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Close-up: Danny Codd

Lighter, stronger, greener: Escondido firm develops low-cost steel alloy

KVA Stainless Inc. is a research and development company involved in developing and promoting a martensitic stainless steel alloy that rivals the strength of titanium but is lower in cost and lighter in weight, making it suitable for many industrial applications, from automotive to agriculture, as well as oil and gas pipelines, sports equipment, aviation, medical devices and train cars.

Martensitic steel is one of five types of steel, and was developed to serve the need for alloys that were corrosion resistant and could be hardened via heat treatment. It is made from 100 percent recycled steel and, like all stainless steel, is fully recyclable. Martensitic steel costs about one-fourth as much as certain grades of titanium. It has mainly been used for applications that require wear resistance, hardness and strength, such as ball bearings and cutlery -- until now.

Entrepreneurial history

Ed McCrink, a self-trained metallurgist who fell in love with martensitic steel, founded the Escondido-based company to pursue his vision of using this commonly available material for uncommon applications that call for reduced weight and increased strength.

McCrink has had a string of successes starting in 1953, when he began a company called Hi-Temp that processed martensitic steel with heat treatment. He eventually sold that company and began one that manufactured smoke detectors.

In 1979 he moved from Chicago to the San Diego region and made a name for himself buying and selling parcels of land in Rancho Santa Fe.

McCrink, 88, continues to visit the KVA office every day, though he recruited his grandnephew Danny Codd to follow through on the research and design, turning his ideas into reality.

Codd, who has a master's degree from Stanford, several years of consulting experience and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at MIT, is the principal mechanical engineer at KVA. He is involved in the engineering, design and prototyping of the company's unique technology, which enables high-speed welding of the hard-to-process martensitic steel.

He also spends time talking with potential licensees and patent attorneys, wearing a half a dozen hats in his many roles. He and McCrink hold six patents for KVA's technology, with six more pending that focus on low-cost heat treatment and welding methods.

"Ed wanted to get martensitic steel out in the marketplace for hitherto unused applications, such as golf club shafts and bike frames and other uses," Codd said.

Lighter weight benefits auto industry

The technology developed by KVA won first place for innovation at an MIT competition that Codd entered.

"For the automotive industry, we can cut the frame weight upwards of 40 percent while still maintaining or increasing safety and strength, which makes for a lighter, safer car, which would lead to more fuel efficiency," Codd said.

Over the past few years, the company has worked with Ford (NYSE: F) on automotive structures, starting with a sample chassis for the F150 truck, then sub-frame components for the Ford Focus and bumper components for the Ford Freestyle.

"The association with Ford was very valuable in making advances," said Laurie McCrink, vice president of KVA and daughter of the founder.

KVA was in discussions with Ford about licensing the technology just around the time when the auto industry in Detroit collapsed and Ford ran out of money. The talks fell through.

But Ford introduced the company to the Auto/Steel Partnership in Detroit, a consortium of all the major U.S. automakers and automotive steel producers of North America.

"The consortium liked our technology so much that they created a task force to study it. Since the industry collapsed, things are in limbo right now and in the mean time, we are looking at the lower hanging fruit such as bicycle tubing, wheelchair frames and sporting goods like baseball bats," Codd explained.

Laurie McCrink said the company is in the process of prototyping for wheelchairs, golf shafts and lacrosse sticks.

KVA will focus on licensing its technology for high-volume, large-scale uses in the automotive and aeronautical industries. But for low-volume applications such as sporting goods, it will apply it in-house in Escondido, where it has a tube mill that produces seam-welded tubing. The unique method has attracted interest from bicycle manufacturers.

Durability means greater sustainability "It's more durable and corrosion resistant than other hardened steel, so it has longer product life, which makes it suitable for agriculture machinery like shears and combines," Codd said.

He explained that for a fraction of the cost of titanium, martensitic steel alloys provide a very high strength material that weighs significantly less and has myriad uses.

"It can be used for pipes in the oil and gas industry and petrochemicals, which makes it easy to ship more pipes. It increases the efficiency of heat exchangers, which consume less energy during the process," said Codd, adding that the material can also be used in place of chrome-plated steel, which uses proven carcinogens during chrome plating.

Public transit vehicles such as rail cars and bus bodies, which use low-strength steel, can be switched to martensitic stainless steel for frames with reduced weight, greater efficiency and lower costs, Codd said.

"This technology can replace anything with titanium, which is so expensive. Our product is lighter and cheaper," McCrink said.

Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance business writer.

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