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Dr. Richard Schmid: Great expectations for thermal spray coatings

Advances make this technology essential to design and the environment

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Dr. Richard Schmid, Chief Technology Officer at Oerlikon Metco, was inducted into the ASM Thermal Spray Hall of Fame on May 27 at the ITSC (International Thermal Spray Conference), held this year in Yokohama, Japan. The organization honored him “for innovative technical contributions to abradable and tribological coatings, for development and commercialization of cascade plasma technologies, plasma spray PVD and leadership in thermal spray research, education and applications.

 We spoke with Dr. Schmid about the path his career took and his vision of the future of thermal spray technology.

The son of Swiss immigrants to South Africa, Richard Schmid grew up in Johannesburg and completed an engineering degree in metallurgy and minerals processing at the University of Witwatersrand. But his education in industry and customer relationships began years earlier.

“My father owned the largest, most specialized hydraulic cylinders company in South Africa,” he says. “I spent a lot of my time in the factory helping him during vacations, working on the machines or in the design office. He also did something unusual: he would take me out of school and take me to the mines and meet customers.”

Those childhood experiences became the seed of his interest in technical matters, and his combined expertise in mechanical engineering and materials science remains an advantage to this day. “There aren’t many people who understand the machine and the materials,” he says. “I can cover both areas very well.”

From chance encounters to career-long challenges

At the same time, his Swiss ancestry played an unexpected role in changing the course of his personal and professional life.

In 1985, he obtained a Swiss passport so he could get a job in Switzerland and explore Europe from that base. “I didn’t have any intention of staying longer and basically took the first job that came around,” he says. “Purely by chance, it was with Sulzer, in the tribology laboratory—so that’s friction and wear.”

At Sulzer, he got his first exposure to thermal spray technology. The topic so fascinated him that, with the company’s support, he completed his Ph.D. at the Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich. His thesis topic was New High Temperature Abradables for Gas Turbines. This early work in his career led to his position as CTO of Sulzer Metco, which is now Oerlikon Metco after the acquisition of Metco by the Oerlikon Group in 2014. But even more unexpectedly, Schmid’s plan for a brief working holiday led him not only to his career path, but also to meeting the Swiss anesthesiologist who became his wife.

“You cannot have a coating failure.”

What continues to intrigue him about thermal spray technologies?

As machines become more refined and better optimized, functional surfaces become a higher priority — and surface modification technologies like thermal spray become keys to future advances. You can already see that, he notes, in the example of gas turbines for jet engines and the role thermal spray plays in protecting them and keeping them functional.

“Obviously, people gained understanding of the technology over the years,” he says. “But expectations of coatings have increased, as well. Look at some of the blading that you have in gas turbines. The gas temperatures are way above the melting point of the substrate. They’re protected with cooling systems, but also with coatings. So the term ‘prime reliance’ becomes extremely important. If the coating fails, the part fails — so you cannot have a coating failure.”

Even with his background in tribology, he never expected that brake discs could benefit from coating. But Oerlikon has developed a coating that not only lasts the life of the brake disc, but also made it cost-competitive for automotive and not just aviation. That’s one of the core challenges for the industry: in addition to improving the technology so that it becomes essential, advances must reduce costs so that the technology becomes accessible enough to be essential.

Daily challenges and continual learning

“These are the challenges that we face day to day,” Schmid says of his team. “On the development and production side, how do we produce the materials very cheaply? How do we have high yields when we apply these materials using thermal spray? And how do we keep the rework, the grinding, to a minimum?”

The answers to these questions drive innovation and discovery. “Something that’s exciting is that I keep learning every day,” Schmid says. “One thing I didn’t know is that almost half of particle emissions come from brake discs. These coating technologies can almost eliminate that. We reduce a lot of particulates in cities by using protective coatings on brake discs. That means you’re not just contributing to a longer life and better braking characteristics — you’re also doing something for the environment.”

Although his path from tribology to thermal spray coatings happened by chance, he recommends that route to people entering the field. “Friction and wear are very much a system properties, so there’s a high complexity to it,” he says. “If you can understand and handle that, you’re well equipped to go into any surface protection or surface coating industry. I think I’d start off there again. It gives me a very good foundation to this day and would be a really good foundation for anyone coming into the industry. We need to appreciate science and keep using science and engineering to develop the art.”

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