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Local firm still hot in 100th year of heat-treating work

Surface Combustion has 675 patents, loyal buyers

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    Assembler Bernie King works on a multichamber vacuum furnace at Surface Combustion’s Waterville factory.

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    Assembler Jerry Hoffman welds at Surface Combustion’s Waterville factory. The firm was on Dorr Street for years.

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    Bernard

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In its 100-year history, Surface Combustion Inc. has manufactured furnaces used for everything from building cymbals to burning warheads.

The Maumee firm, incorporated June 22, 1915, celebrates its centennial Friday.

“Everybody always wondered, ‘What’s this weird name?’ ” said Chief Executive William Bernard, Jr., who has been with the firm since 1969. “Actually, surface combustion is a patented technology.”

PHOTO GALLERY: Click here to view slideshow

The company produces a variety of industrial furnaces and heat processing equipment and has 675 patents. Although the firm started in the Bronx, N.Y., financier and oilman Henry L. Doherty bought and moved the company to Toledo’s Dorr Street in 1928. He favored the manufacturing center of the Midwest along with the area’s universities that educated engineers, according to Mr. Bernard.

Surface Combustion moved to Maumee in 1988 and has its headquarters at 1700 Indian Wood Circle in Arrowhead Park. The company’s factory is in Waterville, opened there in 1991. It has about 100 employees and has annual sales of about $40 million to $50 million, said Jeffrey Valuck, administration and sales director.

Most of Surface Combustion’s equipment can be found with commercial heat treaters, such as Industrial Steel Treating. The Jackson, Mich., company provides heat treating services primarily to the automotive industry, said Tim Levy, president of Industrial. He called Surface Combustion “the IBM of their market,” and said that his firm “almost exclusively” uses their furnaces.

“They’ve been around for so long and their installed base is so wide. There are other niche providers and there are others that are similar to them, but they’re kind of the industry standard,” Mr. Levy said.

Mr. Bernard credited the firm’s success to the range of applications for Surface Combustion’s equipment. “That’s our strength: the diversity of product, our process knowledge, and the diversity of the market. That’s what’s kept us around for 100 years,” he said.

The company’s various furnaces are used to harden, dry, or otherwise strengthen materials. Engineers draft proposals for specific heat-treating needs, then manufacture and transport the equipment, sometimes building it on-site, depending on the size.

“We do a lot of work in the energy equipment field, automotive, off road vehicles, farming, mining industry — wherever you have a need for a value added part,” Mr. Bernard said.

Surface Combustion has made furnaces used to heat treat cymbals so that they produce the right sound. Its furnaces have helped dry grains and cereal for food companies. Other equipment heat treats silicon used in computers.

Mr. Bernard says that perhaps the most “noble” use of his company’s equipment has been to destroy chemical weapons. “It’s not our primary business, but it shows what technology can do,” he said. The firm has had such equipment since the early 1970s, and some of its furnaces have been used in Russia to destroy former Soviet weapons.

Mr. Bernard estimates that the “little company in Maumee” has equipment installed in 40 to 50 countries.

The company touts its “Engineering in Training” program, in which the firm hires engineers out of college who agree to travel for three to five years and who learn from senior engineers about how to install and fix furnaces. The company also has five University of Toledo students who participate in a co-op, doing lab work and learning about heat processing equipment.

Contact Kendrick McDonald at: kmcdonald@theblade.com or 419-724-6050.

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