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Titans of the Industry – Hypertherm’s Dick Couch

Dick Couch revolutionized plasma cutting while also building one of the most well-respected companies in the industry

The team at Shop Floor Lasers typically focuses on laser cutting, but as many of our readers know, plasma cutting is a formidable rival for many types and thicknesses of material. Plasma, however, would have never been the viable option it is today if it weren’t for Dick Couch, founder of Hypertherm Inc., a global leader in advanced metal-cutting methods.

The advancements Couch made some 50 years ago changed the way manufacturers and fabricators would tackle thick cutting jobs moving forward. His advancements also put him in the elite group of Titans of the Industry.

Building off of the company’s long-running experience in the cutting industry, Hypertherm offers plasma as well as laser to cut thin and thick metals.

Collegiate achievements

The wheels started turning for Couch in 1965 as a student at Dartmouth College where he received his engineering degree from Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering. It was at Dartmouth that Couch met a professor who became his mentor – an M.I.T.-educated mechanical engineer named Robert “Bob” Dean Jr. Throughout his life, Dean has founded or co-founded 11 companies, including Creare Inc., which Couch would join after graduating from Dartmouth.Dean’s energy and passion for engineering had an effect on many students like Couch throughout the years. Dean joined Dartmouth’s engineering school in 1961 as an associate professor. To commemorate his long-successful career at the school, he was given the title of professor emeritus.

“Bob Dean and my stepfather, Howard Head, were my biggest influences in regard to my interest in engineering,” Couch said recently. As would be proven in the years to come, these influences resulted in great things for the young college student. 

At Dartmouth, Dean helped develop an advanced version of Introduction to Engineering called Internship in Engineering, which is where he met Couch. The focus of that course was to resolve a defect in a small industrial printer developed by the Markum Corp. The solution for the defect was to cost no more than $100. Couch made a good impression on Dean on their first encounter as he solved the problem at a cost of $20 – something none of his classmates could come close to achieving.“Markum was so impressed that they hired sophomore Couch as a consultant,” Dean fondly recalled.

 

Dick Couch, the founder of Hypertherm Inc., revolutionized plasma cutting to make it the successful fabricating method known today.

A company is born

The impetus behind the plasma cutting technology that Dean and Couch would invent actually got its start at Creare in 1965. Dean was in charge of a project for the Air Force that involved improving the anodes of the plasma jet thrusters for deep space travel.

“It needed a very tight, very precise plasma arc test apparatus,” Dean said, “which Creare designed and built.”

The success of that project convinced Dean that Creare should get involved in the plasma arc industry. Dean had an idea about how to fix the problem related to anode/nozzle premature melting after visiting a manufacturer based in New Jersey. At that time, plasma cutting was really only effective on stainless steel measuring ½ in. thick or less. There was also dross buildup associated with those cuts as well as double arcing.

Therefore, Dean and Couch worked together to develop a business plan for a new company. They pitched their plan to a couple of companies on the East Coast hoping they could secure the research and development funding they needed, but their proposal failed to generate interest. A lack of interest, however, did not stop the two from their pursuit. They set out on their own in 1968 after pulling together $60,000 in startup capital from family, friends and associates and operated under the wing of Creare.

Within the first six months of establishing Hypertherm, they developed water-injection plasma cutting, the first step toward eventually making the company an industry leader. In doing so, they improved cuts and prolonged the life of the cutting apparatus. “It worked very well because it could not melt and it pinched and accelerated the plasma jet to a very high velocity,” Dean said. “Our Water-Arc solved all of the plasma arc cutter’s defects and launched Hypertherm’s worldwide business, spun off from Creare.”

Unfortunately, they were cruising through their research and development money and had missed production deadlines, making Creare’s board of directors hesitant to keep Hypertherm under Creare’s wing. Finally, board members voted to rid Creare of Hypertherm. Dean said he watched as Hypertherm “fell clunk into the sea. I looked over the rail and there was Dick in a little rowboat yelling ‘I will buy it for 30 cents on the dollar!’, i.e. $10,000. So Creare sold it, and Dick started Hypertherm.”

Hypertherm’s new life started in a two-car garage with Couch and five associates. Slowly, however, the hard work began to pay off, Couch noted in 2013 while addressing attendees at a conference about creating a positive work environment.“After a particularly good month we’d celebrate with a case of beer and a volleyball game on Friday afternoon,” Couch said, adding that once they increased production at Hypertherm with a second shift, beer was taken out of the celebration, but the volleyball and camaraderie lived on.

Couch started Hypertherm in a two-car garage with just five associates. Today, there are 1,300-plus working around the globe.

The early days of plasma cutting

Many innovations, including advances in welding and torch cutting technology, came out of World War II. The defense industry needed to feed the war machine at a faster rate – especially at the onset of the war. Engineers answered the call when they came up with a new welding process that could join light metal together more effectively. The process used an electric arc to melt the metal, and it increased the rate at which they could churn out airplanes. This laid the groundwork for where plasma cutting is today.

When the conventional plasma arc cutting technique was developed in 1957, the process involved a plasma jet, which was generated by dry arc constriction. Workers could now sever metal as thick as 10 in. However, cuts were beveled at the top, and double arcing damaged the nozzle and the electrode, requiring them to be replaced frequently.

Five years later in 1963, the dual-flow plasma arc became a patented device. This evolution involved adding a secondary gas shield around the plasma nozzle, and when used with a ceramic gas cup, the likelihood of double arcing was significantly decreased. Air plasma cutting was introduced the same year and increased cutting speeds by 25 percent over plasma cutting that used nitrogen.

In 1965, water shield plasma cutting was introduced to the metalworking industry. Rather than using the gas shield, water was substituted, which offered a cooling effect. However, there was little improvement in dross accumulation and the cuts were still beveled. Furthermore, arc constriction wasn’t improved. The stage, therefore, was set for Hypertherm, Couch and his associates to step in with their innovative addition to the technology.

Hypertherm’s common stock was transferred into an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), making the company 100 percent employee owned.

Developing the differentiators

Despite the faster cutting speeds workers were seeing with the mid-1960s technology, Couch notes that “plasma arc cut quality was very poor, which limited the use of plasma cutting of mild steel.” With that and other shortcomings in mind, Couch was determined to improve the technology from top to bottom.

Hypertherm’s new water-injection technique introduced another first to the industry. Instead of relying on several different types of gas for cutting, the Hypertherm system used only one: nitrogen. This single gas requirement made plasma cutting more economical and easier to use since customers no longer had to purchase and stock several types of gas. Customers also saw a marked improvement in nozzle life because steam from the water helped to cool and protect the nozzle, significantly slowing down its wear rate.

Couch’s invention used water that was radially injected around a nitrogen plasma arc. While air plasma cutting was more effective than nitrogen plasma cutting, Couch’s inclusion of water with nitrogen proved to be an effective solution. The narrow channel squeezed the arc into a tighter, more powerful cutting stream. The result was a faster cut with far less dross, longer consumable life and less angularity. Carbon steel thinner than 0.625 in. could actually be cut with no dross.“In the startup days of Hypertherm, I spent long hours in the lab and at the drafting table,” Couch said, reminding readers that back then, computer-aided drafting did not yet exist. “I was also working with the early users of Hypertherm plasma cutting.”

Couch quickly patented his new radially injected water technique and unveiled Hypertherm’s introductory plasma cutter, the PAC400. For the first time, plasma was a real option for people needing to quickly and cost-effectively cut through metal. The popularity of the PAC400 grew, as did Hypertherm’s reputation as the world leader in plasma cutting.

Focus, inspiration and determination led Couch and Hypertherm associates to innovate further. They had one goal in mind: to continue to make plasma cutting more accurate, more cost effective, safer and easier for people to use.

This goal led Couch and his associates to engineer the water table and water muffler plasma cutting processes. This involved using a water table to control the hot metal particles associated with plasma cutting while also relying on the water shield to reduce smoke, ultraviolet glare and noise – ultimately producing a safer product for the marketplace. Whether it was reducing the noise and smoke caused by plasma cutting, developing underwater- and oxygen-based systems or finding ways to build even faster and more accurate systems, Hypertherm was at the forefront and has been so ever since.

Though Couch is obviously a good businessman, he’s an engineer at heart and has stayed true to his engineering roots. Today, Hypertherm employs a small army of engineers focused not only on plasma technology, but on other cutting technologies, such as laser and waterjet. In fact, Hypertherm was the first company in the industry to develop a fiber laser system optimized for cutting. Throughout the years, Hypertherm has earned 111 patents with Couch as the inventor or co-inventor of around half of those patents.

Couch at the grand opening of the Heater Road facility in Lebanon, N.H., in 2013 with New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan.

A shared legacy

With dozens of patents under his belt, Couch has cemented his legacy within the industry. He’s also created a culture of quality at his company that should be a model for all to follow. For instance, he has never referred to the workers at Hypertherm as “employees.” They’ve always been “associates.”

“We don’t like the word management or employee,” Couch said of he and his wife Barbara, who joined the company in 1987 to establish the human resources department. “To us it implies two separate classes of people with different rules. That doesn’t strike us as a way to make the company feel like one team.”

The company has also adhered to a no-layoff policy, even during times of recession. Instead of letting associates go during the most recent economic downfall, Hypertherm kept them on for different jobs. For instance, some associates were able to transition to grounds keeping jobs, which were outsourced previously. Others had experience with dry wall and HVAC, which meant expansion efforts could go ahead as planned using associates rather than third parties.

“These (people) aren’t machine tools,” Couch said. “They are family and they rely on you for a place to work.”

A Hypertherm plasma cutting and gouging process was using on the Ruby Pipeline, a 675 mile, 42-in.-wide pipeline under construction in the western United States.

Couch took it a step further in 2001 when the company announced the transfer of its common stock into an employee stock ownership plan, which put 32 percent of the company in the hands of the associates. Couch said they talk to associates about ownership and accountability when they are enrolled after their first year of employment in an effort to instill a sense of accountability.

“We’re not going to get everybody feeling they’re the owner of their own business,” Couch admitted. “But if we can get 50 to 70 percent of our associates feeling accountable in what we’re doing, we’re so much further ahead than a company trying to forge their workforce based on money or, more typically, based upon fear.”

In January of 2014, Dick and Barbara transferred their majority interest to the stock ownership plan. They had offers that were more lucrative, but it’s not what they felt was important for the company. Dick remains involved as chairman of Hypertherm and Barbara retains her role as president of the company’s HOPE philanthropic foundation. There are currently 1,300-plus people working for Hypertherm around the globe.

Hypertherm Inc.