Just five years shy of celebrating a century in business, Surface Combustion is a remarkable company that has remained true to its innovative roots. A manufacturer of thermal systems and equipment, since it was founded in 1915 based on the proprietary technology for which the company is named it has received more than 645 equipment and process patents, been awarded 75 trademarks, and installed some 250,000 thermal systems worldwide. It all began, however, with the advent of the surface combustion process.
"It was discovered that if you premix fuel gas with air, it provides a hotter flame and better combustion," according to Dan Goodman, vice president of sales. “The company’s founders also realized that if you pass that flame by heated plates or some type of catalyst in the furnace, combustion was more thorough and the heat of the flame was further increased. So that was the basis of the whole company, which was launched in New York City before moving to Toledo, Ohio. We now have two facilities nearby, with one in Waterville that’s devoted to manufacturing and the other housing engineering, R&D, and administration in Maumee.”
In addition the company has licensed representatives around the world, in countries such as Germany, Mexico, China, Brazil, Argentina, Russia, and Japan. “The Japanese company licensed our technology just after World War II, and that relationship is still in place so that we exchange technology and conduct joint R&D projects,” Goodman says.
With registered trademarks on such lines as Allcase® batch integral quench furnaces, Uni-DRAW® high convection heating systems, and Trident® radiant tube heating systems—just to name a very few—Surface Combustion is a veritable technology generator, which is basically built into the company’s DNA. One outgrowth of this heredity is apparent in its hiring policy.
"We kind of buck the industry trend in that we like to hire engineers straight out of college," Goodman explains. "We have what’s called an 'engineer in training,' or EIT program in which young college graduates spend five years learning and applying all the basics of what we do, and how we do it. They’ll actually be involved in commissioning new equipment for our customers, so they really earn their stripes before they begin working in sales or design. We make that investment because our goal is for them to have a complete career at Surface Combustion."
Not only does this provide the company with a direct connection to the latest developments in academia, it’s resulted in a workforce with an average age in the early forties and a median tenure of 16 to 17 years. A significant portion of the company’s employees have remained for many decades, including Goodman, who is a product of the EIT program and has been with the company for 30 years.
Apart from the equipment it manufactures, Surface Combustion also serves in an advisory capacity, working with its customers to determine the exact thermal system that will meet their needs. “We have product lines consisting of everything from atmosphere to vacuum equipment, continuous furnaces, batch furnaces, and all of the handling and companion equipment that’s required such as control systems and auxiliary atmosphere generators. Someone can simply tell us what they’d like to do and we can advise them across technology lines,” he says. “That allows us to be very objective, and to make suggestions based on their particular application. Having such a broad range of products also helps should one market experience a downturn, since diversification can provide protection from such trends.”
In addition to automotive, Surface Combustion is also involved in off-road, aerospace, and even government ordnance work such as developing systems for the incineration of chemical weapons. “We also provide equipment that carburizes or through-hardens gears, nuts, bolts, bearings, and the like,” Goodman says. “So that broad range of experience allows us to listen to a customer’s needs and suggest a number of technologies we believe they should consider, complete with a list of pros and cons for each.”
During his three decades with the company, Goodman says that he’s seen many advances being made, especially in the areas of controls, sensors, and even the material handling aspects of the systems it designs and manufactures. “The changes that have occurred in things such as robotics, carbon control, and the types of insulation that are now available are simply astounding,” he says, “and one of the reasons we’re so plugged in to these advents is this fresh stream of young minds we constantly have flowing into the company. It’s just a great way of keeping us at the leading edge of developments in thermal processing. We always want to be at least two steps ahead of everybody else so that we can provide our customers with the best value possible.”