MetalCasting Design & Purchasing

Metalcasting Vs. Urban Sprawl

Residences and industry don’t mix. So as housing sectors continue to spread outward from city centers and cover vast tracts of once prime industrial land, manufacturers can fall victim.

But we think metalcasting can take on urban sprawl with the best of them.

The question is this: when residential zoning surrounds a metalcasting facility, will the company be nimble enough to respond? Will it be able to eliminate odors? Lower noise volumes? Find ways to expand capacity without encroaching on land earmarked for other purposes?

We think Smith Foundry, Minneapolis, is nimble enough.

In a recent article in the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune, Smith Foundry owner Neil Ahlstrom talks about some of the challenges his ferrous job shop has faced when trying to grow through new zoning restrictions. To overcome one of the challenges, the company has had to engineer an alternative sand system. For another, it is looking into noise and vibration mitigation strategies.

We’d put up an 88-year-old metalcasting facility against urban sprawl any day.

Ferrari is Backing Aluminum

An article from Popular Mechanics today highlights Ferrari’s commitment to increasing the aluminum content of its vehicles for weight reduction while other luxury and performance car makers are leaning toward carbon fibers. 

According to the article, Ferrari sees aluminum as better suited for production and is taking advantage of improvements in casting technologies to achieve walls as thin as 2 mm. The use of metal matrix composites also will help reduce car weight.

The article reminded us of an aluminum engine cradle for the Cadillac CTS that was converted from steel which achieved a 40% mass reduction and 2.2 lb. weight savings.

Aluminum’s been in manufacturing for more than 150 years, but Ferrari’s experience shows it’s still cutting edge.

Intern’s Blog—Giftwrapped Castings

After seeing my first metalcasting facility, touring a diecasting plant was next up on my journey through the metalcasting industry. I had the opportunity to visit Chicago White Metal Castings Inc., Bensenville, Ill. This particular diecasting plant is in its third-generation of family-run operations dating back to 1937. It specializes in aluminum, magnesium and zinc die castings.

The foundry is a one- stop, full service shop. It makes castings, finish-machines them and incorporates them into complete assemblies before wrapping them up in nice little packages to send straight to the consumers. To me, the plant itself was a nice little package: everything was done right there inside the building. No need to travel around town, it’s all there in one location to fulfill all your die casting needs. It was a fast and efficient process that was cool to see first-hand.
It felt as if the shop transformed the finished die castings into presents for its buyers. The packaging and shipping department assembled the finished castings and sent them out like gifts—gifts that quietly make the world go round. The company’s employees were working hard to cover all the aspects of producing a die casting as part of their normal day’s work, but sadly, tying the parts with a nice bow was left out.

Cast Iron Street Signs Prevail

At the beginning of this year, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation issued a 2018 deadline for all street signs to be standard across the state: six-inch lettering and a highly reflective coating, according to an Ardmore article. This would replace the historical, cast iron signs in Lower Merion Township that appear on every street corner.

The town’s historical commission took it upon themselves to protect the historical signs from being replaced, not only for the signs’ historical significance, but for the financial burden and environmental concerns the new signs introduce.

Like the metalcasting industry, the street signs have been around for a while and are still in a good condition. Only minimal maintenance is required for these 100-year-old signs, and the new signs are only predicted to last 10 years.

Luckily, the township had the 2018 deadline postponed and the cast iron street signs will be gracing the corners of the Lower Merion Township for at least seven more years.

Alcoa Still Committed to Castings

Alcoa is by any measure a giant in the metals game, so it’s a good sign that the company has remained committed to its casting branch since purchasing Howmet in 2000.

The company recently filmed a spot for the Fox Business Network's American Icon series at the Alcoa Howmet plant in Whitehall, Mich. The setting makes sense: the investment casting facility is a leader in the production of parts for the high-tech turbine industry and immaculately maintained.

While the video features an interview with Alcoa CEO Klaus Kleinfeld and primarily is focused on the state of the international aluminum market, it opens with a discussion of the turbine blades produced at the metalcasting facility. Using the setting is the second indication this month Alcoa still puts a lot of stock in maintaining diversification through casting. On Oct. 12, Alcoa announced the Whitehall plant had shipped its 1,000th set of titanium investment castings to weapons manufacturer BAE Systems for the 155-mm M777 Howitzer program.

"Many do not realize Alcoa provides titanium, as well as aluminum solutions," said David Dobson, Alcoa Defense president, in the announcement.

If the company continues to highlight its metalcasting capabilities, that perception could change.

Castings in New Orleans Pump Station Hold Great Responsibility

Back in September 2010, we published a short article on 57,000-lb. ductile iron castings produced by St. Marys Foundry, St. Marys, Ohio. The castings were used to protect New Orleans against future floods as part of the world’s largest drainage pump station, which was a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project.

Recently, we had the chance to visit another metalcasting facility contributing to the project. Bay Cast Inc., Bay City, Mich., cast 10-ft. diameter steel propellers for the pumping station, which is designed to handle the amount of water associated with a 100-year-flood. Each of the station’s 11 pumps must be able to handle 800,000 gallons/minute.


According to Max Holman, Bay Cast, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers kept communication open between the casting supplier and its own design/purchasing team and was receptive to ideas to reduce the risk of potential casting manufacturing issues before patterns were finalized.  One result of this communication included designing the propellers at steeper angles so more water could be pumped through.

It’s always humbling to stand aside monstrous castings that you can literally step into, but it is even more humbling to think about the responsibility those castings have to the safety of millions of individuals, whether the parts help prevent devastating floods or serve as structural support for our world’s bridges and buildings.

Eight of the pumps were up and running in June in time for New Orleans’ hurricane season. The entire West Closure Complex project, which includes the drainage pump station, was 88% complete as of September. We are confident the castings used in the pump station will be up to their weighty assignment.

Southern Comfort

When I recently learned about cast iron cookware manufacturer Lodge Manufacturing, I went home and looked at my collection of pots and pans. Lo and behold, I owned one of the company’s cast iron skillets. It’s a skillet that has been in my family for years.

I was curious to use the cast iron skillet. That weekend, I was going to a tailgate party before a football game and needed to bring a dish. Cornbread was a quick and simple recipe. I was excited to bring it to the tailgate for all my friends to enjoy.

It was a brisk fall day, so my friends decided to warm up with a nice bowl of hot chili and my cornbread. The chili was a hit, but they also raved about the cornbread. I was glad they were enjoying my contribution as much as I enjoyed making it in a cast iron skillet.

I showed off my knowledge of Lodge Manufacturing, telling the crowd that Lodge was based in the small town of South Pittsburg, Tenn., and the only cast iron cookware foundry in the U.S. The company has been around since 1896 making its products. My friends shared stories about their own cast iron skillets and wondered if they were Lodge Manufacturing products too. The cornbread was gobbled up, and the tailgate was an overall success, especially because our team also won.

Knowing what I know now about where my cast iron skillet comes from and the delicious food you can make on it, I feel comforted. My newly acquired knowledge of the metalcasting industry helped me out of a jam, and it also brought cast iron skillet cooking back into my life.

Knowing Technology When You See It

Brian Eno is one kooky musician. (He's well known for his frequent collaborations with the equally kooky David Byrne of the Talking Heads.) But even Eno knows the value of a metal casting.

In a recent interview about the role of technology in music, Eno talked about how the metal casting used to make a grand piano was instrumental in advancing the art form.

“The concert grand piano as we know it today really depended on the state of iron-casting technology,” he told U.K.-based periodical The Telegraphy. “Prior to the pianos of the mid-19th century, frames were wooden, so the pianos could only be put under a certain amount of tension and therefore could never really be that loud. The first iron-framed pianos were called pianofortes…the pianoforte could be used against a full orchestra and still be heard.”

That’s a pretty cool feather in metalcasting’s cap (and one we’ve reviewed before in our magazine), but it’s Eno’s discussion of the nature of technology that really kept us interested in the interview.

“As my friend Danny Hillis the inventor said, technology is the name we give to things that don’t work yet,” he said. “When it works, we don’t call it technology anymore.”

Metalcasting is one of the world’s oldest technologies. But it works so well and is so integral in modern society that many people don’t even think of it as technology anymore. It’s a good thing the world has kooky musicians to remind us of these things.

Vodka Ad Uses Casting to Speak to the People

Metalcasting is transformative.

That’s at least one thing you can take away from a new advertisement by vodka producer Smirnoff. In the ad, a metalcaster takes the awards and trophies the company has allegedly won for its great tasting product and melts them down in an electric furnace. The foundryman then pours the molten metal into an open mold, where it solidifies into words that spell out what the company really wants to win: “The People’s Challenge.”

Whether the creative team at Smirnoff intended some deeper meaning or not, the advertisement speaks to the utilitarian nature of metalcasting. The process takes something virtually useless, like scrap metal, and turns it into something useful, like a butterfly valve. Smirnoff uses this transformative power to turn its awards, which “look great on a shelf,” into a symbol of something useful: how people think the product tastes.

Another thing you can take away from the advertisement is that Smirnoff is quite proud of its vodka. But that’s a subject for a different blog entirely.

Intern’s Blog—The Five Senses of a Foundry

The time had come to see a metalcasting facility, and I was amped for my first tour.  I had only seen pictures and videos, and this in no way, shape or form could substitute for visiting the real thing. I had a vague idea of what to expect, but that idea was quickly turned upside down.

Although seeing pictures and watching videos was handy for learning the basics of metalcasting, I was only using my eyes. On my first plant tour, the rest of my senses were stimulated. The sights, smells and sounds were overpowering at first, but I was ready to be fully immersed in it and experience the real thing. The burning of the molten metals and chemicals could be smelled throughout the place. This was something the videos couldn’t prepare me for, a tough smell for a tough industry. 

Another thing I wasn’t expecting and couldn’t experience viewing videos or pictures was the heat emanating from the molten metal. It was so hot, I thought I would leave with a sunburn or a tan. The workers handling the molten metal were decked from head to toe in safety outfits I thought resembled spacesuits—they were fully protected and safe, and I was given an idea for my Halloween costume. 

Something that immediately caught my eye upon entering the work floor was the hypnotic glow of the molten metal. I couldn’t turn away from the beautiful, bright gleam. A gooey glowing river of molten metal flowed effortlessly into its assigned mold, and I was mesmerized.  If you looked too long, your eyes would sting, but it was hard not to stare. 

Taking in a metalcasting facility’s sounds offered another adventure. Loud booms, screeches, pops and buzzes rang in my ears. The only sense I didn’t experience was taste. I think that’s for the best.

The environment was noisy, hot and laced with smells, and I truly tip my hat to the hardworking metalcasting men and women who provide us with the service of making castings. Having gone behind the scenes of the metalcasting process, I was impressed by all the workers and steps it takes to go from concept to finished casting. The entire facilityworks together to manufacture the perfect part, and all the sights, sounds and smells are added perks.


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