Alliant Castings’ Pattern of Progress
Shannon Wetzel, Managing Editor
Click here to see this story as it appears in the December 2017 issue of Modern Casting
In Winona, Minnesota, Iron Man’s alter ego isn’t Tony Stark, it’s Tom Renk, president and owner of AFS Corporate Member Alliant Castings Metal Technologies, a producer of abrasion resistant iron castings. If you have been to a recent CastExpo, you might have seen Renk geared up in his Iron Man or Iron Patriot suit to promote his business. He also wears the suit to career fairs, and one of the suits is on display in the lobby of Alliant Castings.
But Renk has more in common with Stark than a metal costume. Renk emphasizes innovation and technology as cornerstones to Alliant Casting’s vision of “becoming the foundry that redefines the industry.” He may not have a subterranean lab and an artificially intelligent computer he can talk to, but in the seven years he has been leading the small company, Renk has pushed to modernize and evolve. Most recently, this has included adding modeling/process simulation, laser scanning and four industrial 3-D printers for tooling and patternmaking in the last year, along with a small induction furnace for research and development and prototyping.
“Our journey is ever evolving—I don’t know if you ever reach the endpoint, because you can always automate, add new materials, and innovate further,” Renk said. “We really push our vision and our core values—maximize resources, accountability, respect continuous improvement, and standardize. They have shaped our company and are ingrained in everything we do here.”
Although its roots go back to the late 1800s, Alliant Castings is a small shop with 35 employees. It is competing not just for casting jobs, but for employees too. So, when Renk purchased what was then called United Machine and Foundry from his father in 2010 he recognized drastic changes needed to be made to be sustainable.
“We were struggling, we had old technology, old molding lines, and we couldn’t hire people,” Renk said. “So we took a step back and said we are going to go all in or not at all.”
One of the first things Renk did was remove the manual pallet molding line in the foundry, which was an area that proved to be the most difficult to staff. To replace it, the company purchased and installed an automated green sand line, doubling the capacity while needing fewer than half the number of people to run it.
“A lot of those initial changes were basic,” Renk said. “We automated the green sand line, installed new lighting, cleaned up the shop and made it a more appealing place to work. Now we have a great mix of experienced and younger, inexperienced people.”
Renk also decided to rebrand the company with a new logo and name, ultimately opting for Alliant Castings Metal Technologies.
“We had machine in our name, but we don’t really machine anymore so it was confusing,” Renk said. “We chose Alliant because we want to ally ourselves with the customers, the community and our employees. We also had “foundry” in our name. Which when surveying our customer base, employees, and those from the industry– the word ‘foundry’ conjures up some negative associations. When we rebranded, we also started investing in technology like we never had in the past.”
Alliant Castings’ bread and butter is a low-volume, high-mix of abrasion resistant cast iron jobs. The castings used in the construction, power generation, mining, agriculture, and surface preparation markets.
“We have a very narrow niche. We are not gray and ductile iron—standard alloys,” Renk said. “We pour abrasion resistant cast iron. Anything that has an application where they need high wear resistance, that is our products.”
The castings range from simple, such as a liner, to the complexity of an impeller. Alliant splits its production among its automated green sand line, nobake molding loop and floor molding.
Some of Alliant Castings’ parts were used to help pump concrete for the base of the new Freedom Tower in New York, for example. Other castings are used in equipment that recycles byproducts from coal mining. It also produces castings used in shotblasting equipment, including for its sister company North Star Products.
In 2016, one of Alliant Castings’ customers encouraged Renk to investigate 3-D printing for tooling and prototypes and introduced him to a printer manufacturer at CastExpo16. The manufacturer showed them a few 3-D printed patterns, and Renk was intrigued enough to investigate further.
“We didn’t know how it would work but that is kind of how we roll here. We are crazy enough to try things, ” Renk said. “Our customer pushed us in the right direction, and when we invested in our first one, he told us, ‘If you buy one, you are going to buy two.’ Sure enough, we ended up buying the next machine a few months later, and now we have a third and fourth printer.”
Alliant Castings purchased its first 3-D printer just a little over a year ago. Now it has four. It does nearly all its tooling and patternwork in-house and is seeing vast improvements in time and cost.
“It has been a game-changer for us,” Renk said. “I’m just surprised there are not more foundries doing this sort of thing. You do have to have the people on staff who can run it and want to learn it and understand it .”
Renk gave an example of a casting assembly the metalcasting facility needed to develop. Three castings were meant to fit together, but in the first iteration Alliant Castings produced, the castings didn’t seem to interact well together. Alliant Castings made a slight design change to the model and sent it to the printer. Overnight, a new pattern for the next iteration was ready to be poured, and this time it fit perfectly.
The patterns made with the 3-D printers have helped boost Alliant Castings prototyping capabilities, but it works for low volume production runs, too. Renk said it has run 500 molds on a single 3-D printed pattern on its green sand molding machine.
“The other thing we are also finding that some of our customers have legacy parts and tooling that have either been lost or damaged,” Renk said. “We can find the missing pieces to their tooling puzzle without spending a lot of money on low volume parts.”
Garry Schmidt, vice president, Alliant Castings, said 3-D printing opens up opportunities for the company.
“Traditional patterns have been a real barrier to entry because of the expense. Well, now you can take a lot of the expense out of it,” he said.
“It has absolutely helped us gain customers,” Renk said. “And 3-D printing has forced us to be a better company. We needed to establish systems and procedures, starting with tool design. We are not fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants anymore.”
Alliant Castings’ evolution extends beyond 3-D printing. Even though the metalcasting facility sticks to a narrow niche of abrasion resistant irons, it still invests in material and process development.
It recently remodeled its lab near the shop floor and added new metallurgical inspection equipment. This past year it purchased a small 200-lb. induction furnace to help with alloy development.
“I believe in reinvesting in back into the business. You have to,” Renk said. “The foundry is a tough environment, and you have reinvest.”
Alliant Castings also has reinvested/upgraded its heat treat furnace, purchased a Faro arm scanner, added a new shot blast machine and engineering work stations. The year prior, it remodeled the office, and purchased a cold box core machine. It rolled out the use of shop floor tablets using the Synchro ERP App. In the coming year, Renk expects to upgrade its Tinker/Omega nobake molding carousel.
The investment and modernization strategy has Schmidt optimistic for the future and proud of Alliant Castings accomplishments to date.
“When you look at what we have done the last few years, we are way ahead of the curve when it comes to technology, in my opinion,” he said. “I think we are doing really well.”
Even before adding 3-D printing, Alliant Castings was seeing a surge of growth. It is one of the reasons the company explored the printing technology to begin with.
“We have all these new parts to tool up, and if you are talking conventional patternmaking, it is a lot of money,” Renk said. “So we were faced with investing the money in tooling with traditional patternmaking, or investing in 3-D printing. We chose 3-D printing, and that has really changed our ability to tool up things faster, and we have learned a lot along the way.”
With a small staff, Alliant Castings relies on its personnel to have skills across departments and functions, and to be able to learn and adapt. When the company bought its first 3-D printer, nobody on staff knew how to use it, but they were willing to tinker with it and learn. And Renk had to be OK with some mistakes.
“In this industry, in a small foundry, you need people who wear a lot of hats, but as a company, we are going some place,” he said. “You are going to stub your toe once in a while, but you learn from that.”
Meanwhile, Alliant Castings’ technology newbies are becoming experts.
“With technology, you have to have people who can utilize it,” Schmidt said. “We are really starting to put people in place to use the technology the way it should be. And it is actually really a lot of fun.”
There’s no question Alliant Castings is having fun right now. Just ask the guy in the Iron Man suit.