other heat treatments such
as quenching.

Quench and tempering. Quenching involves heating steel above its critical
temperature and holding it there long enough to let the microstructure fully
change to an austenite phase. The steel is then quenched, a process that rapidly
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cools the steel by placing it in water, oil, or a polymer solution. This “freezes” its
microstructure. What the steel is quenched in to cool controls the cooling rate,
and the cooling rate determines the post-quench microstructure.

Metallurgists use the metal’s time-temperature-transformation diagram (TTT


diagram) to predict the resulting microstructure, whether martensite, bainite, or
pearlite. With these structures, ferrous alloys with a carbon composition greater
than 0.3wt%. can be extremely hard (>60 HRC), especially the martensite
structure. But the increased hardness comes with decreased toughness.

Tempering, an annealing process, follows quenching. Steel becomes extremely


hard and brittle after quenching, so it undergoes another step to reduce its
hardness and increase its ductility, all while maintaining its microstructure.

Metal parts are loaded into baskets, then pulled into the carburization furnace
at Advanced Heat Treat Corp. There, they will be heated above the metal’s
critical temperatures.

Tempering a steel below its critical temperature lets it retain its martensitic
structure but, if tempered long enough, it gets converted to a mix of ferrite and
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structure but, if tempered long enough, it gets converted to a mix of ferrite and
small carbides, the exact size of which depends on the tempering temperature.
This makes the steel softer and more ductile. The key tempering parameters are
temperature and time, and they must be precisely controlled to create the
desired final hardness. Lower temperatures maintain higher hardness while
removing internal stresses, and higher temperatures reduce hardness.

After initial casting or machining, quenching and tempering gives the steel the
hardness and strength for making parts with material characteristics. Parts can
then be machined to a final state. Quenching and tempering distorts the metal,
so parts always go through these two processes before final machining. For parts
with additional heat treat processes used to modify surface properties, quench
and temper determine a part’s core properties such as hardness, strength, and
ductility. (Additional surface hardening treatments will be covered later.)

Stress relieving. Stress relieving, an annealing step, follows grinding, cold


working, welding, or final machining, and is done after the metal has been
quenched and tempered to a desired microstructure and strength. This means
special consideration must be given to ensure the workpiece is not annealed too
closely to its tempering temperatures. This prevents changing the previously
achieved hardness and microstructure.

Stress relieving removes internal dislocations or defects, making the metal more
dimensionally stable after final processing, such as gas or ion nitriding. Stress
relieving is not intended to significantly change the metal’s physical properties;
changes to hardness and strength are, in fact, unwanted.

Precipitation hardening. Precipitation hardening is a special annealing step also


known as age hardening due to certain metals hardening over time at sub-
critical temperatures. As noted, this method of strengthening metals is limited to
those that have undergone quenching and are an over-saturated solution,
meaning the material is in a non-equilibrium state with regard to the phases
present.

In these alloys, the over-saturated martensite solution is heated (500° to 550°C)


and held for 1 to 4 hours, letting precipitates uniformly nucleate and grow. This
results in a non-distorted, high tensile and yield strength steel with better wear
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y Heat Treatmentg for Your Parts
properties than in its unaged condition. The precipitate phases, composition,
and sizes depend on the alloy being aged, but all have the same general effect of
strengthening the material.

Not all ferrous alloys are eligible for this hardening mechanism, but martensitic
stainless steels such as 17-4, 15-5, and 13-8 are excellent candidates, as well as
maraging steels. (The term “maraging” combines the two words "martensitic"
and "aging." Those steels have superior strength and toughness without losing
malleability, but they cannot hold a good cutting edge. Aging refers to the
extended heat-treatment process.) In these alloys, the over-saturated martensite
solution is heated (500° to 550°C) and held for 1 to 4 hours, letting precipitates
uniformly nucleate and grow. This results in a non-distorted, high tensile and
yield strength steel with better wear properties than in its unaged condition.

Induction hardening. Induction hardening is much like quenching, with one


distinct difference: Heating in induction hardening is selective. That’s because in
induction hardening, heating is carried done by via magnetic coils designed to
match the part’s geometry. This means critical part features can be hardened
while the part’s core is not. Instead, the core retains the metal’s strength and
ductility. Just as in traditional quenching, it is done using water, oil, or a
polymer solution.

Induction hardening can be done on steels with a carbon content greater than
0.3wt%, and to parts with sizes and geometries that can have induction coils
designed for them. Induction hardening also significantly reduces processing
times needed to harden parts and decreases the risk of decarburization. Unlike
traditional heating and quenching, induction is a surface-limited heat treatment
with hardened depths ranging from 0.5 to 10 mm.

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Transmission hubs are gas nitrided in stacks, which lets the nitriding gases
(ammonia) flow between parts to fully heat treat the surfaces. Parts are
stacked as high as the vessel’s working volume to maximize the process’s
efficiency.

Case Hardening

Case hardening heat treatments, which includes nitriding, nitrocarburizing,


carburizing, and carbonitriding, alter a part’s chemical composition—unlike
previously mentioned annealing techniques—and focus on its surface properties.
These processes create hardened surface layers range from 0.01 to 0.25 in. deep,
depending on processing times and temperatures. Making the hardened layer
thicker incurs higher costs due to additional processing times, but the part’s
extended wear life can quickly justify additional processing costs. Material
experts can apply these processes to provide the most cost-effective parts for
specific applications.

Carburization and carbonitriding. Carburization is ideal for parts requiring


extra hardening on the surface for wear resistance but need a softer core for
superior strength. Carburization is a high temperature process (900 to 950°C)
that involves the addition and diffusion of carbon into the steel. Those
temperatures are above steel’s critical temperature, so subsequent quenching
lets the carbon-rich surface form martensite while the core remains a softer
ferrite and/or pearlite structure. Hardened depths can be as thick as 0.25 in.,
depending on the amount of time the part spends soaking at carburization
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How to Determine the Best Heat Treatment for Your Parts

temperatures.

As mentioned, the advantage of carburization is a deep wear resistance layer


with high hardness. This is ideal for gears, blades, and cutting tools.
Carburization creates hard, durable parts from lower cost alloyed steels and low
carbon steels, such as 1008, 1018, and 8620. For alloys with higher carbon
content (>0.3wt% carbon), carburization has minimal or even detrimental
effects because the carbon in the original alloy could lead to a through-
hardened, or bulk martensite structure. It should be noted also, that
carburization temperatures cause some part distortion.

For lower carbon steels without significant amounts of alloying elements that
promote hardening, adding nitrogen to the process can increase surface
hardness. Adding nitrogen is called carbonitriding. Carbonitriding is commonly
performed at slightly lower temperatures than carburizing (850°C), so distortion
is less, but it also reduces hardening depths (for comparable processing time).
The hardened surface created during carbonitriding, while thinner, does have
greater hardness and resistance to elevated processing temperatures (such as
tempering and stress relieving.)

Nitriding and nitrocarburizing. The alternative to the high temperature


carburizing/carbonitriding is nitriding/nitrocarburizing. It also produces
hardened surface layers and similar wear resistances, but it diffuses nitrogen
throughout the surface layer (not carbon), and it uses sub-critical processing
temperatures. Typical temperature ranges for nitriding range from 450° to
575°C. This means parts can be processed in their final machined state and
undergo little to no distortion, so little post-nitriding machining is required (if
any). The lower temperatures also maintain the desired core microstructure and
physical properties while modifying the surface layer for the given application.
One note to consider when selecting nitriding: Inform the heat treater as to any
stress relief, aging, or tempering temperatures to prevent altering core
properties.

Unlike carburization, which is limited to lower-carbon-content steels, a broad


range of alloys can be given surface hardnesses of 600 to 1,200 Hv via nitriding.
But alloys best suited for nitriding typically contain nominal amounts of the
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microalloying elements: Cr, V, Ti, Al, and Mo. Nitriding can be extremely
beneficial for stainless and tool steels containing large amounts of chromium
(10+wt%). These nitrided steels can have surface hardness well above 70 HRC
equivalent, perfect for long-term wear resistance.

Nitriding is not limited to these types of ferrous alloys either, as low carbon
steels can be hardened as well. In addition to creating a hardened, wear resistant
surface, nitriding also forms a compound zone. Compound zones are nitrogen-
rich layers formed on the surface during nitriding which are hard, wear-resistant
(>60 HRC equivalent), and corrosion-resistant. This benefits low carbon and
low alloyed steels which would not be considered for harsh environmental
conditions if not for the presence of a compound zone.

Depth of hardening for nitrided/nitrocarburized alloys typically range from


0.005 to 0.030 in., depending on the process’s time and temperatures. Deeper
hardened layers require more time. Compound zone thicknesses can be up to
0.002-in. thick, and it’s a function of which alloy is being nitrides, the time, and
temperature. How the part is nitrided also affects zone depth. Nitriding can be
performed via gas or ion (plasma).

Gas nitriding uses cracked ammonia as the nitrogen source and is done in a
positive-pressure environment. It’s ideal for large quantity batch processing and
is also excellent with regards to temperature uniformity and nitriding parts with
deep holes or channels. Gas nitriding is not recommended for porous parts
because gas flowing through pores can cause severe embrittlement.

Ion nitriding is excellent for selectively nitriding, since parts can be masked off
from the plasma to prevent nitriding. Ion nitriding is performed by applying a
potential electrical difference across an anode and the part (the cathode) in a
vacuum. This potential difference forms a nitrogen plasma (a unique purple
glow) which forces nitrogen atoms into the part’s exposed surfaces.

Plasma nitriding is well-suited to alloys, such as stainless steels, since it quickly


breaks down passive oxide surfaces. Typically, ion nitrided steels have thinner
compound zones than their gas nitrided counterparts due to the plasma’s
constant sputtering. But this can be ideal for certain applications, such as gears,
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where contact stresses could harm surfaces with excessive compound zones.

A purple glow surrounds these parts being ion (plasma) nitrided. It is caused
by ionized and excited nitrogen molecules and atoms bombarding the part
surface due to the applied potential. Only surfaces exposed to the plasma are
nitrided.

In comparing nitriding and nitrocarburizing, the latter is typically performed at


higher temperatures (575°C) and a source of carbon is used. The addition of
carbon forms a harder, more wear-resistant, and higher lubricious layer. Thicker
compound zones can also be formed by nitrocarburization. For comparison, a
pure nitrogen nitriding environment forms a hard and wear-resistant layer, but
less so than nitrocarburization. So why not always introduce use
nitrocarburization? Introducing carbon can increase the surface porosity, which
is bad for parts with large contact stresses. The resulting layer is also less ductile.

Material selection also drives which processing techniques are best for an
application.

This general guideline explains an array of heat treatments. But it is important


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s ge e a gu de e e p a sHow
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for engineers to keep in mind the following questions about their part design
when considering heat treatments: What forces are my parts subjected to? What
environment are they working in? Does the application require distinct
properties for the surface, core, or particular surface regions? The answer will
guide the selection.

This was written by Rich Johnson (materials & process manager), Edward
Rolinski (sr. scientist), and Mike Woods (president) at Advanced Heat Treat
Corp. If you have any questions regarding heat treatments, please feel free to
contact them at 319-232-5221.

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