Cover Story: Transformed by Fire

May 9, 2017 No Comments
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Metalcasting Industry Withstands Test of Time

By Melissa DeBilzan

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toc_features50pxAt Smith Foundry in Minneapolis, sparks fly every time 2,000 pounds of molten iron is poured into a ladle and then into molds. The entire process is carefully timed and monitored.

First, recycled steel scrap and virgin pig iron are dumped into an 8-ton electric induction furnace, where it’s heated up to about 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Molten iron swirls around, angry and dangerous, blasting a radius of intense heat. Every 20 minutes or so, 2,000 pounds of liquid iron is poured into a ladle and then poured into a series of molds, some for castings that weigh up to 250 pounds. It’s like a fireworks show with sparks jumping from the mold to the floor, celebrating the new products being made.

Then, over the next several hours, the castings are cooled and take the shapes of bearing housings, tractor brake pedals, drive wheels, or other parts made of ductile or grey iron before they’re sent off for finishing.

Each job is tailored to meet certain chemistries, physical properties, tolerances, surface finishes, and other quality-related demands.

Although casting is one of the most primitive skills to survive modern times, the days of trial and error have been replaced by cutting-edge technology. Today’s foundries are equipped with 3D computer modeling software, metal solidification simulation, and casting failure analysis before any tooling is even built.

ERP systems and other tools provide historical and real-time information about production targets. And metallurgical labs use state-of-the-art spectrometers and coordinated measurement machines to analyze the chemistry, hardness, and tolerances. Robotics and automated finishing also are commonplace.

Ancient Process
Long before lathes, mills, and other machines made their way into mills and factories, metal parts were produced through casting – a process in which molten or liquid metal is poured into a mold made of sand, metal, or ceramic.

Regarded as one of the oldest industries in the world, casting dates back to 3,000 B.C., when copper weapons and cult objects were cast in the Middle East. By about 500 B.C., the Chinese figured out how to cast iron objects by developing a furnace hot enough to melt iron – reaching 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit.

Eventually, the casting process made its way to the United States, becoming the backbone of the U.S. economy. In fact, seven metalcasters signed the Declaration of Independence.

The ancient process became a major force in the manufacturing industry in Minnesota soon after the state joined the Union in 1858. Over the next century, hundreds of foundries sprouted up in Minnesota, casting everything from pot-bellied stoves to valves for ships. Though the work was hot and dirty, the jobs paid relatively well, and the work was both challenging and interesting.

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First MN Foundry
The first foundry – and first manufacturer of anything in Minnesota – was St. Paul Foundry (formerly known as St. Paul Brass Works). Founded in 1869, the company served as a supplier for the Great Northern and Pacific railroads, but soon began to produce a wide variety of other goods, from small metal ash trays to 500-pound manifolds for the oil industry.

Back then molds were made by hand, and sand was shoveled and rammed around patterns in wooden and metal flasks. Once complete, the mold cavity was filled with liquid metal by men using hand-held ladles. The work was arduous, but the workers were highly skilled. Foundrymen were regarded as skilled craftsmen.

“I learned a great deal from those craftsman, many of whom lacked much of a formal education, but some of them were the smartest people I’ve met in my life,” said Smith Foundry President and Owner Neil Ahlstrom, who began working at the company as a teenager before going to college and eventually working his way into management. “They were some of the most creative and talented people I ever met.”

Throughout the 20th century, many foundries opened and closed their doors. In 1955 there were 6,150 metalcasting facilities in the United States. Today, less than one-third remain, according to the American Foundry Society.

Minnesota witnessed a sharp decline in foundry businesses and jobs around that time as well. After World War II, there were about 44 iron foundries operating in the Twin Cities, Ahlstrom said. Today, just five foundries specialize in iron castings.

There were many reasons for the decline, including external and internal pressures. It was difficult for many foundries to keep up with growing regulations, such as the Clean Air Act of 1970. Additionally, many foundry workers who took over the family business didn’t necessarily have the business training or acumen to keep a company in the black. And some foundries simply moved operations to places where labor was cheaper.

However, compared to many states, Minnesota has maintained a robust metalcasting industry, with a relatively high number of metalcasting employees. Almost none of these workers are in North and South Dakota, Wyoming, or Idaho.

Today, about 63 foundries operate in Minnesota, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop. Together these companies literally are shaping the way complex parts are made and subsequently, the future of the manufacturing industry.

Remarkably few foundries have been added to replace the ones that have gone out of business. Yet the total tonnage produced by the foundry industry is equal to or higher than it was 30 years ago.

“The foundries that have survived are some of the best in the world,” said Tim Hartigan, President of St. Paul Foundry, the first in Minnesota. “I think it’s because we had to learn how to compete in an environment that was extremely challenging and we became very good at it.”

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Casting the Future
Several foundries in Minnesota have made a name for themselves.

  • Consolidated Precision Products, in Bloomington, is one of the largest casting companies in the world and a leading supplier of commercial and military aircraft components.
  • Prospect Foundry in Minneapolis has been building a reputation for quality iron castings since 1936.
  • The chairman of Dotson Iron Castings in Mankato was inducted into the Foundry Management & Technology Hall of Honor in 2010.
  • Grede Foundry in St. Cloud produces castings as heavy as 400 pounds and is a well-known supplier of auto parts.
  • Smith Foundry in Minneapolis has won several awards for complex castings and innovative casting conversions.
  • St. Paul Foundry – founded nearly 150 years ago – provides some of the most complex, highly engineered castings anywhere in the world. In fact, the foundry recently was selected by the Defense Department for a large job because it was the only one in the country certified to handle it.

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Challenges
Similar to the precision manufacturing industry, the metal casting industry’s biggest challenges include the high cost of running a business in Minnesota, finding skilled workers, and keeping up with mounting regulations.

“The high cost of doing business in our state – corporate income tax rates, red tape, and added government rules and regulations to name a few – has made it more difficult to compete with other states for new business,” Ahlstrom said.

Attracting and retaining young, skilled workers to replace many of the workers who have been working at foundries since their youth has not been easy, especially with the low unemployment rate. Minnesota pays foundry workers more than just about any other state with an average mean wage of $42,000 per year. But very few people think of foundries as launching pads for their careers.

Foundries use a number of strategies to find and hire qualified workers. A common technique is the trial-for-hire model, where new hires are on probation for 30 to 60 days before they become permanent employees.

Some metalcasting companies have taken advantage of state grant money available to train workers through Minnesota’s Job Skills Partnership Program.

In 2015, for example, Grede partnered with St. Cloud University to receive a $335,000 grant that provided training to 100 employees over two years in basic metallurgy, metal casting, and other skills. The same year Dotson Company, a ductile iron foundry, partnered with South Central College on a grant to train incumbent employees to repair and maintain equipment.

The American Foundry Society has an educational arm called the Foundry Education Foundation (FEF) that promotes foundry careers to young people. There are also FEF universities and colleges in the U.S. that offer four-year and advanced degrees in areas related to metalcasting, including the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and Platteville.

However, recruitment is an ongoing issue, especially when the number of metalcasting companies and job openings are declining overall.

Of course, safety is another top concern. The perils of the job make metalcasting more dangerous than precision manufacturing. The number of recordable injury and illness cases reported in foundries is about double than those reported in manufacturing shops, according to OHSA.

Finally, the regulatory environment has become more complex than ever. In March of 2016, OSHA proposed to lower the allowable workplace exposure standard for silica (quartz), which is used in sand molds, by 50 percent and provided just two years for metal casting companies to comply. It also requires facilities to implement a wide variety of administration and engineering controls, including restricted work areas, respiratory protection and employee medical surveillance.

“This is a major concern for our industry as it will stretch current technologies and require significant capital investment in order to become compliant,” Ahlstrom said.

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Opportunities
Despite significant challenges facing the industry, opportunities for growth abound due to limited competition in the United States. In addition, technology is facilitating increased quality, time, and cost savings.

Some of the most successful metalcasting companies have become highly specialized in certain alloys and processes. They might be one of a handful of companies in the country or world capable of production.

“The biggest opportunity for us is one we’ve created ourselves at St. Paul Foundry,” Hartigan said. “It’s a market segment that we call High Knowledge Content Castings. These are castings that require more than average expertise in the manufacturing process because they might be for X-rays, penetrant testing, high strength certification, or high-pressure applications.”

St. Paul Foundry makes a family of parts for pumps used in oil wells, for example, which operate at extreme pressures and weigh hundreds of pounds each. The only way to successfully manufacture them is to use computer simulation technology to predict what will happen in the mold first.

“This gives us insight into the process that becomes knowledge we can use again and again.”

Another strategy employed by more and more foundries is to provide in-house value-added services, such as machining and painting, to reduce lead times. They’re also providing design assistance and using additive manufacturing to print cores and molds.

“We’re very bullish on the future,” Ahlstrom said. “The cost to build an entirely new foundry requires considerable capital. For this and other reasons, very few are being built in the U.S. from the ground up. So the bottom line is if you reinvest in your business, and are able to comply with governmental rules and regulations, and are able to maintain reasonable profitability, then your future is bright.”

2017 Forecast
The American Foundry Society’s 2017 forecast is a positive one. Following an overall down year for casting shipments in 2015, a moderate increase is expected through 2019 with most metal markets seeing small gains. The report notes that the industry is still trying to make up ground from 2009 when shipments bottomed out at $21 billion. By 2019, however, sales are expected to reach $32 billion.

That optimism is echoed in the 2017 Metalcasting Outlook conducted by Foundry Magazine, which reported that 54 percent of respondents expect to see better results this year than last year.

Currently, the United States is the global leader in casting applications and is second only to China in production. But there is potential for much more growth.

Machines, engines, pumps, and vehicles make up a high percentage of imports to the United States – a total of $613 billion. These products largely are dependent on castings. With U.S. iron casting sales expected to reach $32 billion by 2019, some argue that just a portion of these items manufactured in the United States would make a major impact on the casting industry.

Metal casting is an industry that’s long been under fire. Its practices are constantly being challenged and refined. However, Minnesota is fortunate to have many foundries as solid as the castings they supply.pm_endmarkblue-e1320337140493


MELISSA DEBILZAN is a contributing writer for IntrinXec Management Inc. She can be reached at melissadebilzan@yahoo.com.

Copyright © 2017 Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association. For permission to use or reprint this article please contact Nancy Huddleston, publications manager for Precision Manufacturing Journal.

 

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