Shannon Wetzel, Managing Editor
Click here to see this story as it appears in the May 2017 issue of Modern Casting
George Westhoff Jr. has been working in the family metalcasting business since he was an 8-year-old mowing the small lawn in front of the office. So he can rattle off a lengthy, off-the-cuff, list of areas for investment to improve the efficiency at Midland Manufacturing Co. (Fort Worth, Texas) as if it is second nature. No facility is perfect and all can be improved, so he keeps an eye and an ear out for bottlenecks on the shopfloor and equipment on the market that can help improve it.
Nearly 15 years ago, he knew his metalcasting facility needed to begin planning to replace its aging molding line, and he began looking for an automatic molding line that fit the space constraints and tooling setups already at Midland. But after a trip to the northeast U.S. to see what other nonferrous casting facilities were doing, Westhoff began to understand something. A new, more efficient molding line would lack payoff if the cleaning and finishing area couldn’t keep up. He shifted gears and prioritized the end of the line first.
“We saw so many ways to manipulate and handle movement through the finishing area,” Westhoff said. “And we saw we needed to first look at making a better, more efficient cleaning room so that when we got a better, more efficient foundry, we would be able to handle it instead of roadblocking it.”
After updating the cleaning area, Midland was eventually ready to update his molding line to a new automated system, which was completed in the summer of 2015. But the improvements aren’t done. Westhoff continues to watch out for new ways to improve efficiency in the plant and new markets to enter to bolster business.
Midland Foundry’s origins start with an original product line for a water well pump in 1889, and that legacy continues.
“We have been making brass and bronze castings and some products since the inception of our company,” Westhoff said. “Pumps for fresh groundwater or irrigation has been one of our product lines from day one.”
Today, Midland’s sales volume is split roughly 50/50 between jobbing work and two product lines. A third new product line has been added but it is still in early stages of growth. Along with the water pumps, Midland manufactures a line of municipal products the company has labeled MIDCO. It started with water meter flanges in the 1960s and helped get Midland’s foot in the door for municipal products. In the 1980s, MIDCO added a restraint unit that connects PVC pipe to iron fittings in municipal pipes. The restraint unit is a proprietary invention from a former customer who retired. Midland took on the business, casting the main pieces, assembling, packaging and distributing from its facilities in Fort Worth.
Midland has adjusted its products according to customer demand. Originally it sold the flanges individually, but many customers wanted the whole kit, so Midland started offering them packaged with the associated accessories. It meant taking control of more inventory but enabled the line to grow.
Westhoff said the water well pump products account for 30% of the business’ overall sales, and in the last five years, the MIDCO line has approached the same level.
“I still see ourselves as a jobbing shop,” Westhoff said. “But our two main product lines are our mainstays. That gives us a kind of luxury: we are always selling something, no matter what.”
Midland, which employs 40, recently added a third product line of architectural and ornamental castings. These include historic markers, building plaques, and memorial products. Midland casts the Texas Trail of Fame stars at the famous Fort Worth Stockyards nearby as part of this architectural line it named “Marcoza.” This line is still in its early stages, and the nature of the work lends itself to very low volume orders. The pieces are cast on Midland’s small nobake casting line.
On the jobbing side of the business, Midland casts safety tools, pumps, gears, saddle clamps and waterworks products. Although the business is rooted in Texas, only 5% is tied directly to oil, Westhoff said. If anything, the metalcaster is tied to another natural resource: water.
“People always need water,” Westhoff said.
From the pipes that transport water to the pumps that tap it, Midland Manufacturing makes castings needed in these applications.
“We cater to Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana for jobbing, but as far as our product line work, we sell the MIDCO line across the country and we sell the water well around the world,” Westhoff said.
Midland even has provided pump castings at cost to U.S. aid relief groups that provide equipment for freshwater wells to villages in Africa and the Amazon.
As the manufacturer of a complete product, Midland Manufacturing has the capability for assembly, finishing machining and shrink wrapping that it also offers to its jobbing customers as an added value. Over the last 10 years, it has added three new CNC machines to improve that area’s work flow and quality.
“We are trying to build that up to be more efficient,” Westhoff said. “We are thinking of getting a digital mill to open up more capacity room for machining, perhaps to even take on outside machine work.”
Midland moved to its current location in 1984 and shortly after installed a matchplate molding machine, but by 2003, the company was starting to experience maintenance and wear issues. When the company began looking for its replacement, the idea to address the end of the line first crystallized.
After asking three companies for a material handling and finishing area design, Midland selected Roberts Sinto Corp.’s design, which was a hook system that traveled from finishing into the molding and pouring area. Even though at that point Midland was only redoing the finishing area, they designed the molding layout, as well so that when a new molding system was put in, it would have the same take-out point.
“That’s why we ended up revamping our grinding room when we did,” Westhoff said. “When we put that system in, we went from one week to push something through to one day, in some cases.”
After a few years with the new finishing area, Midland again began looking at replacing its existing line with an automated system, but it needed to wait for the right fit—a machine that was horizontal and would fit all its existing patterns.
“I was looking for a machine for years,” Westhoff said. “When Sinto came out with a machine that was a fit for us, we decided to move forward.”
The new automated line includes an integrated molding machine and mold handling loop—the first such system Midland has used. The previous line used computerized control in the molding machine and a curved rail system for pouring and mold handling, and the two worked separately.
“The new system has been good so far,” Westhoff said. “It actually reduced our capacity on some jobs based on logistics of movement which can tap us out at 80 molds per hour. But for the most part, we are running volumes much less than that anyway. And we went from 10 molds to 20 molds for the pouring window.”
In the short term, Westhoff said the company will concentrate on recouping from the investments to the green sand foundry. But the business has long-term plans for a larger furnace. Currently, it operates a 450-lb. crucible for its green sand line and a 375-lb. crucible for its nobake line. But the jobs Midland is winning are trending bigger.
“We are getting into some two- or three-pot pours and it’s getting complicated,” Westhoff said. “So we are looking at a 1,000-lb. furnace to be more efficient and a little bit bigger.”
In the meantime, Midland is focused on growing its Marcoza line and jobbing customers and finding simple ways to improve plant floor efficiencies.
“Hopefully the green sand foundry is in shape for another 25 years or so—beyond me,” Westhoff said with a smile. “But I’m not ready to think about retiring yet. I love what I do and I love coming in here every day.”