An interview with VFE’s Head of Projects, Michael Jones
“Like most innovations, the development of the RoMan Transformer began out of necessity. I needed to help a customer double the amount of power to their vacuum furnaces in the same sized space and RoMan Manufacturing offered the solution. Today, VFE can reduce the power consumption of our customers’ vacuum furnaces by 35% on average through the installation of RoMan Transformers. It’s a simple scoping and installation process that can save manufacturers thousands of pounds in energy costs every year.”
This standalone project put in motion events that saw VFE and Roman Manufacturing come together to develop a product that helps companies maximise the energy efficiency of their operations and keep their businesses running.
“As Head of Projects, I’m responsible for all of our projects, from scoping and planning right through to execution. This includes reviewing our processes once we’ve completed them, with a view to putting forward improvements,” reveals Michael. “How do we make things better?”
Michael’s eye for innovation meant he quickly recognised the wider applications for RoMan’s pioneering transformer design in the heat treatment space and its potential to improve his customers’ operations.
In this interview with Michael, we reveal how VFE worked with RoMan to drive the development of a superior transformer and what this simple, yet innovative, solution means for manufacturers throughout the UK — including how they can benefit.
Are you considering upgrading the energy efficiency of your heat treatment operations? Find out more about RoMan Transformers and how we can help.
The mother of innovation
Michael has a long background in Electrical Mechanical Engineering, which lends itself well to his problem-solving mindset. When the aforementioned customer came to him in 2019, he quickly drew from these skills to research the best solution.
“I was aware of water-cooled solutions for transformers but they tended to be antiquated. The engineering was aged and people generally weren't putting them in anywhere. Then I discovered RoMan. Their technology was designed primarily for industrial welding machines, but they were having a product drive for putting it onto vacuum furnaces.”
Founded in 1980 by Dietrich Roth and Robert Hofman, RoMan Manufacturing has since become synonymous with the production of high-current transformers and power supplies.
Along the way, it played a key role in the introduction of MFDC (Mid Frequency Direct Current) power supplies that utilise IGBT technology (Insulated-Gate Bipolar Transistor) to the welding industry. In 2019, RoMan was looking into ways that this technology could be adapted and expanded for industrial heat treatment.
“I struck up a conversation with the team at RoMan, and it emerged that they could manufacture a transformer that offered me exactly what I needed, which was to put massive amounts of power in the same sized space. Their transformers featured an innovative copper cooling coil, which allows them to cool really efficiently. The product worked beautifully when applied to the furnace, it had a really quick turnaround and the flow of information was brilliant,” explains Michael. “That’s when we started looking at how we could work together to offer these transformers and their applications to the wider heat treatment industry.”
It was at this point that RoMan and VFE began considering the terms to an agreement.
Partnering with RoMan
RoMan continues to serve the US heat treatment space, where they work with teams of subcontractors for installation. In the UK and Ireland, it is a slightly different story.
“RoMan remains the technical lead behind the projects but we (VFE) are the installers. These are our customers, so we take the project all the way through, from start to finish. We have opened up a new section of the market for RoMan. It’s a new application for their technology. In return, the product enables us to deliver the market-leading solutions our customers need to keep their businesses going.
This is a new product for VFE, and it wouldn’t have been viable without the RoMan Transformer’s unique energy and cost-saving applications.
“Previously, we would only have sold transformers for breakdown situations. Typically, a standard air-cooled transformer will actually last half or full life of the equipment, so we'd rarely get a transformer breakdown. That's why it was so important that this product offered our customers direct benefits, such as savings in energy, space and costs. When one of our customers upgrades to a RoMan Transformer, they’re not replacing like for like. They’re replacing something that’s functional with something that’s far more efficient.”
What other benefits do RoMan Transformers offer heat treatment managers?
How RoMan Transformers reduce energy consumption
The leading benefit of RoMan’s innovative transformers is their energy-saving potential. With RoMan Transformers in place, manufacturers can reduce the cost of their running cycles overnight.
“Many of our customers already fit their vacuum furnaces with energy monitors. They know exactly how much it costs them to run a cycle and how that impacts their margins. By reducing that cost, they are immediately improving the margin on their work.”
The product’s energy-saving applications are well-documented in a case study RoMan conducted with a US industrial and aerospace heat treater. RoMan gave the manufacturer the opportunity to upgrade one of its machines as a proof of concept (POC).
“The team was seasoned to transformer maintenance but they had never run a trial like this to objectively measure the difference in all of the currents and in the peaks and troughs during a cycle before and after new transformers were installed,” Michael explained. “You can read about the process we followed in their case study, but the results speak for themselves. The difference in energy used between the two power supply types was 194kWh over the equivalent heating cycle. In this case, the difference correlated to approximately 38 kW of savings for every hour the furnace is in use.”
How did this translate into cost savings for the customer? As an example, there were 20 hours of furnace use on a typical day. This equates to 764kWh of daily savings. With a power billing rate of $0.10/kwh, that created $76 savings per day. Over a year of use, just from power (kW) optimisation alone, the furnace will save almost $28,000. Further cost savings come from decreased peak demand and power factor charges.
“When we fit these for our customers, we’re able to run the same trial,” Michael says. “We will go in and monitor a cycle before installation, and another after, to produce data that shows them what it is they're going to save over the coming months and years. In our experience, RoMan's published estimations (35% reduction in power consumption) could actually be considered conservative. Some customers will save much more.”
Additional benefits of upgrading to RoMan Transformers
RoMan’s innovative transformers offer the heat treatment industry benefits beyond energy-saving.
“A lot of these furnaces have water-cooled cables, which can be quite troublesome for maintenance teams,” Michael explains. “As they wear out, they do block up, they do fail. It’s not unusual for maintenance managers with five or six of these machines to be making repairs on a monthly basis. With this close-coupled transformer system, that all disappears. So it really does simplify the heating installation as well.”
Space reduction is another advantage. Manufacturing real-estate is hugely valuable when you consider the cost of expanding or the limitations of not being able to.
“Space-saving is more and more important to our customers. When we're planning factory layouts with them, we're showing them the size of their furnaces and how they would fit in. With a lot of the kit on the market, the transformer box can account for up to 20-30% of the size of the footprint. By adopting this technology, you can nearly completely remove that, reducing it to more like 5%. They strap directly onto the side of the furnace, very close to the point of connection, and the control side of it all goes in the control panel. So it's a much slicker solution to a standard air-cooled system.”
A smaller, more intelligent kind of transformer
RoMan’s acquisition of a casting firm many years ago has given the company itself a competitive advantage.
“They can do everything in-house themselves. None of their competitors have the tools at their disposal like RoMan do. As a result, their turnaround time is fast. They're not dealing with groups of subcontractors and third-parties. It's all internal. They’ve ended up with a product that is smaller and more intelligent than anything else currently available.”
Alternative water-cooled transformers on the market lack many of these benefits, yet are similarly priced. Manufacturers keen to improve the sustainability of their operations and reduce energy costs will find no better product to help them meet their objectives.
Scoping your requirements has never been easier
For customers who are interested in upgrading their transformers and unlocking these applications, what does the process look like and what can they expect?
“After a customer has expressed interest, the first thing we do is conduct a full site survey. How many transformers do they need? In what size? How will we remount them? All our surveys are conducted in accordance with government and site-specific guidelines. When we have the technical information we need, we submit the information to RoMan, who will spec the system according to the customer’s specific circumstances. Once we have a spec, we’re able to issue the customer with illustrative drawings showing how the systems will look and give a quote. If the customer is happy to proceed, we’ll monitor a heat treatment cycle to take baseline energy readings.”
Mike explains that the install time is also small, between 5-8 days on-site generally.
“We’ll take every step to minimise downtime during this time. For example, in some instances, there’s preparation work we can do without putting the machine down. If you imagine we’re going to be removing transformers and putting in new ones, there might be an opportunity where we can fit the upgrades while the old ones are still in place. During the site survey, we constantly look for opportunities to streamline the install.”
Making heat treatment more efficient
If it's true that necessity is the mother of innovation, then collaboration is surely its father. The RoMan Transformer is a product of the coupling of RoMan’s innovative high-current transformers with VFE’s knowledge of the heat treatment industry. Together, both parties have brought to market the next generation of transformer technology.
“For what the product is, it's quite simple,” Mike concludes. “All the furnaces feature heating systems with transformers. And yet, when you look at its applications for energy reduction, reduced maintenance and space-saving, it becomes an incredibly exciting product to talk about. This isn’t just about reducing costs and improving efficiencies, although it does all those things. It’s about our customer getting ahead of the curve.”
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