"X" Marks The Solution

June 1, 2006
For ingot producer Ellwood Quality Steels, an extreme-temperature, extreme-exposure-time, bar-codable metal tag stands up to demanding heat-treating processes.

The motto of InfoSight Corp. is, "We barcode difficult stuff." Living up to that motto proved to be a challenge when the company was contacted by Ellwood Quality Steels (EQS) about providing identity tags for bar stock undergoing a lengthy, high-temperature heat treatment.

But challenges are nothing new to Chillicothe, OH-based InfoSight, and over the years it has demonstrated that it is not content with the status quo. For example in 2001, the company introduced a laser-printed tag, the Pic-Anneal, capable of surviving caustic pickling processes and the extreme heat of annealing used in many wire mills.

Rising to the challenge

When InfoSight's existing tag offerings didn't meet all of Ellwood Quality Steels' expectations for a high-temperature tagging solution, InfoSight engineers got to work. They found that there were major differences between the way that EQS produces and processes steel, and the way that some of their best tags were designed to work.

EQS, New Castle, PA, supplies high-quality carbon, alloy, stainless, and tool steel ingots for open-die forging, extrusion, and ring rolling. The EQS annealing process was the crux of the matter. Most of InfoSight's high-temperature identification products are rated at 1,500°F, but when dealing with ingot annealing at EQS, the temperature range jumped up to 1,700° to 2,000°F.

InfoSight's line of stainless steel tags could only survive temperatures of about 1,600°F, or a little higher, for a short time before corrosion set in. Therefore, conventional barcodable "hot tags" tags used in the steel industry became brittle, faded, delaminated, or physically curled under these conditions.

Other methods of identification, like embossed tags, are available for extreme applications. However, they can be prohibitively expensive due to the cost of maintaining the printing equipment. Also, they don't lend themselves to barcoding. EQS was looking for a tag that could be generated in real-time and still survive the long annealing times required for its ingot products. Basically, the producer needed something that didn't yet exist. Following the success of the Pic-Anneal tag, InfoSight knew this was a challenge that could be met.

"For seven or eight years we were producing tags on an old style dot-matrix system," recalls Colby Hamilton, systems analyst for EQS. "These were metal tags with a white coating that had the code impacted into the surface. Those machines produced what we needed in real time, but they were difficult and expensive to maintain. They aren't used much in the industry anymore, so it was hard to find replacement parts for them, and few people were able to repair them. Add to all this the fact that they were working in a dirty environment that contributed heavily to breakdowns, and we could tell that we had a system that was feeling its age.

"When we started looking for another system, we knew we needed something 'heavy-duty,'" Hamilton continues. EQS adjusts its annealing cycles according to the requirements of its customers' orders, but it cannot afford not to know what material is coming out of its annealing furnace at the end of a treatment cycle. "It takes time and labor to run tests to determine the composition of unmarked materials, so we needed something extremely reliable," he explains.

"When we saw what InfoSight was doing with traceability solutions, we knew that they could give us something that we've wanted for some time - specifically, something tough enough to survive the temperatures of our annealing and still be readable and scanable. So we put them in the running to design a tag that suited our needs," says Hamilton.

Developing the X solution

Working with different combinations of metals and a coating that could both extend the soak time and have information burned into it with a laser in a real-time production situation, InfoSight created the product that EQS was expecting. The developers dubbed it the X-Tag - with the X standing for "extreme," in terms of temperatures and long soak times.

Besides surviving long soak times, the X-Tag also can be attached to an object at 2,000°-2,200°F and survive through the cool-down process.

Layout software is bundled with the laser printer, which prints out the 3-in. wide tags, though the width may vary from 0.5 in. to 3 ft, and holes or slots can be added if needed.

But, the X-Tag wasn't an automatic success. While Info-Sight believed it had discovered the right formula, the proof had to come from EQS.

"InfoSight sent us a test printer and some sample tags to use in a month-long trial," Hamilton says. "At this point we had another vendor in the running, and a range of different tagging solutions to choose from. Our testing cycle consisted of a controlled soak of the tag in a testing furnace, followed by attaching one to an actual ingot. After analyzing it ourselves, we sent it back to InfoSight for appraisal, and they continued to work on improving the product."

At the end of the trial period, EQS chose InfoSight as their tag supplier and tag machine vendor. Two printers are operating now at New Castle plant, ready to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, producing 3,000 tags per month in real-time. Also, EQS is working with an affiliated division to put X-Tags online - "and they have work cycles that are even tougher than what our division requires," Hamilton relates. InfoSight also continues to work with EQS to make the X-Tag better and its operation smoother. "One thing they're working on is an exhaust system for the printers to keep them at peak performance," Hamilton reports. "Our biggest issue is dirt - these are very dirty environments, very printer-unfriendly. But again, that's a challenge ... ."

PTag layout flexibility

Hamilton also says he was impressed with the system's versatility. "There's a lot we can do with the X-Tag, like changing the layout on a laptop and being able to improve the types of information, like dimensions, that we can put on the ingots. Since we've had the X-Tag, we've been thinking about retagging them with customer information as they leave the plant - which will allow us to provide a better service to our customers.

"All in all, I don't think we've reached the full potential ... . There's a lot there that I know we haven't even touched yet," Hamilton concludes.