Designated Diver

How bad could the car market be? According to a recent New York Times article, “Dismal Year Is Forecast for Car Sales,” the answer is: worse than we thought.

Common sense told us that the current economic downturn would cause car sales to take a dive. Now the numbers are starting to trickle in, and the Big Three American automakers are corroborating the stories we’ve heard about a lack of consumer confidence. People simply aren’t buying cars.

In addition to the low numbers reported so far this year, the auto industry has weathered labor disputes, and metalcasters have seen work stoppages as a result. But what we haven’t seen, judging by Bill Vlasic’s reporting, is the bottom of this fall.

Even carmakers’ conservative estimates at the outset of the year were too high, Vlasic writes, citing industry forecasters that have cut their estimates to fewer than 15.5 million vehicle sales in 2008.

Vlasic consoles his audience with the notion that incentives for car buyers should be plentiful, but this will be little consolation for an audience of metalcasters, even those who don’t serve the automotive industry.

Where's Your Innovation Coming From?

The word innovation gets tossed around a lot in business, but keeping innovation in focus is difficult when you’re in the day-to-day grind of meeting customer orders. The result is that a majority of a company’s innovation comes from its suppliers, but if you’re relying on your suppliers to provide your only source of innovation, you’re missing the pearl in a bag of marbles.

A press release that came across our desks earlier this week reminded the editorial staff that many of the best innovations come from people within an organization. In the release, L A Aluminum Co. recognized one of its employees, Scott Solomon, for originating, creating and implementing a device that allows a molding operator to install multiple threaded steel inserts into a mold simultaneously. Previously, each insert was place in the mold one at a time, forcing the operator to expose himself to an 800F mold for several minutes while placing between 5 and 36 inserts. The line produces castings on fuel cells for military and commercial use, accounting for 15-20% of the company’s annual sales. The new device improved the efficiency of that line by 30%.

L A Aluminum awarded its employee with $500 and proudly sent the word out about the accomplishment.

How are you encouraging your employees to innovate?


Many Shades of Green

While you may not know it, metalcasting is leading the green movement. Think about it. We are one of the world’s original recyclers.

Metalcasting brings new life to discarded metal from cars, appliances and other manufacturing processes by remelting it to make a new engineered cast metal component. The term scrap metal is so common in metalcasting that we fail to think of the significance of this process. Estimates report that U.S. metalcasters remelt more than 5 million tons of scrap metal each year.

Today, metalcasting also finds new life for one of our largest waste streams—used metalcasting sand. Beyond recycling it through the metalcasting process countless times until its strength has been exhausted, our industry is currently finding reuse applications for 2.6 million tons (almost 33%) of our spent metalcasting sand in asphalt, concrete, construction, flowable fill and horticultural applications. This product used to be fodder for landfills.

Sure, we need to do a lot more to reduce our emissions levels and energy consumption, and globally our standards must be higher. But we can’t forget about the green foundation we have already established.  This is powerful information in support of the green movement in manufacturing.

New Website for Your Casting Customers Launched

As metalcasters, it is often up to you to key your customers into the casting process. Most design engineers are schooled in only one or two manufacturing processes, and if metalcasting isn’t one of them, your potential customers may shy away from what could be the optimal process.

To ease the transition from designing for one method, such as fabrication, to designing for metalcasting, MODERN CASTING’s sister publication Engineered Casting Solutions launched a new website last week, www.metalcastingdesign.com. Within the site is a collection of information that will help design engineers and casting purchasers learn more about the casting process and its capabilities. Highlights include a guide to metalcasting processes, articles on the various casting alloys and tips on purchasing and designing cost-effective castings. MetalcastingDesign.com also features a section of casting design successes and tutorials.

Next time you are fielding some metalcasting questions from a customer, we encourage you to point them to www.metalcastingdesign.com as a resource. And let us know what tools or information to add to better serve those potential casting customers.

Found Casting: BMW/Starbucks Espresso Maker

From time to time we will use this space to point out some unique applications for cast components. For instance, we all know BMW uses castings in its automobiles, but how about its coffee makers? Starbucks released a BMW-designed espresso machine this past Christmas season. The sleek machine features a diecast housing, which produces an “intersection of beauty and function that is both durable and easy to maintain.”

Not a bad way to start the day.

Unforgettable Oscar

While attending an Oscar party this year, one of our staff members brought up the fact that the coveted golden statuette, awarded to the world’s best film personnel, is made through the metalcasting process. Crickets.

The editor mentioned that the award is cast at a facility not 30 minutes from the Chicago home where they were watching the awards show. A bit of response, but still not enough to drown out the sound of bugs rubbing their legs together.

The experience was eerily similar to the annual deluge of articles that appear in the popular press about the manufacturing process used to make the Oscar. (For the record, it’s hand-cast, a variation on traditional permanent mold work, at R.S. Owens, Chicago.)

Each year around Academy Awards time, a few news outlets run a story detailing how the Oscar starts as molten metal, is poured into a mold, and solidifies to form the shape you see on television. It’s as if they’ve just discovered metalcasting.

This is one of the oldest manufacturing processes in the world. It produces parts for indispensable industries—automotive, aerospace, oil and mining, the list goes on. And yet, the most attention it gets in the popular press is when it makes an appearance in Hollywood. As with so many subjects, the media would do well to get the stars out of its eyes when covering manufacturing in America.

Is the Left Right or Wrong?

Your answers to the February MODERN CASTING Question of the Month are in, and they could be cause for concern.

The question asked, “How would the domestic metalcasting industry be affected by a democrat in the White House in 2009?” Of the respondents, 55.9% thought a politician from the left would affect metalcasting negatively, and 29% predicted the result would be the opposite, with a democrat improving the industry. Only 15.1% thought a change in the oval office’s party affiliation wouldn’t affect the industry at all.

With all due respect to the prognosticating skills of the MODERN CASTING readership, this doesn’t mean a democrat will necessarily affect the metalcasting industry negatively. It does mean that a section of the industry believes a democrat will affect the industry negatively.

This is where the cause for concern lies. The advancement of the metalcasting industry through government assistance is dependent on the industry helping itself. Metalcasters must speak out in their own favor, visit Washington, write letters to legislators and invite legislators to visit their plants.

But if a significant group within the metalcasting community is convinced a democrat will make its plight more difficult, it’s less likely to attempt to make inroads with prevailing government entities. And that’s not right, even if the president is left.

No Peaceful Resting Yet

It’s always frustrating to run across an article in the mainstream media that breezily references the U.S. metalcasting industry, or manufacturing in general, as an endangered species, so a recent Popular Mechanics article that takes an opposite stance is worth mentioning.

Caterpillar and Case IH both are featured in the article, which touts five American manufacturing facilities that are experiencing success despite foreign competition. That these two companies were included echoes the strong casting forecasts for farm equipment and mining machinery industries.

The gist of the article is that it’s not time to write the epitaph for American manufacturing just yet. U.S. businesses still hold advantages in expertise, innovation, flexibility and speed. We try to illustrate this in MODERN CASTING via metalcaster profiles, as well.

When the magazine staff visits end-user trade shows, it’s not uncommon to hear the comment, “I didn’t think there were any U.S. metalcasters left.” It’s time to make your presence known. We hope that in the office, at home, in the grocery store and at the ball game, you’re setting people straight.

Take a Cue from the Guy at the Bar

Actor John Ratzenberger, best known as the mailman from Cheers, has made American manufacturing his cause. He tours the nation promoting American manufacturing and started a foundation for kids encouraging them to consider careers in building and inventing things. What sparked his passion for saving this sector of the nation’s economy? He visited its backbone. As host of Discovery Channel’s How It’s Made , Ratzenberger has toured machine shops, metalcasting facilities, fabricators, plastic molders, and assembly plants. Through discussions with their owners, he’s learned the capabilities of the facilities and the issues that many of them face to keep afloat.

We often stress the importance of opening your doors to your representatives in Congress. But as Ratzenberger shows, it really is a powerful way to make public officials understand the position of the American metalcasting industry. Invite them to your facility. Explain the main challenges you face. Showcase the quality of your product and the steps you’re making to improve your process. Explain how the castings will be used in their applications. Tell them where you’re investing into the facility—new equipment, EPA and OSHA compliance, employee training, etc. Introduce them to the workers on the shop floor and the engineers in the lab. And partner with nearby metalcasting facilities to give your local representatives access to a facility at regular intervals, so you can drive your message home.

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