By Rose Eaton, Staff Writer.
Located in Lexington, KY, Secat has for the last 17 years provided research, technology, and testing to support the aluminum industry. Through this work they came to recognize a need for education within the industry. Secat’s educational offerings seek to close the gap between those in engineering that may not have enough knowledge about aluminum-specific metallurgy and the employment needs created by an aging workforce. The article, “Intro To Aluminum Course: Meeting the Challenge of an Aging Workforce,” which appeared in the December 2017 issue of Light Metal Age, describes one of the recent course offerings from Secat (pdf available on the Secat website) . Here follows an interview with Todd Boggess, Secat general manager, in which he provides more information about the organization and the courses it offers.
Tell us a bit about your role at Secat and your history with the organization. What is your background in the aluminum industry?
I have an economics degree from University of Kentucky (UKY) and an MBA from Western Kentucky. I started working at Secat in 2001 as the business manager. At that time, the staff was maybe three or four people and the lab was totally bare. We were working with the State of Kentucky, which had given us a grant that could be used for buying equipment. When I joined we were basically setting up the lab in terms of purchasing all the equipment as well as recruiting engineers. In the first couple of years, the majority of Secat’s funding came from managing collaborative research projects involving maybe six or eight aluminum companies, a couple of universities, and a couple of national labs — all collaborating together on general topics that would impact a lot of companies. Secat was the managing PI for four multi-year R&D projects funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.
In 2012, I moved into a dual role as vice president of business development and general manager. During this time, my primary responsibilities have included finance, sales and marketing, IT, and various project management activities. With a small company you wear many hats.
Tell us about Secat. Why did the organization begin offering courses on aluminum?
Secat began offering research, technology, and testing to support the aluminum industry in 2000. Our technical staff has more than 100 years of combined experience in aluminum metallurgy, from all areas of production. We are located on the UKY coldstream research campus, however, we are an independent company. We have a great relationship with the university and we give scholarships to the UKY students studying material science and try to get them involved in the aluminum industry. Also, we try to offer co-op and internships — not always at Secat, but with our customers. We are really trying to encourage young people to consider aluminum.
The UKY material science program doesn’t really touch on anything we offer in our course, “Aluminum Wrapped Up: An Introduction to the Metal, Its Characteristics, Alloys, Processes, Forms and Applications.” Most of what is taught at the undergraduate level at the University of Kentucky is focused on steel. That’s the same whether you’re talking about the UKY or any other university that has a material science program, there’s just nobody teaching aluminum metallurgy. That’s another reason why we made the decision to develop training courses.
For many years, Secat has supported aluminum companies by providing metallurgical analysis, but a vacuum existed in terms of technical training. We reached out to trade organizations, offering to help create new training programs, but eventually decided to develop our own. In addition to open classes, we also offer private classes for aluminum companies, which are designed to meet their individual concerns.
In what sector is the majority of Secat’s work?
We were very much focused in rolling at the beginning stages, because that’s what our expertise was in. However, Secat’s large customer base enabled us to expand our knowledge and today, we are well recognized for our work in all areas of aluminum metallurgy. We have less involvement in primary aluminum, but that is mainly because there are only a few smelters operating in the U.S. today. The majority of primary aluminum is produced outside of the U.S.
How has Secat’s mission changed over the past 17 years?
The mission has always been to serve as the center of excellence for providing aluminum technology, testing, and research to support the industry — its customers as well as its suppliers. The mission hasn’t really changed over 17 years, but the thing that fluctuates for us the most is keeping up with industry trends. For instance, for many years we were heavily involved in can sheet (packaging) development. Now it has evolved into things like automotive applications, but a lot of this is being driven by our customers and their product mix.
Secat has many resources that aluminum companies may be interested in taking advantage of. Can you describe some of the ways that you provide support for aluminum companies’ research and development needs?
That would include things like: product development, process improvement, and looking at plant efficiencies — both in terms of operations as well as identifying new equipment or technology that’s available to the industry. Certainly training has become more important over the last couple of years.
Were specific companies asking you for training? Or did you feel like there was a general need?
We visit all of our customers. We are constantly at plants and we are asking questions like, “What are your biggest challenges? What are your concerns?” In this particular area, they’re all saying the same thing, “Our average age in the plant is 50 plus and we have very little young talent coming into the industry.” So, they are all facing this soon-to-be retirement issue, when there will be a mass exodus. No matter the aluminum company we were working with, they were all saying that this is the biggest challenge they see coming down the pike — a loss of talent over the next five to ten years or so.
It’s not unique to aluminum companies, but is an issue for manufacturing in general. All of these automotive plants are also facing this mass exodus.
There’s a huge demand for skilled, knowledgeable workers and it’s going to continue to grow. Now, you have the automotive OEMs that are making vehicles with aluminum bodies that are relying on the suppliers to provide them with information. The auto manufacturers themselves are more familiar with steel. Their engineers are learning the behavioral differences between steel and aluminum.
Companies are obviously recruiting new engineers, but there is a huge gap in terms of their knowledge base when it comes to aluminum metallurgy. One of the primary reasons why Secat made the decision to develop training courses was to respond to our customer’s needs. Secat has experience with just about every area of aluminum manufacturing, whether it be casting, rolling, extrusion, die casting, etc. With our experience, it made sense for us to develop content that would be helpful to those entering the industry.
We offer scholarships and try to get students involved. For example, when I sat across the table from a recent scholarship recipient, I said, “What are your career plans?”
“Robotics, and high tech things,” she said.
I asked her, “Have you considered aluminum?“ She had not, so I asked her what she knew about aluminum.
“Nothing,” she said.
“Do you know that there are more than one hundred aluminum companies in the state of Kentucky alone?” I asked.
“I had no idea.”
Young people think aluminum plants are dirty, dark, and dangerous, something their grandfather did but not necessarily something they would want to do. They’d be surprised at how high tech things really are in plants now. Most manufacturing plants are extremely clean and well lit. Additionally, the occurrence of work related injuries continues to decline due to an increased emphasis on job safety training.
Can you describe some of the classes you’re offering in the near future?
We are offering a new course on billet casting and extrusion. This will be designed for more of a technical audience. We are launching it in two phases — phase one will be a day and a half class on billet casting. Phase two (still under development) will focus on extrusion. The first class is being held on March 21-22nd in Lexington, Kentucky.
How does Secat aim to continue to thrive in the years to come?
Automotive is expanding our business, so we are certainly doing more there. If you look at the rolling industry, there is quite a bit of plant expansion going on in response to market demand for automotive sheet applications. For example, companies that may have focused on products in the building and construction market are now competing for space in the auto sheet market. So, there is an increased demand for services that Secat provides in order to meet the strict requirements that OEMs demand.
I think there is enough momentum in the industry in general and Secat is benefiting from that. We used to be really focused on the southeast part of the U.S. and then the entire North American continent. Beyond that, we’ve expanded our customer base to the overseas market. We have a lot of customers in the Middle East, and we have a good number of customers in Asia and Europe. I think that’s a result of reputation and the fact that we are an independent lab that primarily focuses on aluminum.
The amazing staff at Secat continues to be our biggest asset. I’m extremely fortunate to have been a part of this great organization for the past 17 years, and the commitment shown by our employees has enabled Secat to become the leading aluminum research lab in the United States.