Sleeping With the Enemy

The University of East Billings (UEB), Billings, Montana, offers one of the most advanced metalcasting laboratories in the nation. Recently, the school opened its doors to officials from a prominent university in China to help them offer more technically competent metalcasting education.

Last November, a school looking to harness U.S. knowledge and take it back to China was given the grand tour of UEB’s hands-on metalcasting laboratory. The Chinese university wants to be capable of training people in its communities to perform the modern metalcasting techniques currently found only in the U.S.

If you clicked on the above link, you figured us out. The school that opened its doors wasn’t the University of East Billings, which not only doesn’t offer metalcasting training, but doesn’t exist at all. It was the State University of New York’s Morrisville State College, which is an advanced technical school that did open its doors to a Chinese university. But it offers automotive maintenance training, not metalcasting training.

But what if this was a metalcasting laboratory? Officials speaking on behalf of Morrisville State College said the move would help them deliver a more global education. Moreover, with cars becoming more and more complex, they believe that because American cars will soon be on the road in China, the country will need personnel with the skills to fix them.

There are some critical differences between metalcasting and car repair, certainly. But could the metalcasting industry learn something from this brazen example of international technology transfer? According to Morrisville’s Professor Denis Simon, the school thinks that if it doesn’t partner with the Chinese, then someone else will. And that, of course, has happened in the metalcasting industry. Companies other than yours have gone to China and brought along their technical skills, dispensing them at will.

For better or worse, there’s no stopping globalization.

Found Casting: Iron Horse Hotel

A new hotel has opened up in Milwaukee that caters to the motorcycle enthusiast and business professional alike. Located across from the new Harley Davidson Museum, the Iron Horse Hotel features a masculine, yet modern design, complete with aluminum sculptures in every room meant to represent molten metal in a metalcasting facility.

From its website:

In keeping with its theme of fusing industrial aesthetics with cutting edge amenities, The Iron Horse Hotel commissioned Milwaukee sculptor Amber Van Galder to create unique works of art out of recycled aluminum. The original pieces are displayed above beds in the concept hotel’s guest rooms.

Van Galder created the pieces to resemble industrial metal spills commonly found on the floors of metal foundries. The artist melted down 40 pounds of recycled aluminum for each piece, pouring the spills into sand, and then hand polishing them to a brilliant patina.

An Evansville, Wisconsin native, Van Galder graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 2007.  While studying art there, she developed a close relationship with Professor Dan McGuire, who trained her in traditional foundry work. This discipline re-united Van Galder with her Evansville roots; the rural community boasts an industrial foundry that has been operational for more than 130 years.  

We’re not thrilled with the exaggerated phrase “metal spills commonly found on the floors of metal foundries,” but the end result is cool. A quick look in our directory has us thinking the metalcasting facility in Evansville they are referring to is Baker Manufacturing Co., which has been around since 1873.

Saving American Manufacturing

The cover story in the June 30 edition of Business Week asks a question on every manufacturer’s mind: “Can the U.S. Bring Jobs Back from China?” Oil prices are driving up transportation costs, wages in China are increasing 10-15% a year, and the American dollar is falling against world currencies. This could be a good time for the American manufacturing industry to make a comeback. But, as the article points out, it won’t be easy.

Most of us are familiar with this scenario: A company wants to cut costs. It explores ways to source its parts for less. Its American supplier can’t compete with China’s low costs, so a Chinese supplier wins the contract. Two years later, the cost savings aren’t nearly what were expected, and the company turns back to its American supplier. But that manufacturing sector has shrunk due to closings, and available capacity is hard to find.

For the optimistic, this could be an opportune time for metalcasters, as well as other manufacturers, to invest in increasing their capacity as more OEMs are looking to source domestically. However, after several years of watching job after job head offshore, it’s understandable that suppliers are a little gun-shy.
In the article, iron metalcasting facility Donsco is offered as an example of the impact offshoring has had on the American manufacturing industry:

Despite growing demand, [Donsco Chairman Art] Mann says Donsco will be "real cautious" about spending the $30 million and two years needed to build a new foundry. The impact of this reluctance is being felt in Belen, N.M., where CEMCO, a maker of rock-crushing and farming equipment, is looking to cut costs and logistical headaches. The company today imports many metal parts from Asia but would prefer to buy domestically because of rising shipping rates and the weak dollar. "American foundries now can compete head-to-head on cost, but there aren't many foundries, welders, machinists, and quality-control engineers," says James B. Turk, CEMCO's chief financial officer. "What we had 10 years ago is gone." Where did all the capacity go? Mainly to China, where modern foundries are proliferating.

Suppliers are in the tough situation of turning away customers that two years ago they would have loved to have. So what now? As the article points out, China’s wages and transportation costs may be increasing, but so are productivity, research and development. And large corporations that have already invested chunks of money in establishing a supply base in Chinese cities will be slow to abandon them.

The good news is that OEMs may be having second thoughts about sourcing their newest product lines to foreign locations. Inflation and increased commodity prices have helped even out the price balance between Chinese and American metalcasters. And the “survival of the fittest” theory seems to have held true for the metalcasting industry. Perhaps the American manufacturing industry is primed for a revival.

Deere Takes Proactive Route

While climate change legislation continues to sit in Congress, metalcasters find themselves in a holding pattern. It’s a given that changes have to be made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and shrink our carbon footprint, but unfortunately, often these changes aren’t made until they are dictated by the government. Deere & Co. is taking a more proactive approach. It announced Tuesday that it plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25% per dollar of revenue from 2005-2014. Deere participates in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Leaders program.

From the Quad City Times, which published a full story on Deere’s involvement:

While Deere is basing its reduction goal on a normalized number — per dollar of revenue — others are doing it by tons of production. “We provide equipment that can be weighed, but we also produce light components and services that can’t be weighed. We also wanted to include our fleet, office space and warehouses,” [said Laurie Zelnio, the company’s director of safety, environment and standards.]

Climate Leaders, which is an alliance of industry, government and environmental entities, is working to develop long-term climate change strategies. By participating, Zelnio said Deere and the partners create a credible record of their accomplishments, reduce their impact on the environment and identify themselves as corporate climate leaders.

“If we move to regulation in this country, we would like it to be a market-driven and economy-wide approach,” she said.


Deere’s initiative will include reducing emissions in its metalcasting, heat treating, painting and testing facilities.

By voluntarily working with the EPA to reduce its emissions, Deere is earning good faith status to have their economic position heard by the regulatory agency. Hopefully, through partnerships like this one, companies can work toward cleaning up the air without sacrificing profits.

Metalcaster Makes the Radio

An employee for May Foundry and Machine Co., Salt Lake City, Utah, recently was featured on a local radio program about the lives of Utahans.

According to the story on KUER FM90, a public radio station licensed to the Univ. of Utah, David Thomlin has been working for May Foundry for more than 38 years. He got a job at the plant shoveling coal from railroad cars and began his career as a molder nine months later. Today, he is the ferrous nobake shop’s lead molder.

Thomlin hasn’t become rich working in the metalcasting facility, the story tells us, but he has all the things he needs and provides for his family.

“I still enjoy coming in, and I still enjoy making something,” he told the radio station. “I’m taking a raw material, sand, and putting it with some chemicals and taking junk, basically, and creating something, and it’s going to be used by thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people—if I did my job right.”

The radio spot also goes into some detail on the metalcasting process itself, indicating it can be used to make a variety of items, including parts “for a snow blower” or “a carbon regenerating plant that makes briquettes.”

“I think it was rather nice and a testament to the kinds of workers and employees we have here [at May Foundry],” said Mike May, customer service and safety manager.

Reducing Energy An Easy Profit

We sat in on an Energy Forum during the May CastExpo’08 held in Atlanta, and a point made by one of the presenters struck a chord with us. Robert Eppich, Eppich Technologies, mentioned that in the last two Operational Cost Surveys conducted by the American Foundry Society, metalcasters reported an average of 2.4% operating profit in 2005 and 5.7% profit in 2007. Eppich averaged the two years for a 4% operating profit for the typical metalcaster. Based on this percentage, he said, it would take $1,000,000 of new sales to generate $40,000 of additional profit. As he put it, that is quite a struggle.

His point was that it is easier to save $40,000 a year in energy costs than to find $1,000,000 of new business.

If your company doesn’t have an energy conservation plan, it may be time to implement one. It’s better for your bottom line and will reduce your carbon footprint. Places to start are you melting operations, exhaust and ventilation systems and lighting. It may take some capital investment, but in a couple of years, the money you save could be the difference between staying in business and folding. The state and federal government offer incentives to businesses that make energy efficient investments. For starters, the U.S. Dept. of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy provides various options for tax breaks and incentives on its website.

Beyond capital investment, an energy conservation plan requires a new mindset. Take a walk through your shop floor and seek out the areas you can identify as inefficient uses of energy. Remember, those are profits being wasted.

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