With ever more insiders venturing into higher-end segments of the global fastener market, Taiwan’s fastener industry is undergoing upgrades (photo courtesy of UDN.com).
With a history of more than half a century, fastener production is today one of Taiwan's most globally competitive industries in the southern region. This achievement is attributable to insiders' efforts on moving forwards high value-added fasteners for higher-end applications, including cars, aircrafts, medical supplies and implants, wind turbines, and many others, hence seeing a gradual uptrend in value.
An incontestable proof of the industry's continuous growth is the statistics compiled by Metal Industry Intelligence, an industry and market research division affiliated with Metal Industries Research & Development Centre (MIRDC), a Taiwan-based semi-official R&D institute, showing that Taiwan's annual fastener output increased from NT$95.15 billion (US$3.17 billion) in 2006 through NT$112.37 billion (US$3.74 billion) in 2010 to NT$123.87 billion (US$4.12 billion) in 2013. The value is estimated to have reached NT$124.38 billion (US$4.14 billion) in 2014 and then mount to NT$124.73 billion (US$4.16 billion) in 2015.
MIRDC reports that the positive development results mainly from the payoff of the hard work by Taiwanese manufacturers to continuously improve manufacturing capabilities in association with local R&D bodies to turn out various fasteners with excellent functionality and consistent high quality that meet high-end requirements by professional end-users, which, in turn, enhance not just the industry's overall production value but its presence in different sectors.
In an exclusive interview with CENS, Kristy Chi, industrial analyst from the Industrial Research Section of MIRDC's Planning & Promotion Department, provided insights into the industry's current development driven by high-valued fasteners developed from the R&D body and local makers.
Fasteners for High-end Requirements
The most conspicuous fasteners developed in recent years to drive the industry's global profile higher are perhaps the fastening products and implants for medical applications, which, Chi mentioned, have been displayed at MIRDC and promoted by local makers globally to earn high reputations.
Among those products, the polished anodic coloring treatment of titanium alloy self-tapping bone screw is made using the newest electropolishing technology for titanium from Germany, which gives quality-approved brightness and cleanness to the screw's surface and ensure evenness of color distribution from anodic treatment, measuring up to requirements for medical applications in developed nations, stressed Chi.
Also notable fastening products and related systems developed by MIRDC and local manufacturers for the application include radius bone plates of titanium, implants, rigid abutments, transfer abutments, cover screws, hex drivers, dental implants, dental implant surgery assistant guiding sleeves, with some of which having already been applied in clinical trials. “Development of such products will surely help boost value of the industry's output and local economies in southern Taiwan,” said Chi.
Compared to fastening products for medical application that still need time to develop to be volume-manufactured and heavily promoted, Chi noted that fasteners for car production have become the strongest propeller among other applications for the industry's growth for years, mainly fueled by strong demand from global carmakers, particularly from Japan.
“Many of Taiwanese fasteners manufacturers have become part of global makers' supply chains as Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers,” said Chi. “In the segment, suppliers have to upgrade their production process and quality management in different ways to meet various standards established by different carmakers.” It makes sense such products that generally have customized specifications and call for higher manufacturing technology levels to ensure superior safety and generate nice profits will contribute ever more to the industry's output value in the years to come, given that the global new-car market has continuously expanded over the past years, and is expected by global research institutes, such as IHS Automotive to reach 100 million units in 2018. Chi went on to say that backed by deep manufacturing knowledge, exceptional production flexibility and strong commitment to R&D and quality, Taiwanese manufacturers are building ever stronger global presence in this sector.
Requiring top-end technology to produce and bearing much higher unit prices than ordinary fasteners, aircraft fasteners are also saddled with insiders' expectations to become the industry's ace in the hole to blow away the global competition, particularly in the face of underselling rivalry from emerging countries is intensifying.
Chi said that presently only a few of Taiwanese fastener makers who have truly penetrated into the global aerospace industry's supply chain as Part C suppliers, mainly through AIDC, which has been contracted by global customers to supply engines and fuselages for trainers and commercial aircrafts. She introduced, “Such fasteners generally have standard specifications and are subject to stricter certifications than any models for other applications. But, with AIDC's support, local suppliers are more likely to tap the segment.”
As eco-awareness remains a concern to drive development of global energy industry, another potentially lucrative business for Taiwanese fastener makers, Chi noted, is fastening products for wind turbines.
For long-term reliability and safety, wind turbines require complicated engineering and higher-end fasteners, making the so-called smart fasteners that feature better tightening reliability and stronger structural strength a buzzword in the industry. In light of the trend, MIRDC has researched and studied such fasteners to pave the road for local suppliers to the segment.
One of the most commonly seen smart fasteners is the Direct Tension Indicating Bolt, which is built with the director tension indicator washer to help engineers make sure the required initial bolt tension is carefully controlled when installing a bolt. Such smart fasteners have been widely used in construction, and increasingly applied to wind turbine engineering.
The Permanent Mounted Transducer System (PMTS) is a rising technology deriving from smart fasteners, which, Chi reported, is developed by Intellifast GmbH to ensure consistency of bolt tightening process and has also been regarded as an ideal solution to wind turbine bolting products.
Chi mentioned that bolt tension is given by torque but could vary with time due to material properties and ambient conditions; therefore, it is hard to record and maintain in practice. The PMTS incorporates ultrasonic measurement technology to materialize the concept of bolts with sensors, and allows engineers to control and monitor embedment conditions of bolts and joints even more effectively than other solutions.
The PMTS turns out a bolt that goes through the ion vapor deposition to be equipped with the state-of-the-art Piezoelectric Sensor on the head, and gives each bolt a 2D data matrix bar code. Engineers use the LP3000B device to identify sensor-built bolts, check bolt tension and record measurement results. In short, PMTS assures not only reliability of initial bolt tension, but also data traceability and maintenance of bolts, suitable for wind turbine bolt engineering.
Upgrades of Materials and Production Technologies
Mainly motivated by the rise of those high value fasteners mentioned above, the Taiwanese fastener industry is undergoing thorough upgrades, from material development to thermal and surface treatment and testing technologies, which will enable insiders to not just raise product value but establish distinct images as high-end fastener suppliers in the world.
Since development of high-end, high-strength materials provides the basis for high value fastener production to develop in Taiwan, Chi introduced that various titanium-based alloys, as well as related molding technologies, have been researched and developed by local leading materials suppliers, R&D bodies and manufacturers for making fasteners used in cars and aircrafts for now.
She pointed out that the trend is fueled by China Steel Corp., Taiwan's largest steelmaker and the biggest supplier of wire rods by size, who has successfully started up mass production for Alloy A-286, which can withstand high temperatures of up to 700 degrees Celsius without compromising strength and corrosion and are ideally for producing fasteners for aircraft and car engines. “Since the high-strength alloy is mostly imported presently,” Chi said, “China Steel's mass production will enable local makers of aircraft and automotive fasteners to secure stable supply of the key components at more competitive prices, which, in turn, will help them to solicit more orders in the future.”
In thermal treatment technology development, Chi indicated that Taiwan's fastener industry has also made a progress in this field. Mainly to meet customers' requirements for high-strength, high-safety fasteners, she introduced, local makers are generally capable of skillfully applying in production various advanced thermal treatment technologies, including austempering, which is mainly used to produce bainite that is formed at a cooling rate between that for martensite and perlite so as to give fastener's structure better elasticity and strength; carburizing, which is for enhance absorption of liberated carbon during the heating of metal materials to make them harder; martempering, a technology using interrupted quenching process to produce fine tempered martensite structure to further harden the fasteners; nitriding, a structure hardening technology by diffusing nitrogen into the surface of a metal; and spheroidizing that spheroidizes iron carbides within the perlite structure.
Chi stressed that a couple of Taiwan's fastener and related equipment manufacturers have been engaged in developing spheroidizing annealing furnaces, with some models being significantly improved with more effective process control systems, user-friendlier operation and smarter computing functions, which ensure lower power consumption, higher productivity and more consistent quality of heat treated fasteners.
To fill orders for bone screws and dental implants, Chi went on to say that several thermal treatment technologies are increasingly popular in the industry, such as SLA (sand-blasted, large-grit, acid-etched), MAO (microarc oxidation) coating and . plasma spray coating. But, the most impressive one that can ensure maximum space between threads to allow adhesion of the most possible cells to the implants and screws to enhance functionality is the PDL (pulsed dye laser) surface treatment technology.
Perfect for application in the 3C, photovoltaic, IC, flexible electronics and biomedical chip industries, the PDL features expanded pulse width, high frequency and high power, and can process high precision parts and components with microstructure without causing thermal failure. Chi reported that Industrial Technology Research Institute, a government-funded R&D institute has begun transferring the technology to local fastener makers to help upgrade production from conventional screws into high-margin dental implants.
As for testing technology, Chi noted that there are also encouraging results from local companies to build up the industry's future competitiveness. For instance, a fastener inspection equipment company has just released its newest sorting technologies for screws and bolts, while some have been dedicated to developing instrument for detecting tightening torque and tension loads of screws with different shapes. In the field of metallurgical analysis, she went on to say that a Taiwanese firm has also worked out a new machine that can automatically detect and measure spheroidizing rates and ferrite decarburized depth, which is likely to draw more attention to metallurgical analysis, of which development in the industry is backward.
In addition to manufacturing technology upgrades, Chi feels that a few of Taiwanese fastener manufacturers have also placed heavy emphasis on introducing the state-of-the-art information technology into daily operations, so as to enhance operational efficiency and generate added value for customers. For example, some leading companies, such as Jinn Her Enterprise Co., Ltd., a supplier of more than 20,000 kinds of screws, are building automatic warehousing systems to improve their inventory management and delivery efficiency,
Under this transition, Chi opines that big data is a promising IT technology that can result in a makeover to this traditional manufacturing industry composed mostly of contract makers engaged in built-to-order production. She pointed out that suppliers can build databases of customers' order volume, ordering frequencies, preferences and other valuable information using big data analysis, and take advantage of that to forecast customers' inventory levels and take initiative to send inquiries right before they truly need to restock. “In doing so, suppliers not just offer build-to-order manufacturing, but help customers with inventory management,” she said, “This will enable suppliers to better improve customer relationships and secure business chances.”