In Search of Lightning Bolt

(Click here to see the story as it appears in the March/April edition of Metal Casting Design & Purchasing.)

Lights. Camera. Action.

The spotlights will be on the metalcasting supply chain during the upcoming CastExpo extravaganza in Minneapolis in April. With thousands of attendees and hundreds of exhibitors, I will feel like a kid in a candy store throughout the four-day event.

Castings…ooohhh…Advanced Technology…aaahhh…Industry Experts.

Every way you turn on the show floor or in the education arenas, something will capture your eye. This once-every-three year happening is the one and only time the entire supply chain comes together to discuss the present and future of metalcasting

Yes, I am a little excited. My hope is that you are as well.

Even in today’s mobile-device driven world, the value of face-to-face communication is priceless. Whether you engage a casting supplier on the show floor, an expert in an interactive education session or a colleague in the hotel bar, the opportunity to have that verbal and nonverbal exchange of ideas is what can help lead to the breakthroughs that propel you into the future.

The development of these lightning bolt ideas is discussed in a blog post at www.metalcastingdesign.com and in our Blog Roll column on p. 1. In his work titled, “Originals,” author Adam Grant tries to combat the misconception that ground-breaking advances are somehow the result of fate. Rather, they are the result of hard work, character and, more often than not, previous failures.

“When you remember that rules and systems were created by people, it becomes clear that they’re not set in stone—and you begin to consider how they can be improved,” wrote Grant.

This proposition underlines the importance of a trade show with the expansive exhibit floor and education opportunities of CastExpo. This is the chance to discuss successes and failures without the pressure of the day-to-day staring you in the face. This is the chance to examine and dream about additive manufacturing, self-healing alloys and optimized supply chains that might revolutionize your business.

As you walk around the convention center in Minneapolis, keep your eyes open for the lightning bolts as they strike. My guess is that it will be an electrifying four days.

Novel Solutions: Color Outside the Lines

If cartoons have taught me anythi… Wait a minute. Of the many lessons I’ve learned from cartoons, one concept that’s clear is inspiration strikes quickly. The light bulb goes on above your head and the great idea seems so simple.

In “Originals,” Adam Grant argues, while such lightning strikes may happen, they aren’t as common as people think. His take on “how non-conformists move the world,” as the book’s subtitle reads, examines in depth what goes into these memorable innovations. Using social science studies combined with telling anecdotes, Grant tries to combat the common misconception that ground-breaking advances are somehow a result of fate. Rather, achievement is the result of hard work, character and, more often than not, previous failures.

The most resonant message of “Originals” focuses on how organizations can excel by fostering creativity and nonconformity in its individuals. These lessons are also the most applicable for managers and executives. Grant’s critical examination of platitudes like “thinking outside the box” is enlightening in distinguishing between lip-service and real strategy. Commitment to the cause is important; groupthink is destructive.

Attention is paid to improving one’s own ability to foster and harness originality. In this, “Originals” can be an interesting work that forces the reader to examine thought processes and actions. Grant dives into what goes into becoming an effective risk-taker, which includes less glamorous things like research and hedging. It also takes work, which is evidenced by describing how many failures were left in Thomas Edison’s wake, for example. We remember his successes, but the hundred of patents that fill filing cabinets show it’s not only about quality. The best idea cannot be the only idea.

Grant’s stories about Jackie Robinson and Steve Jobs are delivered in novel fashion, even if the cliffhanger delivery relies a bit too much on a final reveal. But for those in the business, specifically metalcasting, this book does more to improve performance at the office than elsewhere.

A professor at the Wharton School of Business, Grant writes with an ease and authority that makes “Originals” readable. The book hopes to foster creativity in the name of advancement. To that end, it delivers a few lessons worth learning—at least as many as you’ll glean from Tom & Jerry reruns.

Showcase Your Design Prowess

The holiday season continues for our magazine staff as boxes full of surprises still arrive at our doorsteps. The reason? It is the Annual Casting Competition submission season.

Entries are rolling in to our offices. Peanuts and popcorn (at least Styrofoam versions) are flying as we unpack each masterpiece. Our magazine staff is proud of everything we produce through Metal Casting Design & Purchasing, Modern Casting and Global Casting magazines.  But once a year, the excitement peaks when the castings arrive for judging.

It is hard to believe the Annual Casting Competition we sponsor is in its 16th year.  From the first Casting of the Year—the lost foam cast aluminum oil filter/cooler adapter for Mack Trucks—to the V-process cast steel crawler transporter’s tread belt shoe for NASA that won in 2005 to last year’s ablation sand cast aluminum space frame nodes for Honda, our winners have showcased the diversity and ingenuity of metalcasting’s capabilities.

If you haven’t participated in our Casting Competition, I urge you take a chance. The entry form is on p. 49. Every year, we have castings named Casting of the Year, Best-in-Class or Honorable Mention that represent all metals, processes and end-use markets.  We have submissions from casting buyers as well as metalcasters. Our judges examine what the casting achieved in its given material and process combination (for example, iron/green sand or steel/investment) compared to what typically can be achieved in that material and process.

One of the keys to metalcasting’s future is to educate on the capabilities of the process. Take advantage of this opportunity to showcase your firm’s design prowess and enter this year’s competition.

Novel Solutions: Arguments for Free Enterprise

Not that it is a secret, but figuring out Charles Koch’s political leanings doesn’t take long when reading his book, “Good Profit.” Koch, the CEO of one of the largest private companies in the world, is clear on his belief that a free market society is the most beneficial from an economic, health and quality of life standpoint.

Whether you agree with all of Koch’s political and philisophical ideas, his latest book is a good read and interesting exploration of his arguments for free enterprise.

The point of Good Profit is that companies can achieve strong success by striving to make the lives of its customers better. It goes beyond improving a specific product to anticipating what the people really need or want and then working to provide that for them. Sometimes this means creating new technology or application of a resource that makes the original business obsolete. Koch calls this “creative destruction.” According to Koch, successful businesses grow by creating value for the customer through constantly replacing products, methods and skills by superior alternatives. In this way, a business’s success stemming from a product that improves quality of life is a win-win.

“Good profit is earned through principled entrepreneurship...It is not diminishing someone’s well-being but adding to it by mutually beneficial voluntary transactions, based on respecting what the customer values,” Koch writes.
Good Profit’s subhead is “How Creating Value for Others Built One of the World’s Most Succesful Companies,” and the book delivers with numerous explanations and examples of this foundational philosophy at Koch Industries.

Koch explains in detail his company’s Market Based Management system based on the principles of free market and then frames this system within its five dimensions: vision, virtue and talents, knowledge processes, decision rights and incentives. Each dimension has a chapter dedicated to it, followed with case studies taken from various Koch enterprises. It covers not only transaction-based decision-making but also recruiting and training employees, compliance and building knowledge. Regardless of whether you agree with all of Koch’s management views, the book is worth reading, studying and contemplating for any manager.

Are You Reaching An Equilibrium?

At a recent supply chain conference, a speaker posed the following question:  What is the future of the steel supply chain in the U.S.?  Due to a down economy and global supply pressures, this market is facing significant business turmoil and is at a crossroads to determine what and where its future will be.

The next speaker up (me) was expected to provide a similar message to this audience when discussing the current state of the metalcasting industry. But my message wasn’t filled with the gloom and doom of the previous presentation. While I referenced the crossroads metalcasting faced in 2008-10 when the general consensus was that the U.S. market was in a steep decline, my message was to look at U.S. metalcasting today, as it may be the envy of all other metalcasting markets across the globe.

Sure, U.S. production in several non-automotive markets is down significantly right now. Some segments of metalcasting production are operating at 50-60% capacity while others are operating at 85-90%. But the reality is that an equilibrium is beginning to be achieved in the casting supply chain. Everything is not looking to be offshored (as it seemed 10 years ago) nor is everything being sourced domestically—a proper balance is being reached to ensure business success.

Look at some of the recent headlines:

  • Sahkti Breaks Ground on a $31.8 Million Casting Expansion in Michigan
  • Georg Fischer and Linamar Agree to Build a Metalcasting Facility in Southeast U.S.
  • Kamtek to Invest $80 million in New Diecasting Facility in Alabama
  • Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Purchases Precision Castparts for $37 Billion


These headlines show investment and renewed global interest in the U.S metalcasting supply chain. Yes, some of your firms still have corporate decrees to source globally. These probably will continue no matter the level of information and education you receive about the merits of regionalized sourcing or the capabilities of North American metalcasters.

The key is for you to just keep considering all potential sources for your engineered metal components and realize that the North American metalcasting market is one of the strongest in the world with the greatest diversity of capabilities.  It is the market most capable of supplying every size, shape and material of casting desired.

The future growth opportunities for engineered metal castings is limitless as new materials and manufacturing technologies are introduced all the time. Search out a partner who can offer you that optimal supply chain relationship.

Novel Solutions: Leadership Wreck

You should expect that a book titled “Leadership BS” isn’t exactly onboard with much of the advice you find in the business management section of the bookstore. One of the fundamental criticisms offered by Jeffrey Pfeffer charges that the so-called “leadership industry” is overrun by self-anointed experts. Without any barriers to entry, what distinguishes a quack from a luminary?

That question should warrant a healthy dose of skepticism. But Pfeffer, being a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University, has the qualifications to ask. In “Leadership BS,” he brings evidence and data from social science research and offers practical solutions in questioning many commonly accepted “truths.” Take the lip service paid to the desired traits of modesty, relatability and honesty in leaders. Most businesses emphasize such characteristics, Pfeffer argues, while many people who reach an organization’s upper echelons are anything but. Immodesty and narcissism certainly can be useful traits in certain situations. But a business needs to be honest and not incentivize behavior it claims to discourage.

Besides the problems in much of the advice from other experts, “Leadership BS” has plenty to say about businesses themselves—and how many companies are inept in developing people for leadership roles. Too often failures in leadership, which can pollute the entire workplace, result from one person’s mistakes or imperfections. Pfeffer argues that businesses should be structured so the system is stronger than the individual. Leaders are important, of course, but they shouldn’t be too important.

Another of Pfeffer’s criticisms applied to both the leadership industry and leaders themselves. Frankly, in both instances, individuals are rarely held accountable for their actions. Pfeffer argues that books and seminars can spread advice, but how do you measure positive results? The experts don’t have to face their audience after a certain point. Similarly, “Leadership BS” argues corporate leaders aren’t as accountable as they should be, citing numerous instances of golden paracutes when in the wake of disasterous performance.

“Leadership BS” attacks large concepts, but the critique remains on point and the suggested fixes are practical. You will look at your business and the leaders in it differently after reading this work. It’s also a relatively light read, considering the nuance to its message, so the benefits of “Leadership BS” aren’t buried in bulky footnotes or dry textbook copy.

Delivering the contrarian’s message can be a tricky proposition, but Pfeffer is successful in his critique of popular opinion in the business world. His points merit consideration, whether or not you agree, and the purpose of this book is to make you think.  

Can You See the Ding?

Netflix is addicting. I find myself scrolling through the movies it suggests for me in search of the next great Hollywood Blockbuster (or is it Hollywood Bust?) I can sink my teeth in to.  The truth is I am far from a movie snob.  I am easily entertained by both the latest Transformers saga and the most recent Diane Keaton romantic comedy drama.

Case in point… I found myself intrigued during a recent viewing of Jobs, the biopic of Apple-founder Steve Jobs.  While this movie was not successful by anyone’s standards, I found it entertaining because I knew little about Jobs (or Apple for that matter), even though I have used Apple products religiously the last several years. Also, the way the movie portrayed Jobs as continuously-focused on innovation and revolutionizing people’s lives was uplifting.

“I want to put a ding in the universe,” Jobs said.

This idea leads to several of our features this issue as they are focused on providing customers solutions.

  • •  The article, “Tech Trends for Practical Casting Design” on p. 25, is focused on the role of casting process modeling software in providing more effective casting designs. While the success of the software is well-documented, its use as an integral tool by casting designers is still developing.
  • •  In “Steel Job Shop Proves Value of 3-D Scanning” on p. 30, 3-D scanning technology was the key to be able to produce accurate first-article castings and quality tooling.
  • •  In the article, “Solving Customers’ Problems” on p. 34, the solutions discussed include a weldment to casting conversion, reverse engineering and additive manufacturing.  The growth of additive manufacturing in metalcasting has been covered well in this magazine, the true potential of it for metalcasting and manufacturing as a whole is just beginning to be realized.

Each of these changes, improvements and advancements has the opportunity to change the world to some degree and put at least a small “ding in the universe.” Manufacturers always have this opportunity at their fingertips because they consistently create value.

Every time you help design and manufacture a new product or component, you have the opportunity to reduce weight, improve performance, reduce emissions, increase safety, lower cost and, most importantly, enhance someone’s life. In most instances, the enhancement is valuable, but marginal to the typical consumer. In a select few instances, we actually can see the ding.

Lessons of Agility

Like the software it develops, Red Hat is run with open source management. CEO Jim Whitehurst explains how in “The Open Organization,” a business management book that describes the open, engaged workforce philosophy behind Red Hat and provides strategies for leaders to implement in their own company in order to be more flexible in meeting customer demands.

Software and metalcasting are vastly different types of businesses, and its difficult to draw parallels for some aspects of the book. Whitehurst can use his company’s internal memo network and web-based forum to foster communication, imput and engagement with his employees; such a system rarely would be in place for an entire metalcasting company, from sales manager to molder. However, the metalcasting CEO can take smaller steps by simply communicating more openly about the context of the company within its niche of the industry.

“When people are given information, they begin to see the big picture as it relates to meeting their targets, earning their bonus, increasing the value of the company’s stock and protecting their jobs,” writes Whitehurst. Red Hat does this by opening up the decision-making process to the employees closest to the area it will impact. The CEO makes the final decision, but the ideas can come from anyone. Good ideas win in this meritocracy.

After each chapter, Whitehurst provides five or six leadership tips, and these are the best parts of the book. They provide clear ways to implement an open-source philosophy into your management style, such as “Before making your next decision, ask yourself whether others will be surprised. If so, think about including them before finalizing it,” which was at the end of the chapter, Making Inclusive Decisions.

Whitehurst also suggests giving teams the room to determine ways to improve the company rather than always providing direction from the top-down. Tell people where progress is needed and give them the freedom to come up with their own ideas to meet the goals, he writes.

While not all principles in “The Open Organization” will fit a metalcasting organization, it provides plenty of ways the CEO can use better communication with employees to more quickly adapt to changes in the operation. It also gives food for thought in how much could be advanced if the whole industry was open source.  

The Artist Is the Engineer

When discussing the sales dollars or tonnage of castings generated by the metalcasting industry, the focus is on engine cylinder blocks, valve bodies, compressor housings and thousands of other mass-produced engineered components that are the lifeblood of this job-shop industry’s production.  But when discussing the elegance, beauty and creativity embodied by the metalcasting process, the discussions may shift to a niche portion of the industry known as art casting.

Within the pages of Metal Casting Design & Purchasing, we typically don’t dedicate as much ink to the art casting segment of the industry as we could (it regularly appears on our Shakeout or In a World Without Castings pages). Since our goal is to illustrate the opportunities with engineered cast metal, our focus is on showcasing ways to improve design and purchasing practices that can have the largest impact on manufacturing. But, the reality is that art casting provides an opportunity for metalcasting and manufacturing as a whole to demonstrate our capabilities with products that are understood by all segments of society.

This is embodied in our cover story, “Restoring the U.S. Capitol Dome,” on p. 20. When working with our legislators and regulators in Washington, D.C., examples like the work being performed to bring the Dome back to glory showcase the importance and skill of metalcasting (and manufacturing) in a way they can relate to. But for you, as a designer and buyer of castings, art casting and this Dome story can offer you an additional level of food
for thought.

“What I find most astonishing is the amount of detail that went into crafting the ornaments.  It is incredible to see the intricacy. … There are little lines and indentations the size of your pinky fingernail.”—Joe Abriatis, construction manager of the Dome Restoration Project.

“(Original Cast) Pieces that can’t be repaired will be melted, re-alloyed and poured into new castings, so the original pieces will remain part of the Dome’s historic fabric.”—Abriatis

The ability to achieve intricate design detail, as well as almost infinite geometric complexity with metal castings (especially when combined with additive manufacturing), is one of the key areas that separates this manufacturing process from other metal component forming methods. In addition, the recyclability of the process, with our society’s focus on sustainability, is critical to its longevity as a manufacturing technique because metalcasting takes scrap metal (iron, aluminum, copper-base, etc.) and creates new engineered components.

Inspiration must come from all areas of manufacturing.  Take the opportunity to look at the art castings all around you—from plaques and statues to architectural reproductions—to summon your inner artist and unleash the opportunities with metalcasting.

Novel Solutions: Fun With Economics?

It’s no secret that human beings can be and often are irrational. (This point is especially evident if you’ve ever dealt with a customer who needed a few thousand castings yesterday.) But, for some strange reason, economics has been slow to accept this otherwise obvious truth. In this most applicable of the social sciences, humans were thought of as rational, reasoned and logical.

“Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics” by Richard H. Thaler is the story of one man’s crusade to change this fundamental assumption. The very term “behavioral economics” tells you that this book is dealing more with the human mind than the invisible hand.

Told in chronological order, from Thaler’s early work as a graduate student to a quick peek at what’s next, “Misbehaving” is simultaneously technically dense and easy to read. This is not to say you’ll be cracking this open while lounging by the pool. Rather, information is packaged and delivered in a way that’s easily consumed by relative novices.

If you’re looking for step-by-step instructions to better the bottom line, this isn’t your blueprint. But “Misbehaving” delivers more than a few eye-opening lessons for the business owner or manager. In the chapter on game shows—what better illustrations for people’s tendency for mental hiccups?—Thaler puts a few contestants from “Deal or No Deal” under the microscope.

For example, one unfortunate man was left with five possibilities: four relatively low payoffs and the highest payday possible. As it became evident he was nearing an all-or-almost-nothing proposition, he appeared ardent on going for it all—and he didn’t make it. Would you believe how the game progresses affects a contestant’s probability of accepting a particular offer? Of course it does, which is why it is an effective indictment of why economists have banked on the rationality of the individual for decades.

Beyond lessons for yourself and your business, “Misbehaving” is simply an interesting read in terms of psychology. Whether specific points change how you view yourself and your workforce, the book veers away from esoteric concepts and theories. The research is evident and the discussion is grounded in everyday examples or easily understood hypotheticals.  

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