Ken receiving the Special Lifetime Service Award.
Ken receiving the Special Lifetime Service Award.

In a year full of sad news, one in particular affected the team at Metal Powder Report, with reports that that our long time consulting editor Ken Brookes, Eur Ing, CEng, FIMMM, BSc(Eng)Met, passed away on 11 October 2020, aged 92, shortly after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Ken was a giant in the field of hardmetal processing and contributed to the magazine for more than 30 years, sharing his expertise and broad knowledge of carbides and hardmetals in a series of articles. Besides the magazine, his magnum opus was the World Directory and Handbook of Hardmetals and Hard Materials, of which he compiled six editions, and he also acted as the chairman of British Standards committee MTE/18 Small Tools and Cutting-Tool Materials. For Ken, hardmetals were the most important aspect of powder metallurgy: ‘In industrial, economic and technological (though not employment or tonnage) terms, the most important sector of the powder metallurgy industry is the production of hardmetals, also known as sintered or cemented carbides,’ he wrote in a 2010 article.

In 2017, he received an EPMA Special Lifetime Service Award, presented at Euro PM2017 in Milan, Italy, for his contributions and association with the hardmetal and hard material community over a long period.

Ken was also a former president of the UK Chartered Institute of Journalists, served on the Institute’s council and was a past chairman of the its freelance division and international division, besides remaining as its copyright representative for more than 40 years.

Secret work

Ken’s hardmetal career began in 1951, when in his early twenties, after an education at St Albans County Grammar and London University, he took a role with hardmetal manufacturer Tungsten Electric Co (Teco) in London (Figure 2.) ‘The appointment was based on some modest experience of powder metallurgy […] some early work on PM titanium, and some highly secret work on uranium for Britain's Tube Alloys project at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, about a kilometer away near London's Euston Station,’ Ken wrote in an 2017 article for Metal Powder Report. (The Tube Alloys project, of course, was the codename for the research and development program run in the UK to develop nuclear weapons during the Second World War.)

On his appointment, Ken was the only scientifically qualified individual on the staff, so had no-one to teach him the technological ropes except the knowledgeable factory foreman. ‘Laboratory facilities were basic and would be considered very primitive today,’ Ken wrote. At the time, they included combustion carbon, Fisher Sub-Sieve Sizer (Figure 3) Rockwell and Vickers hardness testing machines, precision balance for density measurements, a transverse rupture test machine and an optical metallurgical microscope taking glass plates. ‘No magnetic tests of any kind, no SEM, nothing electronic (this was the early 1950s), though I did add a Wheatstone bridge for special purposes later on,’ he added. ‘Because surface flow is scarcely a hazard with sintered hardmetals, we used die-polishing rather than standard metallographic techniques to prepare test specimens for microexamination. We could go from fracture to polished surface in less than 10 min.’

The enterprising young Ken, however, saw this relative dearth of equipment as a plus. ‘Most research and development had to be carried out in the factory on the latest production plant,’ he wrote. ‘As a result, all my investigations were made at full scale, typically with a 5 kg minimum powder sample, and by necessity I had to find a valid commercial use for the experimental material from any research project. Although to academics this might be thought a severe limitation, in fact it concentrated the mind wonderfully toward commercial development.’

Back then, there were no vacuum furnaces, no attritors, and no hot isostatic pressing (HIP) – which had not yet been invented! ‘At the time, therefore, porous sintered carbide would have been scrap rather than easily rectified,’ Ken wrote.

Compiling data

After this baptism of fire, Ken left the company in 1961 to marry, with plans to get into industrial journalism and authorship. Ken had already collaborated in the late 1950s in a UK government project to evaluate all hardmetals available in the UK for machining ‘difficult-to-deform’ metallic materials – exercising his skills in compiling information and using his already broad knowledge of the industry. ‘With Roderick McLeod's permission and encouragement, I started publishing my grade charts, now expanded to the world's cemented carbides rather than just those sold in the UK, initially in Britain but eventually in German, Italian and US technical magazines,’ Ken wrote. ‘By the 1970s I’d acquired so many catalogues, reference manuals and the like, and visited so many hardmetal producers, that I felt that it was time to publish a reference book with even more data.’ That was the first World Directory & Handbook of Hardmetals, ‘which caused shockwaves in the industry’, because it lifted the lid on what was (and still is) a very secretive industry. ‘As in the world of espionage and code-breaking, it is frustrating to carry out research knowing that the more successful it is, the less likelihood there is of publication and public recognition,’ he wrote. ‘Thus it was in the hardmetal industry in the 1950s or at least in the tiny corner that I occupied.’

Ken began his longstanding relationship with Metal Powder Report in February 1990, with an article about reclaiming tungsten powders. From there, he became the magazine’s unofficial ‘editor at large’, reporting on new technology and products from trade shows across the world, including EMO, Winterev, the Plansee Conference, PM2TEC, EuroPM and the World Congress. As well as reporting on up to the minute technology, he also covered more mainstream topics such as the possibility of sintering metal powders in outer space in 2005 and how sintered carbide tooling played a vital role in the rescue of the Chilean miners in 2010. Always looking towards the future, he visited the 3D Print Show in 2014, suggesting that ‘with mass production, even the prices of additive powder metallurgy machines are already within the grasp of better schools as well as specialist universities and the smallest industrial units’.

Ken continued working indefatigably into 2020, despite the Covid-19 pandemic restricting his opportunities to travel, discover new technology and network with his peers. His last article covered ‘important but as yet unreported contributions’ to EPMA’s 2019 Maastricht congress.

We at Metal Powder Report would like to salute Ken’s enthusiasm for the industry, his knowledge that was both broad and deep, his conviviality and his loyalty to the magazine. He will be much missed.