Heat treating (or heat treatment) is a group of industrial and metalworking processes used to alter the physical, and sometimes chemical, properties of a material. The most common application is metallurgical. Heat treatments are also used in the manufacture of many other materials, such as glass. Heat treatment involves the use of heating or chilling, normally to extreme temperatures, to achieve a desired result such as hardening or softening of a material. Heat treatment techniques include annealing, case hardening, precipitation strengthening, tempering, normalizing and quenching. It is noteworthy that while the term heat treatment applies only to processes where the heating and cooling are done for the specific purpose of altering properties intentionally, heating and cooling often occur incidentally during other manufacturing processes such as hot forming or welding.
Metallic materials consist of a microstructure of small crystals called "grains" or crystallites. The nature of the grains (i.e. grain size and composition) is one of the most effective factors that can determine the overall mechanical behavior of the metal. Heat treatment provides an efficient way to manipulate the properties of the metal by controlling the rate of diffusion and the rate of cooling within the microstructure. Heat treating is often used to alter the mechanical properties of a metallic alloy, manipulating properties such as the hardness, strength, toughness, ductility, and elasticity.
There are two mechanisms that may change an alloy's properties during heat treatment: the formation of martensite causes the crystals to deform intrinsically, and the diffusion mechanism causes changes in the homogeneity of the alloy.