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Heat Treat Tips: Pay Attention to Material Chemistry

When trying to determine a materials response to heat treatment, it is important to understand its form (e.g., bar, plate, wire, forging, etc.), prior treatments (e.g. mill anneal, mill normalize), chemical composition, grain size, hardenability, and perhaps even the mechanical properties of the heat of steel from which production parts will be manufactured. The material certification sheet supplies this basic information, and it is important to know what these documents are and how to interpret them.


Certain alloying elements have a strong influence on both the response to heat treatment and the ability of the product to perform its intended function. For example, boron in a composition range of 0.0005% to 0.003% is a common addition to fastener steels. It is extremely effective as a hardening agent and impacts hardenability. It does not adversely affect the formability or machinability. Boron permits the use of lower carbon content steels with improved formability and machinability.


During the steelmaking process, failure to tie up the free nitrogen results in the formation of boron nitrides that will prevent the boron from being available for hardening. Titanium and/or aluminum are added for this purpose. It is important, therefore, that the mill carefully controls the titanium/nitrogen ratio. Both titanium and aluminum tend to reduce machinability of the steel, however, the formability typically improves. Boron content in excess of 0.003% has a detrimental effect on impact strength due to grain boundary precipitation.


Since the material certification sheets are based on the entire heat of steel, it is always useful to have an outside laboratory do a full material chemistry (including trace elements) on your incoming raw material. For example, certain trace elements (e.g. titanium, niobium, and aluminum) may retard carburization. In addition, mount and look at the microstructure of the incoming raw material as an indicator of potential heat treat problems.


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