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GIFA’s Metalcasting Playground

GIFA is about the future of metalcasting.  The world’s largest metalcasting trade show held last month in Dusseldorf, Germany, is best known for all the technology and services on display by the 2,000+ exhibitors. It is the world’s largest metalcasting mall as attendees can shop ‘til they drop to outfit their casting facility with the latest and greatest equipment and materials.

But GIFA also has always represented more than just the shiny new toys on the exhibit floor.  It represents the promise of the industry.  It represents what the future might hold for metalcasting.

This future can be linked to technology, like additive manufacturing, or process advancements, like environmentally benign raw materials.  Or, this future can be linked to a shared vision to reintroduce metalcasting to the next generation.

My experience at GIFA this year was highlighted by the number of exhibitors who dedicated a portion of their exhibition to educating and entertaining the next generation about metalcasting.  This next generation audience isn’t necessarily a new crop of metalcasters-in-training, but instead the next generation of adults in training who will be our future teachers, doctors, lawyers, regulators, purchasing managers and design engineers. The exhibitors who catered to this group realize their future rests as much in the hands of the metalcasters who will purchase their goods and services as it does in general society’s understanding of the importance of metalcasting and how it must be part of our future.

On the GIFA show floor, exhibitors were providing:

  • Chemistry demonstrations.
  • A game show.
  • A race car simulator.
  • Virtual reality demonstrations of a casting facility and the process.
  • A simulated roller coaster utilizing a robot.
  • Live casting demonstrations performed by students.

Were all of these experiences 100% applicable to metalcasting?  No.  Did they all enhance the entertainment value of a metalcasting experience?  Yes. Take a look at our video at www.metalcastingtv.com to experience some of the metalcasting fun that occurred at GIFA.

This shared vision expressed by our industry at GIFA will continue to advance in all our markets so seize the opportunity to participate.  While you might not be able to affect the technological future of our industry, you can actively participate in educating the next generation and help carry our industry forward.


Engagement & Retention

Worker engagement and retention is a hot subject in today’s workplace. With the transition of our workforce from the baby boomers to the X, Y and millennial generations, employers must adjust their approach to recruiting and engaging current and potential workers to ensure stability and long-term success.

As stated in this issue’s CEO Journal column by Dan Marcus on p. 36,  “Now it’s always been the case that many who come to work in metalcasting wash out in the first few hours or days, but given today’s economic and social realities, we no longer have the luxury of complacency about low retention rates.  Instead, we need to do our very best to make every new hire a successful long-term employee.”

Through our Metalcaster of the Year article, “Eagle Alloy’s Sustainable Solutions,” on p. 16, this issue examines the Muskegon, Mich., metalcaster’s unique corporate responsibility initiatives. This metalcaster has established an onsite health care clinic, helped build recycling programs for sand and methane gas, and regularly participates in community education programs. While not all these programs directly affect worker retention, the prevailing belief in today’s human resources (and studies are beginning to prove it) is that corporate social responsibility is a key to retaining the new generations of employees.

“Muskegon had a lot of philanthropists going back to the early 20th century,” said Mark Fazakerley, co-owner of Eagle Group. “A lot of the big companies have since moved out, which created a bit of a vacuum for many years. That is a motivating factor for us.  We are from Muskegon—and it’s been important for us to be a part of the community.”

While Eagle Alloy’s educational outreach can be viewed as philanthropy on behalf of the metalcasting industry, the other initiatives have improved the firm’s performance and bolstered its workforce. This ultimately is the best win-win for any organization looking to develop sustainable solutions as a foundation for the future.

The reality of the low-profit margin, job-shop nature of metalcasting facilities is that fully automated manufacturing plants will not be possible for everyone.  As a result, our industry will rely on a human workforce for the foreseeable future to produce our engineered cast components.

As Marcus wrote, “Instead of waiting for the return of yesterday’s workers, metalcasters need to gear up to hire and retain today’s unemployed and under-employed.  And doing so requires a renewed emphasis on retention, as most of these prospective employees will need a lot of help after they are hired in order to become successful at work.”

A key to this retention will be how you engage your workers.


Metal Printing: Friend or Foe?

What is the future of metalcasting?

This is a great question. This is a question that should allow you to put your heels up on your desk, lean back and just ponder for the entire afternoon.

Maybe your mind darts to robotics to eliminate labor. Maybe images of outer space or the planet Mars come to mind as the new frontiers for a greenfield facility. Or maybe your mind thinks of additive manufacturing and the ability to produce infinitely complex metal components without the use of tooling or maybe even a mold.

Having just returned from the AFS Metalcasting Congress in Columbus, Ohio, last month, I saw the industry’s opportunities with additive on display both on the exhibition floor and in the education sessions. Over the last several years, the conversations in metalcasting have shifted from “what is additive” to “how do I design this component for additive” as the industry has shifted from learning about the opportunities to capitalizing on them.

This brings us to the feature article, “Sparking Change? Advances in Direct Metal Printing,” on p. 24 that examines the segment of additive manufacturing referred to as direct metal printing. This is a process in which metal components are built layer by layer in additive manufacturing machines.

“Right now, it’s moving from a prototyping past to a production future,” said Tim Caffey, senior consultant for Wohlers Associates. “It’s in the process of growing up.”

When I first learned about the development of this process several years ago, my first reaction was fear.  If this competitor advances enough, it will put an end to the metalcasting industry. But then I took a step back and analyzed the stakeholders involved. Metalcasting has the opportunity to embrace this technology and make it another instrument in its toolbox.

Metalcasters are the experts at manufacturing complex metal components, so you should provide your customers a manufacturing portfolio that offers opportunities—with and without hard tooling, for prototypes and production, and with and without lead times. This doesn’t necessarily mean you purchase a machine for your operation; it could mean finding a partner that offers the service and ensuring you have a knowledge of what it can truly provide in terms of component properties and production rates.

“A lot of people have this misunderstanding of additive manufacturing, that it’s going to be a technology that will displace many of the traditional manufacturing processes,” said Andrew Snow, EOS of North America. “But it’s the exact opposite…We don’t see this as a threatening technology… It’s a complementary piece of equipment that’s another tool on the factory floor.”

In today’s marketplace, it is critical to be a solutions provider for your customer—that resource they turn to for any metal component information. While the future of metalcasting is to be determined, decisions are being made today by your customers and competitors to start to shape it.


Just Thinking (Stuff) Up

Yes, I will admit it. I love big, expensive, Hollywood blockbuster movies. You know, the ones that debut Memorial Day and 4th of July and often involve aliens and/or end of the world destruction.

One such movie, Armageddon, starred Bruce Willis as an oil driller who was tasked with blowing up an asteroid hurtling toward Earth. Our hero’s goal was to fly to the Asteroid in a space shuttle, land on the giant rock and drill a hole deep enough to insert a nuclear bomb that would blow the asteroid up from the inside.

While many scenes in this movie are memorable, one particular scene that sticks out is when Bruce Willis’ character, Harry Stamper, argues with NASA about the merits of their plan to save the world. His quote:  

“And this is the best that you-that the government, the U.S. government could come up with? I mean, you’re NASA for crying out loud, you put a man on the moon, you’re geniuses! You’re the guys that’re thinking (stuff) up! I’m sure you got a team of men sitting around somewhere right now just thinking (stuff) up and somebody backing
them up!”

I was reminded of Harry Stamper’s quote as I reviewed two of our articles this issue—our Casting of the Year feature on p. 20 and our prototype bicycle article on p. 28. When you read these two features and see the inventiveness that has led to the successful engineered cast components, you might wonder if the companies involved have people just sitting around thinking (stuff) up.

Our Casting of the Year is a team effort between Honda of America and Cleveland-based Alotech. They have developed cast aluminum connecting joints used in the crush zone of the space frame of the new Acura NSX automobile. This is the first high-production success of the recently-developed ablation casting process that combines traditional sand casting with rapid component cooling through the use of a water soluble binder.

“The NSX body designers were amazed at the amount of design freedom they could get from ablation casting as well as mechanical properties,” said Philip Vais, Honda R&D America.

In our article, “On the Fast Track,” cyclist Kim-Niklas Antin is just wondering if he can help advance his life’s passion. With the establishment of his not-for-profit ideas2cycles project, he is trying to utilize the latest technology and production methods to advance bicycle design and manufacturing. This has included the use of additive manufacturing techniques to produce cast magnesium and aluminum components for bicycle frames. Antin’s only goal is to push creative thinking in the bicycle world.

While the quest for profits often overtakes just sitting around and thinking (stuff) up, try to find some time for the latter. For Honda, Alotech and Antin, it has paid off.


Developing Passion

In February, seven colleges competed as part of a Great Lakes-area casting competition hosted by the AFS Wisconsin Regional Conference.  Student teams from Michigan Technological University (Michigan Tech), Muskegon Community College, Purdue University, University of Northern Iowa, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Wisconsin-Platteville and Western Michigan University designed and manufactured an engineered cast component to showcase their capabilities. Serving as a judge for this competition, I had the privilege of talking to each team about their casting and the development process behind their entry.

Through these discussions, the excitement and passion these students had for their projects was evident. These teams utilized additive manufacturing of molds and prototypes, simulation software, computer-aided engineering and design, finite element analysis and CNC machining to complement traditional pattern building, mold making and other casting production techniques.  They engineered and manufactured cast components for customers ranging from other students and university-based facilities to a racing team and a commercial metalcaster.

The criteria for judging each casting entry was focused on: benefits delivered to the casting customer, use of the unique capabilities of the casting process, and quality and workmanship.  Based on these factors, the team from the Univ. of Wisconsin-Platteville came out on top with its three cast part assembly that draws the windows shut at the former personal home and studio (named Taliesin) of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  The team was tasked with producing these historic reproductions as a replacement for the originals, installed in the home
in 1910.

While interviewing each of these student teams, I caught myself reflecting upon my years in school.  Did I have anywhere near the passion toward a potential profession these student groups were showcasing? Then, taking this a step further, how did this passion for metalcasting begin and, subsequently, develop so quickly in these students?

The reality is that the passion (for whatever profession they pursue) is developed differently for every individual.  For some, it is following in the steps of their parents.  For others, it is following in the steps of their idols or what Hollywood has spotlighted for them. Still others are influenced by a teacher or a fellow classmate.

After my interviews for the competition, I thought about what initially sparked my passion for journalism.  It was the movie All the President’s Men. While in high school, I rented it from the video store at the urging of my father (because I had little interest in watching a 20-year-old movie). News reporters were just like spies and secret agents...so cool. That was the profession for me.

Hopefully, a few of those 30-plus students representing those seven schools at the competition are thinking similarly about metallurgy and metalcasting.  This would result in the industry being the real winner.


Industry Wins in Casting Competition

One of my favorite parts of the year is the annual AFS/Metal Casting Design & Purchasing Casting Competition. The submissions start arriving in December and continue rolling in through the first part of February, and it feels a little like Christmas. The castings come from a range of processes, materials and markets but they all have something in common—they illustrate the capabilities of metalcasting technology. 

Many of the submissions are conversions from another manufacturing method and/or material. Some are the result of the adoption of new technology. Others display obvious design engineering skills. 

Judging has not begun yet—we have about a week left to accept submissions, but the crop we have this year appears to be just as exciting and worthy of recognition as the last.  

The casting competition is an important chance to allow the industry to shine a light on its ingenuity, collaborative spirit and customer service. Innovation isn’t only happening at the research level, but in the engineering offices and shop floors, as well. 

Metalcasters are in the business of making better parts for their customers. Sometimes the customers push for improvement; many times metalcasters approach customers with cost-saving ideas. The result just may be the next Casting of the Year.

The 2015 Casting of the Year will be announced in the April issue of Modern Casting and on display at Metalcasting Congress April 21-23 in Columbus, Ohio. In the meantime, browse through all of last year’s casting submissions here.


Patternmaker Sees Potential in Mentoring

It’s been nearly 15 years since Dave Rittmeyer finished his five-year patternmaking apprenticeship with Hoosier Pattern Inc., Decatur, Ind. Progressing from apprentice to shop supervisor to his current position as customer care additive manufacturing manager, he has seen changes in patternmaking and the metalcasting industry as a whole. One troubling trend: the number of patternmakers has decreased.

Whether due to consolidation within the metalcasting industry or shifting economic conditions, many metalcasters and pattern shops are having trouble finding qualified, capable individuals. To combat this growing concern, Rittmeyer was a founding member of the Adams Wells Manufacturing Alliance. The group brings together manufacturers, educators and community leaders in the Decatur area for monthly meetings to work toward improving technical training for skilled trades at the high school level.

“There are many great careers and opportunities available in pattern shops and even machine shops, but we haven’t done the best job of promoting ourselves and recruiting future employees,” Rittmeyer said. “Hoosier Pattern has now taken an active role in promoting ourselves to the local high schools and our prospective employees to show them the opportunities that are offered to them if they take a career path with us.”

In addition to the community outreach, Rittmeyer is involved with Hoosier’s apprenticeship program, of which he was the first graduate a decade and a half ago. The 10,000-hour, 36-credit hour program allows students to rotate through all phases of the pattern shop. An apprentice will cycle through the machining area, benching and rigging department, quality control/assurance and programming and design.

The goal is to produce a fully capable, well-rounded individual. Hoosier has four apprentices at a time, ensuring each receives proper training and instruction. Additionally, three potential apprentices are on the wait list. The industry has a long way to go in marketing itself to the next generation of skilled workers, but Rittmeyer’s experience, both as an apprentice and now as a mentor, shows that metalcasting can attract talent.

“Manufacturing isn’t a dirty, grimy job that nobody wants,” Rittmeyer said. “It’s highly skilled with lots of technology, like 3-D printing, CNC equipment and CAD. It’s cool stuff. We’re telling these high school kids that manufacturing in America is alive, it’s well, and it’s a great opportunity. We want to get the brightest. We want the best running a CNC mill or programming a sand printer that’s going to produce $14,000 of scrap in a single night if programmed improperly.”

Click here for the full interview between Dave Rittmeyer and metalcasting marketing expert Mark Mehling.


Know When to Ask for Help

When do you ask for help and when do you just plow through a project to complete it? Often the answer to this question comes down to how much time is available to produce a solution.

In the case of casting buyers and designers, this issue of Modern Casting shows us several examples of buyer-supplier relationships benefiting by questions being asked.

In the feature, “Castings on Stunning Display,” on page 27, a commodity manager for projector manufacturer Christie said the company aims to incorporate metalcasting facilities early in the design process. “There’s a high level of collaboration,” he said. “Identifying and eliminating problems early in the process can help streamline progress and control costs by limiting design iterations.”

In “Graphite Permanent Mold Process Cuts Lead Times, Costs,” on page 60, an engineering manager for a camera manufacturer said, “Being able to discuss the design with the engineers at Graphicast was very helpful. There was a lot of give and take, and we were able to really leverage their design expertise.”

A mechanical engineer for an industrial mining fan manufacturer had similar things to say in the feature, “Casting Conversion Simplifies Ventilation Hub,” on page 39: “Pier helped us develop a greater understanding of designing for metal castings.”

Your efforts are working.  You have been communicating with casting buyers about the value of upfront collaboration in casting design, and some are taking you up on your offers. While your job isn’t finished, a foundation is being built. This is great news.

Now, as customers, do you do the same with your suppliers? Do you reach out to your equipment, raw material and technology experts for their advice on how to improve your operation?

The feature, “D&L Goes Big,” on p. 21, looks at how a metalcaster can utilize a combination of in-house and outside supplier expertise to engineer and build a new metalcasting facility.

“Out of necessity, we’ve become pretty self-sufficient with modifying equipment and making things work,” said Jason McGowan, president, D&L, regarding engineering successes such as its new conveyors, electrical controls and computerized monitoring system. But, D&L also utilized its supply base when it engineered its melt deck for the new plant.

In the feature, “Controlling Pouring Through Automation,” on p. 33, the focus is on technology opportunities for autopouring from the sophisticated to the basic. The key to finding a solution is determining what the metalcasting facility wants to achieve, and aligning the technology to that need.

“A job shop may not have high speed or volume production but still wants to increase the accuracy of pouring, reduce costs and remove people from a hazardous area,” said Bill Pflug, Inductotherm Corp.

Every facility must know its core competencies to determine if it can solve a problem internally or if it must look outside for help.  Just be sure to apply the same philosophy when you work with your customers and your suppliers, and know when to ask for help.


Education Engagement

Education is one of the most effective tools metalcasters can use to improve their bottom line.

The obvious return on investment is seen with education of in-house staff. If properly deployed to your workforce, education can improve efficiencies by eliminating process issues and lowering scrap rates. Eliminating the guesswork on the plant floor by following the proven processes and procedures that lead to sound castings will increase your facility’s profitability.

In this editorial, however, I want to focus on a less obvious  angle than in-house education.  It is the education of your customer—buyers and designers of castings.

In many metalcasting facilities, this type of education falls under the direction of the marketing or sales department and will include customer presentations such as Casting 101 or the basics of casting processes and materials. While it is critical to provide this foundation education to customers (and something we provide to casting buyers as well), what is the next step?  How does the education engagement continue with current and prospective customers?

This question becomes paramount when you perform regular internet searches about metalcasting and review the information and videos being presented.  When your customers visit their go-to source for casting design and sourcing information, what are they learning?

Our sister publication, Metal Casting Design & Purchasing (MCDP), strives for engagement with every issue it publishes.  With an audience solely consisting of casting designers and buyers, the goal of this seven-time-a-year publication is to educate engineers and purchasing professionals on effective ways to design and source engineered cast metal components.  MCDP hits the basics, but it also tries to take it to the next level.

As an example, in the September/October issue of MCDP, an article titled, “Understanding Part Pricing,” was published that detailed seven different factors that affect how a metalcaster quotes a casting.  Written by a casting buyer and addressing issues such as parting lines, surface finish and section thickness, the article provides a three-page lesson for end-users who receive quotes from metalcasters and don’t understand “why the part price seems so high.”

In the November/December issue of MCDP, the focus was on rapid manufacturing and how this technology can be integrated into the casting supply chain in various different ways. With the exciting developments with rapid manufacturing, it is critical to illustrate to buyers and designers that metalcasting is embracing this technology.

If you aren’t familiar with MCDP, visit www.metalcastingdesign.com and page through the digital magazine archives. When you see something you like, take the opportunity to send links of relevant articles to your customers.  If you want to send issues of the magazine to customers, contact us to set up a subscription.

The key is to become more than a part supplier to your customer. Engaging them through education can help you to become their go-to knowledge resource on effective casting design and purchasing.


Metalcaster’s Fourth Generation Brings Fresh Ideas

In May 2012, Megan Kirsh joined the family business, an iron job shop in Beaver Dam, Wis, making her the fourth generation to punch the clock at Kirsh Foundry Inc. since it was opened by her great grandfather in 1937. To the outsider, joining the company, led by her father, Jim, and uncle, Steve, might have seemed like an obvious destination.

Megan, however, took a bit of a circuitous path to Beaver Dam. After receiving a master’s in marriage and family therapy from Northern Illinois Univ., Dekalb, Ill., she took her first steps in pursuit of a career—only to grow disenchanted with her field. The prospect of switching gears and joining the family business grew more appealing, until she finally seized the opportunity.

“For me, it was a huge opportunity to be a part of something that’s really cool,” Megan Kirsh said. “I pulled a 180 [to] see how I liked it. I stayed tentative for about a year. I always thought I could go back and do what I was doing. But so far, I’m still here. I’m still really excited.”

The director of marketing and sales, Kirsh has been focused primarily on the company’s value proposition. To this end, she has overseen an overhaul of the company’s website to be more client-oriented and distinguish Kirsh Foundry from other metalcasting facilities that offer similar products and services. Kirsh also has developed Foundry 101, a customer education program to build knowledge about metalcasting and the company’s specific capabilities that debut earlier this year.

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve been working hand in hand with Jim Kirsh, my father, on where he wants the company to go,” she said. “What are the priorities that are important to us? Where do we see ourselves in five or 10 years?”

Asking those questions, which some companies may avoid doing, can allow a metalcaster to better position themselves in the market. If price is similar among a few potential suppliers, a properly crafted message about value and additional benefits can lead to new customers.

“Asking yourself, ‘What makes our foundry different? What makes our company better than one very similar to us?’ opens an entire conversation,” she said. “It allows you to develop a script on what you can offer and why you’re different. Once you get that set, you can more easily develop a roadmap for a marketing plan.”

Bringing an outsider’s perspective to a business with generations of experience and knowledge, Kirsh hopes to help guide Kirsh Foundry along a path of sustainable growth and continued stability. As for her training in family systems therapy?

“It comes in handy every now and again,” she said. 

Click here for the full interview between Megan Kirsh and marketing expert Mark Mehling.


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