• Editor’s note: This is the second installment of an occasional series on manufacturing in the Tri-Cities.
Anyone who has driven a Ford truck or fired a rifle using a Leupold Optics scope probably has benefited from the work done by Western Sintering.
The Richland company was among the first to spin off a Hanford technology and turn it into a successful, non-Hanford business.
Now, the Northwest’s only powder metal manufacturer is celebrating its 50th year in business.
Western Sintering doesn’t make the end product consumers buy. Instead, as a primary manufacturer, it makes the parts another manufacturer will use to finish a truck, rifle or other consumer good.
The company uses powder metallurgy to create a multitude of parts for customers, some which end up in Ford vehicles and others that end up in sporting goods like knives and guns. For example, they may make the hoop for a rifle scope mount or parts for the handle of a knife.
John Rector started the company in 1965, building a business off of a powder metal technique he learned while working on Hanford’s B Reactor. There, he used sintering — heating compacted powdered metal to bond it together without melting it — to make an aluminum-boron alloy into control rod material.
Rector was a machinist at heart, said Jeff Wood, the company’s president. But his machine shop and powder metallurgy business shifted to focus more on powder metal as the 1970s became the 1980s, with machine work as an add-on available to customers.
The process lends itself to producing a large volume of the same part, Wood said. They can make about 100,000 individual parts a week.
The company does work for Nelson Irrigation of Walla Walla and measuring devices for manufacturer Olympic Instruments of Vashon Island. But most of Western Sintering’s customers are out of the state.
“We are making different pieces for different customers all the time,” said Dave Morasch, the company’s vice president.
There is an upfront cost to creating the tool to compact the metal powder. But the parts are competitively priced at volumes of a couple thousand parts a year and more, he said.
The parts Western Sintering makes vary from a fraction of a gram to a couple of pounds, Wood said.
The metal powder is comprised of different ingredients, including iron, carbon, nickel and copper, he said. The exact mix depends on what the part is and how the customer plans to use it. It can be tailored to make stainless steel.
It’s a naturally green technology because the metal powder is made from recycled scrap metal. Some of it comes pre-mixed from the company’s suppliers along the East Coast. But Western Sintering also makes its own mixes.
For each component Western Sintering makes, there is a tool that is loaded into one of the company’s 12-foot-tall presses. Setup is time-consuming, taking a half day to prepare for pressing.
The loaded tool defines the shape of the part being made. Metal powder is spread into the die cavity, compacted by the press and comes out looking like the part.
That’s called the “green stage,” Morasch said. Although the part looks whole, it’s deceptive, and can break into chunks as easily as a chewy cookie.
One mechanical press can make about 15 parts a minute, he said. The older, hydraulic presses make up to three parts a minute.
Workers remove some parts by hand and lay them out on trays and pans to travel through the sintering furnace. But other parts, especially those that are quite small and fragile, now are moved by a robot.
Morasch vividly recalls how painstaking it was to load those pieces by hand. They had to use padded tweezers, and still had to toss the parts they scrunched out of shape to be recycled back into metal powder. The company added the robots between the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The change has allowed them to do more without having to add more workers, Wood said.
Western Sintering does a ton with only 17 employees. Morasch said they are all cross-trained, which helps.
A number of their employees come from Columbia Basin College’s manufacturing/machine technology program. Wood is on an advisory committee for that program.
The trays and pans are loaded onto a conveyer belt that takes them on a three-hour journey through the sintering furnace. They move about 1 ¾ inches per minute.
The furnace gradually brings the powder metal parts up to 2,050 degrees Fahrenheit, holds them at that temperature for about an hour and then gradually cools them down, Morasch said.
“It’s kind of like baking cookies,” Wood joked.
Only the parts that come out can’t be crumbled with the puny strength of a human hand.
The electric furnace uses a mix of nitrogen and hydrogen to keep oxygen away from the parts. If oxygen was present, it could oxidize the metal and mess up the surface.
Sometimes, small pieces of copper are placed on top of parts. Those copper pieces vanish into each part during the sintering process, filling any spaces between the powder metal particles. Copper melts at 1,900 degrees.
The copper can leave some residue on the metal part. But that will come off when the parts go through the tumbler, where they are rolled against ceramic media to smooth the edges.
The presses are only in use one shift a day, five days a week. But the furnaces go 24-7 to keep up with what the presses produce, Morasch said.
Thanks to a loading and unloading system Rector designed and built, someone is always on call and may have to stop by to load Rector’s system, but they don’t have to staff a night and weekend shift.
Western Sintering recently invested in a fourth furnace, but has been too busy to invest the time it will take to set the furnace up and get it ready for sintering.
So far, Western Sintering is having one of its best years yet. The company survived the recession, but 2007 to 2010 were rough going, Morasch said.
It didn’t seem to matter how many jobs Morasch put together quotes for. “People weren’t buying parts,” he said.
The company had 25 employees in 1995, but went down to 12 during the recession through attrition and retirements, Morasch said. They avoided layoffs but all took off days unpaid.
But that shifted in 2011, and since then, each year has been better than the one before, he said. The same people he’d quoted to without getting jobs before came back ready to buy parts.