As machinery clangs and hums, William H. “Bill” Best walks through the workspaces at Thermal Engineering, the company he founded in the early 1960s. Although 84 years old now, “the sear master” — inventor of infrared grilling — can still be found experimenting in the Columbia plant and laboratory where his groundbreaking ideas turn into remarkable equipment.
He is greeted by workers cutting stainless steel to be used in infrared grills of his design, the latest in a line that features his patented burners. He points to heating units that he designed decades ago still working in the building and one of several expansions added to their initial facility. The company built this expansion itself, except for a couple of special features, he explains. “I figured if we could build a grill, we could build a building.”
It stands to reason that there are few mechanical systems that Bill cannot figure out. He has turned his knowledge of infrared energy and his zeal for creative research into an innovative company that builds grills and many other infrared heat applications, some of which are way too big for any back porch. He also continues to pursue his life full of inventions. “I don’t ever want to retire,” he says.
“He can get carried away,” says Kenneth “Ken” Humphries, a longtime friend and dean emeritus and distinguished professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina College of Engineering. “He gets so focused that he gets lost in his work.”
From Rockets to Roasts
More than a half-century ago, Bill was working on guidance rockets for aerospace-giant Pratt & Whitney when the idea first came to him that would lead to the development of the first gas-powered infrared burner. At that time, he was also teaching in the School of Engineering at USC, but soon after, he founded Thermal Engineering Corporation to manufacture products that employed his new, patented infrared burner. That idea, constantly refined, is the basis of TEC heaters, industrial paint and curing systems, and grills being made today at the company’s rambling plant off of Bluff Road.
“Infrared grilling is superior,” Bill explains, “because it doesn’t dry out food the way conventional gas grills do. Conventional grills use convection burners and cook with hot air. That’s what causes the food to dry out.” The latest generation of TEC grills features a high-temperature glass plate under the grates. The glass plate radiates infrared energy and blocks hot air from the burners that dries out food and creates flare-ups.
Bill has worked to make sure that the grills come up to a very high temperature quickly to sear meats. TEC boasts that their top-end grills can reach between 850 and 900 degrees in seven minutes. Bill redesigns the burners constantly, testing new designs to make sure that the grill heats evenly with no hot or cold spots. “He believes research is constant improvement,” says Rachael Kearse Best, Bill’s wife and president of TEC. “He has told me many times, if you don’t obsolete yourself, somebody else will.”
The company’s first infrared grill was sold in 1978, and TEC grills from that era are still being used by customers to cook today. TEC makes its grills out of long-lasting stainless steel, but that can create an unusual business problem. “We don’t have a lot of return business,” Bill says with a smile.
When the patent for TEC’s first infrared grill expired, other companies rushed out their own versions. TEC began to sell its more modern line of grills featuring a 100 percent infrared cooking system under a new patent. “It’s more important to improve your product than to moan about the old patent expiring,” Bill says. “We got a free ride for 17 years and now the concept belongs to the public.”
Of course, with him the new ideas never seem to stop. With about 120 patents granted, even the United States Patent Office knows him as an expert. “If a patent application is received related to infrared heat, office employees reach for their files on Bill’s patents to see if it really is new, since they know he’s the expert,” Rachael says.
A Mind Working Constantly
Bill’s whole life is dotted with the ideas that have led to inventions. In the 1950s, he served as a bomber pilot in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War and then flew B-36 bombers in long, slow ellipses over the frozen North, staying airborne to counterattack against any Soviet nuclear strike. Those long flights gave him plenty of time to think about the challenge of getting the aircraft refueled for longer flying times. He and Dr. Frank Goddard refined the Hose-and-Drogue refueling system that allowed planes to refuel safely from a tanker aircraft, letting them stay aloft longer. Similar systems are still in use by the United States and other air forces today.
After founding TEC, Bill worked with the 3M Company to develop a ceramic material that would work well in infrared burners. The first use of the burners was not grilling, but in space heaters for commercial purposes. Heaters for commercial use is a business that TEC continues to explore and improve upon.
Bill used that heat technology in a project with Goodyear to work on early generations of radial tires. He received several patents for his work in getting the metal that gives radial tires their strength to bond with rubber compounds using infrared heat.
TEC heaters have found another home in the auto industry — in the paint shop. Automotive manufacturers such as Ford, Toyota, General Motors and BMW use infrared heat to cure automotive paint, either with a TEC system or with technology based on Bill’s patents. The company’s curing expertise also has been used in other industries, such as furniture, paper manufacturing and now aerospace.
TEC worked with Boeing at their North Charleston plant to develop a painting and curing process for the huge fuselage pieces of the 787 Dreamliner manufactured there. “The painting process,” Bill explains, “is very demanding. Curing the paint properly means getting the entire fuselage raised to the exact same temperature and humidity. Otherwise, it could cause problems with the composite material that the plane is constructed of. Also, the parts are so big that transporting them is a job in itself, so the painting and curing has to happen in the same space.”
For Boeing, TEC designed and installed a system called a “spoven,” a spray booth and oven combination, about 200 feet long. Computer software developed by TEC keeps the room’s climate uniform through the painting and curing process. Controlling those conditions can be an extra challenge in the heat and humidity of coastal South Carolina. “It controls the environment very accurately, and that’s key,” Bill says.
Tinkering at Work and Home
Bill continues to figure out how to make things better, both at home and at the office. He spends his time working in the lab while Rachael oversees most day-to-day operation at TEC. She estimates that he still works about 50 hours per week between the laboratory in the office and tinkering at home.
Rachael is accustomed to his experiments being all around the house too. Other women might be surprised to find their husband mixing ceramics using kitchen appliances, but not she. “I walked into the kitchen one day to find a note on the door of one of our ovens: ‘Do Not Open This Door.’ Bill was curing some new ceramics that he developed,” she says.
She jokes about his “hobbies” including designing lighting fixtures for their home. Bill ordered one, examined it and wasn’t impressed, so he’s been designing lights for their home himself. “I said, ‘Can’t we just go buy some?’” she laughs. Bill also designed the house’s heating and air conditioning system, which circulates water from the adjacent lake rather than air. It’s very efficient and much quieter than standard air-blowing systems.
A renovation project on the coast of South Carolina created a need for a barge. Buy one? Oh no — the 44-foot-long vessel took shape at their plant, built by TEC employees over a two-year period when there was downtime between jobs. “At first it was more of a barge,” Rachael says, “but then came a cabin, complete with running water, air conditioning and a bathroom. They had so much fun with that.”
Ken, who was an undergraduate at USC a couple of years ahead of Bill, says that Bill and TEC have built a core of knowledge about infrared heat and its mechanical applications here in Columbia. “If there is a main center for infrared, it would be in Columbia,” he says. “On his subject, you know right off the bat that this guy knows his stuff. Even with that, you would never see Bill act like he’s something special because of his inventions or business success. Bill is always glad to discuss what he’s working on and isn’t eager to talk up his successes. He would never tell you how great he is.”
After giving a tour of the TEC facility, Bill is ready to get right back into his lab to figure out whatever technical challenge has drawn his attention. That’s not surprising, according to Ken. “He won’t be disturbed until he solves the problem,” he says. “The way his brain works — he’ll never really retire.”