Tips for Touring a Casting Supplier

By Shannon Wetzel, MetalcastingDesign.com   

An engineer is in the beginning stages of designing a new product for his company, and the success of the design relies heavily on the use of a cast metal component. A request-for-quote is sent out and the list of prospective casting suppliers narrowed down to two or three. The purchasing and design team decides to visit the suppliers to make an educated final choice. But the engineer’s design experience is mostly with fabrications and forgings, and he’s unfamiliar with the metalcasting process and its facilities.

It’s a scenario that design engineers and purchasers are bound to run into at some point. Your first metalcasting facility visit may be intimidating—casting plants are generally hot, often loud and sometimes odorous, and conversations with metalcasters tend to be full of jargon that’s unrelated to any other metalworking industry. However, armed with the right questions, even the greenest of casting designers and purchasers can use their first metalcasting facility visit to make a well-informed assessment.

Know Your Design

Any visit to a metalcasting facility can be worthwhile, but the first visit can be the green light for a long customer-supplier relationship or a road sign telling you you’re on a dead-end street.

“We are open to visiting the customer ourselves, but the better way is to have them visit the facility,” said Bob Braun, vice president of engineering at Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry (WAF), Manitowoc, Wis. “This way you can understand the requirements of the process.”

According to Braun, the majority of initial plant visits at WAF are through a sales contact for a specific part or parts and should include representatives of the customer’s purchasing, quality, engineering and manufacturing departments. Although every metalcasting facility will welcome current and potential customers differently,  a design review is a critical part of the visit because it gives you the chance to discuss aspects of the component’s design, as well as base metal price and weight differential, face-to-face. 

“If it’s an exisiting part, any information that the customer can share about the problems encountered can help the metalcasting facility avoid making the same mistake twice,” Braun said.

If it’s a new part, involving the metalcaster’s design team at this stage can aid in its manufacturability.

“The best metalcasting facilities we work with will bid and then give a pre-evalation of how the part will work with the engineering people,” said Dan DeChant, engineering manager for electric motor manufacturere Baldor Electric, Fort Mill. S.C. “They will work with designers on where the part is going to be chucked for machining, examine the issues of gating, porosity and hardness, and basically communicate how they’re going to process the part.”

Braun points out that customers should be clear on what requirements are needed rather than use a vague blanket approach. “For instance, customers shouldn’t ask for porosity-free castings. Every casting has some porosity in it,” he said. “Be more specific—what are the material requirements? What is the casting used for? It’s possible to request properties that are higher than what you really need, so be willing to work with the metalcaster on design changes.”

Follow the Equipment

During the introductory meeting, the casting supplier likely will give an overview of the company. Like many manufacturing sectors, the metalcasting industry is under pressure from domestic and foreign competition. An unexpected plant closure could affect your time to market. A good gauge of the health of a company is its recapitalization plans. What have they invested in lately, and what are they going to invest in tomorrow? The new equipment may not affect the production of your part, but investment commitment is a sign that the firm will be around to be your supplier today and down the road.

But a metalcasting facility doesn’t necessarily need the shiniest new equipment to produce quality castings. The company’s maintenance plan is a clue to its longevity. Jed Falgred, vice president of manufacturing, Dotson Iron Castings, Mankato, Minn., suggested asking if the metalcaster has some sort of preventive or predictive maintenance program to proactively take care of its equipment. “This is a good sign that major downtimes due to equipment breakdowns will be avoided,” he said.

Mike Gwyn, director of metals technology, Advanced Technology Institute, North Charleston, S.C., agreed. “The shiniest facility is not always the best facility,” he said. “If I’m looking for a single attribute, I’m looking for bright, enthused metalcasting engineers. And from that you’ll find a well-organized shop floor. Maybe it’s older machinery, but they are taking good care of it.”

Go With the Flow

The organization and operation of the plant is just as important as the equipment in a high class metalcasting facility. Your first visit will be a largely educational one, but even if you are unfamiliar with the casting process, you can be on the lookout for telling signs.

“As you’re walking through the metalcasting facility, get a sense of the flow of information and the flow of castings,” Falgren said. “Be on the lookout for people working in ‘silos,’ where there’s no connection between departments. You can tell this by looking for inventory. Large piles can be a bad sign if they’ve been there for a while.”

Most containers of in-process castings have tags or production sheets with them. Check the dates to see how fresh the castings are. Are they getting addressed that day?

While you are walking through the shop floor, look around for castings that are similar to your part and ask questions about them.

“I think it’s a strength when a customer sees a metalcaster is making a similar part to what they want,” Braun said. “Naturally, we’re not going to open up a print, but seeing the physical part in the shop helps.”

You’ll also want to see how the metalcaster controls its process. Metalcasting’s main concerns are the metal and the mold, and these parameters should be tested on a regular basis.

“You may not have any idea what the controls do or how they measure, but by asking, you’ll get an idea of whether they have some controls in place,” Falgren said. For instance, controlling the sand in a sand casting facility is important in molding efficiency. Ask the employees in the testing area what they are testing for and the frequency of the tests. You won’t have to be an expert on sand to see their competency level. How well does the employee understand what the tests are telling him or her?

Falgren said a simple way to figure this out is to ask them to show you a test that revealed a process that was moving out of control and describe how they reacted to it.

“Are they doing something meaningful with the data, or is it just part of a rote set of tasks?” he said.

The same questions should be applied to metal control.

Finally, housekeeping on the shop floor should be evident. “There’s still a misconception that all metalcasting facilities are dirty, but housekeeping is a sign of pride and diligence,” Braun said.

Because of the nature of the process, dirt and grime will be present, but major things to look for are clear walkways, neat workspaces and a generally trash-free environment.

“When you first visit a metalcasting facility, you should understand that you are walking into an environment unlike any other you’ve probably seen,” Falgren said. “You’re going to see fire, you’re going to see sparks, and you’re going to see dust. But sloppy workmanship or working areas are red flags. Expect that anything you touch will be hot, dirty or both, but it doesn’t have to be filthy.”

Don’t Forget the People

A third factor in choosing a metalcasting facility is the employee population that will be handling your component. A strong engineering staff will help you save money and improve part quality, but the workers on the molding line, in the melting department and at the grinding wheel are the ones who will carry out the plan.
Braun said WAF makes it a point to show potential and current customers that the operators on the floor know what is critical to the customer for each part. In a metalcasting facility, this may be through something as rudimentary as paper step sheets or as advanced as a handheld computer tracking device. The important idea is that the manufacturing details of the castings are being communicated to the shop floor operators and that the operators are comfortable and knowledgeable about the process.

“The metalcasting personnel better be able to tell you what they’re doing and how they’re doing it,” Falgren said. “Try to engage the production employees, even if it’s as simple as a gesture or a nod. Are they engaged in the organization, or are they just putting in their time? Did they know you were coming?”

It may also be worthwhile to spend some time asking about how the firm finds its employees and what training programs are in place.

Falgren argues that an engaged, satisfied production workforce translates into an efficient manufacturing process and higher quality castings. Simple things like a bulletin board with fresh postings, a clean breakroom and even a parking lot full of well-maintained cars can be clues to the type of workforce employed and how it is treated.  ECS

Supplier Green Flags
 • Strong sales figures
 • Busy machines and a shop floor with plenty of work in place
 • Open plant tour with questions answered easily and comfortably
 • Clear walkways, tidy workplaces
 • Safety equipment used
 • Progressive capital investment plan

Supplier Red Flags
 • Poor housekeeping, evident garbage in work areas, no clear pathways
 • Prohibit you from viewing certain areas of plant (unless for safety or proprietary reasons)
 • Unprepared for visit or employees unaware of a meeting with the customer
 • Evident lack of safety procedures