Metalcaster of the Year: Production Castings
Click here to see this article as it appears in Modern Casting.
By Shannon Wetzel
A few years ago, Mark Preuss fielded a call from a potential customer about a new product he was launching. The customer was in a bind. Originally, the design called for a four-piece assembly, but that piece was proving to not be strong enough. Could Production Castings, Fenton, Missouri, supply a metal part quickly? And by the way, they want fewer than 2,000 die castings that year.
“After he contacted me, we redesigned the piece for his whole product line to make it durable and withstand the rigorous tests the product had to pass,” said Preuss, sales engineer, Production Castings. “Our design engineer sat with the customer and his people, and as they are talking on that first phone call, he is starting on the design.”
Despite the low volume, Production Castings gave the customer its full support in bringing the design to fruition. The result was a product that surpassed all requirements and provided value to the customer who became an industry leader in quality. The product ended up so successful, its volumes are now in the hundreds of thousands per year
“This customer needed help and was looking for a way out,” Preuss said. “Our company philosophy is to treat all customers equally. You never know when your next home run is going to be hit.”
For nearly 40 years, Production Castings has been providing its customers value added services that have kept them coming back to the aluminum and zinc diecaster time and again for product solutions. Today, it is a 150-employee business that performs tooling design and manufacture, diecasting, machining, powder coating and warehousing in-house, plus it contracts for plating and other post processing operations.
“Our forte is to say we can take a part from start to finish,” said Al Loeffelman, president, Production Castings. “We can build the tooling, run the part, machine the part, powder coat it, finish it any which way.”
With a strong record of customer service and value added services, Production Castings has been named Modern Casting magazine Metalcaster of the Year.
Tooling as Value Added
One of the key advantages Production Castings offers is that it designs and makes its tooling in-house, Loeffelman said. This is a throwback to how the company first started as a new venture for two young sons of a tool and diemaker. Their father’s company had a couple of diecasting machines, but he wasn’t interested in pursuing that area of the business. Loeffelman and his brother Kevin took it on and a few years later, their father Ken joined their company, bringing his tool and die expertise with him. In the early 80s, Al and Kevin’s brother Chris, joined the company to improve the secondary operations and finishing of product.
“Tooling is a big factor because we control downtime,” Loeffelman said. “We handle repairs and revisions and we can react immediately. That’s a pretty expensive piece of the pie to have, but then again, it’s a huge selling point for us that we have an in-house tooling department. Because we do our own tool design, we can make some pretty complex parts. We can bring the customer in and talk about the design, especially with the tool. We can say we are going to gate it here and what is that going to cause, if it is a problem, and that definitely pays off in the end.”
The tooling expertise and capability also helps lend flexibility to Production Castings and its customers when it comes to short run orders. Although the diecaster’s majority of orders are high volume, it also has a niche in low volume runs and it’s able to offer this to its customers because of its process efficiencies, flexible warehousing methods and wide range of tooling options.
“We probably are different than the normal diecaster that wants the huge volumes because we look at higher added value and lower volumes,” Loeffelman said. “We do large runs (more than 100,000) but we will take on the short runs. We do a lot where we run a bigger quantity, warehouse the extra castings and then, ship them later on an as-needed basis.”
Tooling pricing can be a large barrier to utilizing the diecasting process for low volumes. Ways that Production Castings will work with the customer to alleviate that includes using unit-dies that are interchangeable with standard holders. The diecaster also keeps costs low through quick and efficient die changes.
“With a long run, you might have the order in the machine all week, but with the shorter runs we might do 20 die changes in the plant a day,” Loeffelman said. “That’s when the design and tooling prep come into play. Mainly, it goes into the flexibility of the tool design. We might design a tool for multiple parts, using inserts. With high volume, you wouldn’t typically do that.”
“We have increased efficiencies here because we do everything in house,” Preuss said. “Our die setup times are shorter and our processing is shorter. We also have a strong quality and work order entry system.”
Production Castings charges setup fees for orders of less than 5,000 pieces in zinc and 2,000 pieces in aluminum. Sometimes it can help the customer avoid those setup costs by ordering higher volumes that might be needed later that year. Production Castings will run the full larger production and warehouse the parts not needed immediately until the customer sends in another order for shipment. In some cases, Production Castings will ship directly to the retailer once it receives the order—the customer never sees the part.
“We find that if they come to us, they know the tooling cost but are hoping their quantities grow down the line,” Loeffelman said. “We try to work with the customer, and if they can give us a long run forecast, we can make the decision to run all three months of a product or just what they need for a shipment. The longer outlook they can give us, the better we can plan.”
The Next Level
Preuss said he relies heavily on connections he makes at trade shows and through other industry networking opportunities to find new prospects. It’s where he has met customers like Big Ass Fans (BAF), Lexington, Kentucky, that now relies on the diecaster to supply parts for its quickly growing fan product lines. It’s important to have a clear five-minute elevator pitch, Preuss said, and his for Production Castings focuses on the company’s ability to do everything in-house for the customer.
“We can start from concept and give a complete product to the customer, and those are all value added services,” he said. “We can do it all here, and if you can explain that to the customer in the right light, they see the value in it.”
After meeting Preuss at a trade show, BAF gave Production Castings a shot at working on a new product launch on a tight deadline. Based on that success, the partnership has grown.
“When I look at sourcing, I want to know the checks and balances for how the part will be produced,” said Sean O’Brien, purchaser, BAF. “We have a great relationship with [Production Castings], and we lean on them pretty hard for new product introduction.”
Production Castings started as a zinc diecasting business but in the 1990s it bought an aluminum and zinc diecasting facility in Sedalia, Missouri. Also around that time, the company added to its Fenton, Missouri, location to bring powder coating in-house. In the ensuing years, it continued to expand its machining and finishing capabilities. In 2010, it closed the Sedalia operation and added aluminum into the Fenton plant with new machinery and the latest automation available. This marked the start of the company’s largest growth period in its 40 years, with sales growing by 30% from 2010 to 2015.
“We put in all automated equipment where we didn’t have it before, and that gave us a more competitive edge,” Loeffelman said. “It took us to another level.”
That next level means more CNC machining and more added value, such as powder coating, plating and subassembly.
“Customers still want the best price, but now they also want you to be more automated because they know if you are, the pricing is going to reflect that,” Loeffelman said. “And naturally it affects quality.”
Loeffelman believes it’s important to constantly upgrade the equipment at the plant and does so on an annual basis. Each machine rebuild or upgrade reaches for more automation, faster setup times and more efficiency.
“Customers want you to have the latest and greatest, they want you to be automated, and that’s a good thing,” Loeffelman said. “That is why we go through replacing something every year. The size we are, we can’t go 10 years without replacing or rebuilding a machine.”
For example, the casting trimming is performed automatically at the diecasting stations. Metal clippings from the trim presses fall onto a conveyor belt that travel under the floor and then up an elevator to be dumped into a hopper for remelting in the furnace. Two large aluminum furnaces loom in the diecasting room, although only one is used at a time. If the furnace in use goes down for any reason, the other one is there to keep production going.
“The thing I stress more than anything is, we’re not going to let the customer down,” Preuss said. “We can say that with confidence because we control almost every part of the process. Plus, our preventative maintenance is strong. We have dual backups for everything.”
Loeffelman takes pride in knowing his company wins customers, it doesn’t lose them. And while the temptation may hover to increase capacity to take on a current lucrative industry, such as automotive, he is firm in his belief that a diversified portfolio will mean a strong, stable future for his company.
Production Castings will continue to look at new emerging markets to further diversify, while proving to customers it is a true one-stop-shop.
“You have to stay tuned to your customers’ needs and be flexible,” he said. “Today, companies are lean and mean and if you can handle something like plating for them, it’s another thing they don’t have to do. The days of just casting are over. You have to offer something else.”