Didion: See How One brass foundry reclaimed $321,867 in three months.

Reaching an Equilibrium

What does the future hold for our industry?

At a recent conference for the metallurgical coke supply chain, this question was posed when discussing the U.S. steel market. Due to a down economy and global supply pressures, this market is facing significant business turmoil and at a crossroads to determine what and where its future will be.

During my presentation to this conference’s attendees about the state of the metalcasting industry, I referenced the crossroads our industry faced in 2008-2010 when the future of U.S. metalcasting was uncertain. My message to the attendees was to look where the metalcasting industry is today, only a handful of years after its crossroads, 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 our production are operating at 50-60% of capacity while others are operating at 85-90%. But an equilibrium is beginning to be achieved in our supply chain. Not everything is moving offshore (as it seemed 10 years ago) nor is everything being sourced domestically—a balance is being sought in hopes of securing business success across the supply chain.

Look at some of the recent headlines:

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

These headlines show investment and continued global interest in the U.S metalcasting supply chain. Our feature, “Anderson Industries Takes New Track With Iron Castings,” on p. 30, details a casting buyer’s move to diversify its capabilities and customer base by acquiring a U.S. metalcaster.

“What initially interested me in buying Dakota Foundry was how it could broaden our services to customers on both sides,” said Kory Anderson, president of Anderson Industries. “We could, as one company, offer so many solutions, whether it’s iron or steel.”

This renewed interest is a great turnaround for our industry.

Yes, irrational sourcing decisions still are being made by casting buyers every day. These will always continue no matter the level of information and education you provide your customers.  Just continue to focus your marketing and sales efforts to insulate your business as best as possible by diversifying your customer base and the end-use markets you serve.

The future for metalcasting is full of possibilities. The key is the ability of metalcasters to take advantage of them.

Engineering Answers

Welcome to our annual Plant Engineering issue of Modern Casting.  This is the third year in a row we have published an October issue dedicated to examining ways metalcasters can and are re-engineering their facilities to enhance production and improve efficiencies.

As manufacturers, this is your goal every day.  Increase output. Eliminate waste. Increase revenue. Decrease cost. Bolster profit.  In a perfect world, you would achieve these improvements without spending a dime.  In reality, your facility must balance the investments in time, equipment, materials and technology with the projected enhancement in productivity to ensure a sufficient payback.

The features in this issue provide ideas focused on both technology and process advancement.

  • In “Fall River Foundry Packs One-Two Punch,” this metalcaster saw an opportunity to fill a void for its customers by broadening its production capabilities with a new automatic molding line for 0.25-2 lb. nonferrous castings. “Being a job shop, flexibility is obviously something we prioritize,” said Brennen Weigel, Fall River’s president and CEO. “We wanted to broaden our capabilities, so we could meet more of our customers’ demands. We saw a real need for this new automatic mold line.”
  • The feature “Material Handling: Go With Flow,” focuses on optimizing plant performance by ensuring equipment installations are executed with the consideration of how they affect the entire plant’s operation. “If a metalcaster misses an opportunity to improve the flow of materials, the bottleneck in handling and flow will be a drain on profits that continues until the proper action is taken.”
  • “Flexibility, Automation in Small Metalcasting Facilities” looks at two case studies of metalcasters that utilized automation solutions to ensure consistency and repeatability. “Changing operating conditions are forcing firms to be flexible in handling variations in demand and product and uncertainty and changes in the environment. Such factors have affected manufacturing companies for a long time, but their influence has escalated during the past 20 years as a result of advances in manufacturing technology and demand for mass customization.”


As your metalcasting facility considers ways to improve efficiencies and advance production, look to the advice of the experts quoted in this issue and the case studies that are showcased.  The challenge for our industry in the future will require every plant to maximize production from limited resources to ensure competiveness in the global economy.

Putting a Ding in the Universe

Netflix is addicting. I find myself scrolling through the movies it suggests for me in search of the next great Hollywood Blockbuster (or Hollywood Bust) I can sink my teeth into. 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 their 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,” said Jobs.

This leads to one of our features this issue, “Emission Reduction Possibilities With Structural Castings,” on p. 28. Detailed in this article is the work conducted by metalcaster Magna International and Ford Motor Company as they partnered to completely redesign an existing vehicle (2013 Ford Fusion) to reduce its weight and then built that vehicle to demonstrate the possibilities. The team achieved a 23.5% weight reduction.

While the universe is still intact after this project, the auto market has greater food for thought on how to achieve significant weight reduction through the use of a variety of material and process combinations, including metal castings.

“Aluminum castings were integral to the design, and they were strategically placed for both stiffness and strength requirements,” said Jeff Conklin, Magna. “If we had used other processes, we wouldn’t have the stiffness and the weight reduction wouldn’t have been as significant.”

The aluminum castings were produced in the vacuum diecasting process, which allows the castings to be heat treated without blistering and achieve an average of 15% elongation vs. 3% in conventional diecasting. While still a niche casting process, vacuum diecasting opens doors for metal castings in safety-related auto applications—a large market that is key to vehicle weight reduction.

The idea of putting “a ding in the universe” and changing the world is at the fingertips of manufacturers and, specifically, metalcasters because this industry creates value.  Every time you help design and manufacture a new 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.

Finding Solutions

The ultimate goal for a trade magazine is to provide solutions.  These could be solutions to problems you currently are having or problems you might have down the road.

The funny thing is, your manufacturing process, metalcasting, is fundamentally the same thing.  The strength of metalcasting is its ability to provide engineers with solutions others can’t.  Metalcasting is the process that can provide engineered metal components when no other manufacturing process can provide one.

This idea of being a solutions-provider relates to three of our features this month.

The first two, “Optimizing Melting Expansion at ME Elecmetal” on p. 22 and “Tonkawa the Tough” on p. 26, showcase two metalcasters solving melt–related obstacles:

  • ME Elecmetal had significant constraints across its operation, but it knew it needed to add melt capacity.  The question was how. By performing an analytical review of its processes and understanding all the variables involved, this firm was able to enhance existing capacity and add new capacity to reach its goals.
  • Tonkawa’s struggle was due to a technical failure that ravaged its power supply and melting furnace. For many small metalcasters, this would signal the end for the plant.  For Tonkawa, it became an opportunity to utilize the resources and support the firm foundation it had developed in its 65 years and re-emerge a stronger plant.

The key for both was an understanding of who they were as metalcasters.  A critical step in any problem-solving venture is to be able to effectively analyze the situation to understand your true self.

The third feature, “Solving Customer’s Problems” on p. 40, looks at three metalcasters’ experiences in solving their customers’ casting-related struggles. The answers they provided were a conversion-to-casting design, reverse engineering and utilizing rapid prototyping to produce a casting:  

  • Weldments redesigned to castings often improve components’ performance, quality, aesthetics and cost as illustrated with the ag part described in this feature.
  • Through reverse engineering, an investment caster took a 30-year-old aluminum fabrication and turned it into a few dozen military-grade investment castings.
  • A metalcaster used rapid prototyping to produce a pattern for a component rather than rely on worn tooling to generate two 30-in. impellers at 50% the lead time and reduced costs.

While these three solutions are not new to the world of metalcasting, they are three ways metalcasting differentiates itself from the competition. They also are three ways metalcasting can provide solutions.

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.

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