Simple Answers, Tough Execution

I lost my keys last month.

We all have done it.  In this case, these lost keys required all five of my family members and an hour and 45 minutes to find them.

During my family’s all-out, turn-everything-upside-down search of our house, garage and cars, I kept saying to myself, the simplest answer probably is the correct one. For me, the simplest answer would have been that the keys were left in my car. So, we searched every crack and crevice of my car at least five times. But it took one final gasp of frustration during the last search of the car for me to take a step back, stare in the distance for some clarity (across the top of my SUV), and see my keys resting on the roof.

In MCDP, our articles show you the spectacular AND they reinforce the fundamentals. We understand that you do not live in the world of metal castings like we do.  As a result, we must continue to educate on the basics of success in designing and purchasing castings because these fundamentals are at the core of what will really improve your efficiencies. This relates to our feature, “10 Cost Considerations in Your Castings,” on p. 25.

Ultimately, many of your purchasing decisions for metal castings come down to costs. The key is to understand the many factors that go into the price of a casting from the metalcaster perspective compared to the total cost of acquisition for you as a buyer. Many simple decisions you make during the design and sourcing process can dramatically affect casting cost without affecting quality or delivery. What you are specifying to your supplier may seem routine to you (and may be in other industries), but could be extreme for the metalcasting process.

For example, how do you specify surface finish on your cast components? Here is a quote from the cost considerations article: “Although a smooth surface on a cast part often is considered an aspect of its quality, this is not an accurate indicator of the overall quality of a casting.”

Buyers often specify high-level surface finish without understanding the casting process and what that surface finish entails in manufacturing.  If the part is visible to a consumer, then the visual appeal of a glass-like surface is critical. But if the part isn’t visible, why incur the extra cost for that type of surface, especially if it doesn’t affect quality or the surface is going to be machined?

The success of any business comes down to mastering the fundamentals. For designing and purchasing castings, an understanding of the basics can take you a long way.

When I came home from work the evening I lost my keys, my 11-year-old daughter Abigail smiled at me and said, “Remember, the simplest answer probably is the correct one.”  I will continue to remind myself of this and hopefully you will too.

Giving the Industry a Face

Lodge Cast Iron Skillet

U.S. metalcasting earned a starring role in a segment on NBC Nightly News June 30. The segment spotlighted Lodge Manufacturing Co., its cast iron pans and its metalcasting facility in South Pittsburg, Tenn. Apparently, cast iron cookware is soaring in popularity.

You can watch the video here.

Usually, cast metal components are hidden under sheet metal and plastic or camouflaged in an assembly of parts, fasteners, wiring and rubber. More than $34 billion worth of castings are made in the U.S. in a year, yet this industry is so often unnoticed by the general public.

Casting companies like Lodge—whose products are seen and touched by people in their daily lives, fill a unique role as visual representation of the industry. These companies include East Jordan Iron Works and Neenah, whose names are etched in castings along countless sidewalks and streets. Or Kohler, whose cast plumbing and bath fixtures are touched by millions of people every day, and Ping, who casts its golf club heads in Arizona.   

These ambassadors for the industry are doing it well. Lodge’s cast iron skillets are often given as speaker awards at industry conferences, and at a recent conference I attended, the presenters could not contain their smiles upon receiving their U.S.-made cookware.

Thank you to those casting businesses who serve up our casting examples. It’s not their most important job, and it doesn’t make them the best metalcasters in the industry, but their ambassadorship provides faces to the industry. Without them, the industry would be close to invisible.  

Think About Communication

The annual casting competition is a showcase for metalcasting’s latest and greatest.  And this year’s winner, the oil pan for John Deere cast by Aarrowcast Inc., Shawano, Wis., is no exception.  By incorporating multiple components to increase performance and reduce cost, this cast component is another shining example of what can be accomplished when the designer and metalcaster work together to secure a solution.

And that really is the story with this oil pan casting. Both John Deere and Aarrowcast brought their expertise to the table during the product development process to solve design, production and quality issues.  Even though the process required a couple years and several iterations to achieve a final component, the result validates their efforts.

“This part took us out of our comfort zone, and as a result, we’ve changed our entire system to work with our customer up front to ensure success at launch,” said Aarrowcast engineering manager Jim Olson.

In today’s marketplace, the push for open, up-front communication is critical, especially in the product development stage for castings. The lack of strong communication between buyer and supplier in global sourcing situations is one of the reasons many firms have returned to localized sourcing as much as possible.

But the reality is not all casting buyers have read the headlines and realized the offshore sourcing movement isn’t as perfect as everyone once thought. Your firm may still enforce a corporate-wide edict that a certain percentage of sourcing must be from low-cost countries. Or maybe your firm is similar to one I encountered recently at which I heard the following statements:

“U.S. metalcasters have a lot of catching up to do.”

“U.S. metalcasters have to improve to compete with plants in China, India and Mexico.”

While these two phrases aren’t exact quotes, they are paraphrases of a discussion with a group of experienced casting buyers.  These buyers said they want to purchase in the U.S. but they just weren’t able to find suppliers offering the total package (price, technology and/or capabilities). Even though these buyers require smaller runs of many different materials and sizes, global sourcing is the more attractive option to them.

If you are one of the firms still thinking like this group of buyers, ask yourself if you could achieve what John Deere and Aarrowcast achieved with your global suppliers.

In the last few years, manufacturing in the U.S. and North America has seen a resurgence in both production and reputation as most firms have refocused on regionalized sourcing, reshoring castings with regularity back from low-cost sources. Many of the conversations appear to have turned from casting price to total cost of acquisition, so costs like defects, shipping and engineering time are being factored into the final decision. These are the conversations that lead to innovation.  These are the conversations that lead to a Casting of the Year.

A Resurgence Continues

The continued discussion of the resurgence in North American manufacturing is music to my ears. While there was a slowdown in the second half of 2013 for many of us, orders appear to be strengthening and economic indicators are poised for a good 2014.

But the key question for me is if the foundation of our manufacturing, and specifically our metalcasting industry, is poised enough to keep pushing forward 10 and 20 years from now. Another recession at some point is bound to cause a wave of belt tightening. Low cost country sourcing pressures aren’t going to disappear. Health care and regulatory costs will continue to rise throughout the Americas.

In a big announcement in February, President Obama gave a resounding yes to the question of whether the metalcasting segment of our manufacturing foundation is ready for the future as he detailed two initiatives to develop regional manufacturing hubs that will connect private business (including metalcasting) with research institutions as part of his National Network of Manufacturing Innovation. This is coupled with the January announcement that metalcasting is part of the America Makes initiative on additive manufacturing.

Below is a recap of these three projects: 

American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute-Based in Canton Township, Mich., this regional hub will focus on the manufacture of aluminum, titanium and high-strength steel, while working with universities and labs on research and development. The American Foundry Society (AFS) is part of a consortium of 34 companies, nine universities and 17 other groups including Boeing, General Electric (GE) and The Ohio State University.

Digital Labs for Manufacturing (or Digital Lab)-Led by University of Illinois labs in Chicago, the Digital Lab will bring together manufacturing and software companies from Boeing to GE to develop compatible software and hardware for supply chains to reduce manufacturing costs. AFS will work with the other partners to use Digital Labs as a resource, focal point and network for resolving technical barriers currently limiting the application and integration of digital manufacturing and innovative design technologies.  

Accelerated Adoption of AM Technology in the American Foundry Industry-This project was awarded funding from the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation’s pilot program and is led by the Youngstown Business Incubator, with partnership from AFS. The research will support the transition of binder jet additive manufacturing to the small business casting industry.

Review the focus of these initiatives-additive manufacturing, lightweight materials and supply chain constraints. These are forward-thinking initiatives that will translate to practical results in the near future.

These initiatives are focused to help the entire supply chain in metalcasting manufacturing.These initiatives are another brick in the foundation of metalcasting manufacturing resurging before your eyes. As you continue to look to U.S. suppliers as part of your answer to global supply demands, we will need this foundation to remain strong.

Mr. Prucha Goes to Washington

President Obama hosted a group of manufacturing representatives at the White House, yesterday, including the American Foundry Society’s Tom Prucha, vice president of technical services. president 022014(Thanks Katie Matticks, AFS technical and information services coordinator, for the headline!)

The event detailed new steps to advance manufacturing in the U.S., strengthen defense and create jobs. Four Manufacturing Innovation Institutes connecting business with research universities facilitate those efforts, and more of the sites are coming.

“We know these manufacturing hubs have the potential to fundamentally change the way we build things here in America,” said President Obama.

AFS plays a significant role in many of the technologies he discussed, including research and development in metals and the products those alloys are used to manufacture. The American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute, Canton, Mich., is focused on the application of innovative lightweight metal production and component manufacturing technologies. "The AFS will champion the role of the metalcasting industry as a key metals manufacturing sector in this effort," said Prucha. AFS also will participate in other hubs of the national manufacturing innovation network.

View President Obama's speech at: www.whitehouse.gov/video

black sabbathAnd here are some details you probably already know that pertain to the secret project he mentioned about three minutes in: www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZJPYo-YUkA

Metalcasting in the Movies

Industrial processes show up often in the entertainment industry, and metalcasting is no exception.hobbit

Peter Jackson provides some good examples in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and most recently in the second installment of The Hobbit—The Desolation of Smaug.  [Warning: spoilers]  It includes a fully fledged foundry in highly animated action, with dragon-lit forges melting untold tons of gold to produce a gigantic cast statue of a dwarf.  As it is being poured, exiled king Thorin Oakenshield rides a wheelbarrow down a rushing canal of molten metal (at 1,948 F or more), proving you can’t make that believable no matter how moody you look while doing it.  

What are your favorite examples of metalcasting in the movies?  Email dkapel@afsinc.org or comment below.  

Metalcasting Pride on Display

eaglemural3This summer, a team of Muskegon, Mich., artists dubbed “The Walldogs,” Jay Allen, Robert Valadez and Nancy Bennett, were commissioned to paint a mural downtown celebrating local working people. The city evolved over time from a lumber town into manufacturing, with a long history of metalcasting.

“Muskegon Proud,” is painted on the side of the Russell Block Building on West Western Ave., in the busiest part of town. The 12 x 20-ft. mural took less than a week to complete.  It was designed and mostly funded by local steel casting company Eagle Alloy Inc.’s Mark Fazakerley and John Workman, co-owners of the Muskegon, Mich.-based Eagle Group Foundries.eaglemural2

Mayor Steve Gawron commented to Mlive.com, “This piece of art is such a magnificent representation. I’m a blue-collar boy from a blue-collar town. … The desire to work hard and make a living is alive and well in Muskegon.”

Fazakerley has been involved with multiple renovation projects in the downtown area over the years, helping to repair and/or replace cast lamp posts, fences and fountains.eaglemural1

What's Your Holy Grail?

The saying that the more you know the more you don't know has rung particularly true for me in these last two weeks. I spent one day at a manufacturer's exhibition alongside industry veteran Mark Morel, Morel Industries, Seattle, who spoke to each inquisitive soul with commanding knowledge about whether their part could be cast, should be cast, in what process and what alloy. Then this week, I sat in on an iron metallography testing workshop delving into the minutia of iron metallurgy, chemical analysis and microstructure. When I first began writing for Metal Casting Design & Purchasing eight years ago, I was aware I didn't know anything about the industry. But with each new nugget of information learned and understood, I am opened up to 50 times more metalcasting knowledge I have yet to process.

Of course, this concept is not new, but it hit home for me the necessity of continuing a quest for education, whether through mentoring, classroom training, workshops, or job shadowing.

With this importance in mind, AFS and its Institute has launched a new initiative to update its courses with new content and formats as well as add new classes to meet industry needs, including classes for designers and purchasers of castings. These classes range from entry level to advanced and have been designed to be shorter, more interactive and more practical for the adult student who can take the ideas learned in class and apply them directly to the job. Maybe they can find the answer to why they keep producing a certain defect or how to improve casting throughput with processing software.

But knowledge is gained in more ways than in a classroom, and this is where mentoring is key. In a recent visit to O'Fallon Casting, O'Fallon, Mo., General Manager Vince Gimeno pointed out all the new technology the company has added in the last five years. He mentioned O'Fallon puts its young engineers and managers in charge of many of the projects, so they can exercise and develop their own inventive muscles--a skill strongly needed when they are the ones running the whole company.

The quest to fill the ever expanding black hole of the unknown is where innovation is born, so saddle up and start seeking.

Honk if You Love Castings


I was given an up-close tour of my car’s brake assemblies the other day.  It gave me a new reason to appreciate metal casting purchasers, designers and suppliers, as well as professional mechanics, one of whom said I’m lucky to be alive.

I took that as a joke.

But, for the sake of argument, it’s all thanks to the quality and performance of the brake rotors, wheel bearings and calipers that were dutifully clinging to their last moments of serviceable use. After more than 10 years on mean city streets, bad brake lines were the culprit. The brake drums merely needed to be remachined, no doubt thanks to the quality standards of the casting buyer and the supplier who produced them.  You saved me a few hundred, and possibly much more.  

I frequent a reputable shop, and I’ll take their word on that.

Manufacturing--And Metalcasting Still Thrives


It’s not hard to find an article online today about manufacturing’s return to the U.S. But to borrow a turn of phrase from the musician Prince, whoever is claiming they are bringing manufacturing back: manufacturing never left.

The attention to the industry is nice, and the hopefully helpful policies being set in place during this push for American manufacturing have been a long time coming. But one of the struggles of manufacturing has been to recruit qualified, dedicated workers to industry. The public perception that America is making a big push for the return of manufacturing holds with it some connotation that it is a risky industry to be in. After all, what if that push for a return, fails?

But manufacturing is not a startup company, nor is it an industry on its last legs. The same can be said for the metalcasting industry, although end-users have voiced their doubts due to a consolidation of the industry and drastic drop in the number of plants in the last 50 years.

But just as U.S. manufacturing as a whole still makes up a considerable portion of the U.S. (and global) economy, the metalcasting industry also pumps out a significant amount of the world’s castings. Some facts to remember:

  • The U.S. metalcasting industry employs more than 200,000.
  • The U.S. is the global leader in casting application and ranks second in casting production.
  • The U.S. produces 12 million tons of castings annually at a value of more than $30 billion.
  • Metalcasting has been an important facet of American manufacturing since before the Declaration of Independence was signed.
  • It’s true some casting production was moved offshore starting in the late ‘90s, but that seems to have plateaued in 2007, and since then casting imports have remained relatively stable at about 22%.

Manufacturing is having a resurgence in public opinion, but let’s not forget manufacturing’s longevity.

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