Home: Issue 5 2011 › The colour of steel

The colour of steel

The colour of steel

04/07/2011 | Channel: Engineering

Whilst remaining focused on its core offering of room temperature blacking, Blackfast Chemicals is expanding this niche to meet market demands

For 25 years Blackfast Chemicals has been offering professional chemical blacking processes to the metal working industry. Based in the UK, the company has established itself globally through a network of distributors across 25 different countries.

Operating within the niche chemical blacking market, Blackfast has developed a client base that spans several industries including automotive, general industrial, machine reconditioning and building, and tool manufacturers such as Sandvik, Euro Tools, Stanley Tools, and L.S.Starrett.

Blacking is achieved by chemical conversion of the metal’s surface, which incorporates several steps from degreasing and surface conditioning through to blacking solution and dewatering oil for corrosion protection. Developed around a simple dip operation, Blackfast’s room temperature blacking process has been specifically designed for use in factories. Furthermore the process does not materially affect dimensions, with a uniform colour achieved even over machined surfaces threads and blind holes. The company even offers a demo room in Barwell, Leicestershire for any customers who wish to see these innovative processes in action.

“When compared with the traditional method of blacking iron and steel using chemicals heated to 200 °C, our room temperature system offers several benefits,” highlights Jeanet Ostergaard, managing director of Blackfast. “Aside from the obvious safety aspect of operating at this lower temperature, there are also significant energy savings to be made from not having to heat the different components. The simplicity of the system enables clients to carry out the blacking process in-house, which in turns gives them control over the quality and turnaround of their end products.”

Blacking also offers a number of other commercial advantages to users, not least in terms of corrosion protection as the treated surface absorbs wax, oil and rust preventative sealants. This is of particular benefit given that machined parts are manufactured to tight tolerances, which means that plating or painting of the surface cannot be accommodated. “In certain industries, such as the photographic market, having a matt black finish prevents the damaging reflection of light. In a similar way, the blacking process is also used by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) on rifle sights to prevent soldiers being given away in the field,” notes Jeanet.

In the last three years, Blackfast has also added a new product to its portfolio, which can carry out a similar process but in a range of different colours, on almost any type of ferrous and non-ferrous metal. “This development is in part driven by client demand for different colours, but also by the fact that room temperature blacking isn’t suitable for stainless steel. Given the volume of stainless steel components within the market, we felt it was important that we introduced a solution that could meet those demands. At present the process is also carried out at room temperature, but is more involved than the blacking, and so we are working to develop this further into a more simple system,” explains Jeanet.

Innovations such as these rely heavily upon the company’s research and development activities, the majority of which are carried out in-house. However, Blackfast also works closely with its suppliers where necessary, and has approached graduates at the Kingston University. Based on the company’s five-year strategy to expand its product range, Jeanet describes some of the key areas of focus: “We are looking into developing the room temperature blacking process so that it can also be used on stainless steel, as this is a potentially lucrative market sector for the business. At present our current system contains nickel, which is a source of concern for some clients, so we are also working to engineer a new nickel-free solution.”

Whilst operating within such a niche sector has its own challenges, the unique nature of Blackfast’s system equally means that it has few market competitors: “We probably only have three true competitors, including one US company,” explains Jeanet. “In terms of the process itself we have found that the other systems on the market are not as stable as Blackfast’s. Whereas our system enables customers to achieve a uniform quality on almost any kind of steel, often the level of finish using our competitors’ process varies depending on the grade of steel used.”

This quality of service is also demonstrated by Blackfast’s recent contracts with Sandvik in the US, France and Germany, on the back of its long history working with Sandvik in Sweden. However, as Jeanet highlights, Blackfast also suffered under the impact of the economic downturn: “It has been a extremely challenging period for the business, as we lost approximately 40 per cent of our turnover during that time. However, we have already recovered around half of this, and are continuing to see strong signs of an upturn in the market. Even within in the UK, which is still suffering from some of the effects of the recession, we are gaining two or three new clients every month.”

As market conditions continue to improve, Jeanet concludes with Blackfast’s strategy to capitalise on future opportunities for growth: “Our vision is to further expand our product range, which may be via our own in-house developments, or equally through joint partnerships with other product developers. Equally, we are also looking to bring the entire manufacturing process under one roof, as currently we have subcontractors that undertake blending and warehousing services for the business.”

Blackfast Chemicals Ltd
Employees 5
Products Room temerature blacking