How to Find the Right Aluminum Foundry
Vetting a new aluminum casting supplier prior to awarding the job is an important step to ensure you’re working with a foundry that’s equipped with the processes best suited to meet your part’s requirements. As noted by Dave Charbauski on page 10, asking the right questions gets the casting buyer further faster to verifying issues of technical capabilities that will lead to optimum product quality, as well as a competitive cost.
What should you be thinking about and asking the prospective foundry? Len Weber, president and COO at AFS Corporate Member Batesville Products, located in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, these are the Top 5 important considerations every manufacturer should be using with new suppliers:
What is the best way to manufacture my product?
Not every manufacturing process will be a good fit for your product. The best manufacturing method will readily meet design requirements, tolerances, and order quantities.
A good supplier won’t force a project that’s better suited for another manufacturing method. An honest supplier should be able to recommend manufacturing methods that best fit your custom project, even if it means losing the business.
Does the supplier have experience in your industry?
The goal of this question is to evaluate their credibility as well as their competency for the details of the casting the part designer has specified.
How long have they been in business?
Have they made a project of similar size, thickness, and complexity?
What are the top industries they serve?
Do they understand my industry’s standards and regulations?
Are they loyal to a different industry?
Will I be treated equally as their other customers?
Do they cast primary or secondary metal?
What metals do you cast? Is it primary or secondary material? Can I see certifications?
Some industries like food or medical require primary material, while others can handle secondary material, Weber asserts.
If the supplier uses secondary material, verify whether they flux or degas to maintain the metal and control porosity or inclusion defects.
What type of value-add, secondary services does the foundry handle?
Your casting may require secondary operations, such as heat treatment, machining, polishing, powder coating, anodizing, or plating.
Does this supplier handle everything in-house, or will you need to piece together multiple suppliers for one component?
The dangers of balancing multiple suppliers include:
One gets delayed, all get delayed.
Requires more time and attention––can put a strain where there are limited resources in small purchasing teams.
More time shipping/receiving into multiple places.
When defects occur, which supplier will take responsibility? Will suppliers accuse each other? How do you know if it’s a casting issue, machining issue, or even shipping issue?
What certifications, testing, or quality standards are needed?
Each customer and industry have their own inspection requirements. If you require a lot of testing, choose a supplier that can test in-house or has close contacts in the inspection industry.
Common inspection options include FAI, PPAP, Liquid penetration testing, pressure testing and more, Weber says.
He added, “There are many certifications in the foundry industry, such as material certification or heat treat certification. Which do you need? Does your supplier regularly provide these certifications?
“The first step to ensure quality standards are met is to clearly communicate expectations,” Weber continued. “Document quality standards on prints and verify understanding of what’s acceptable and unacceptable between all parties. The foundry will use these key specs to build an inspection process for your product.
“I think it is extremely important for customers and vendors to understand expectations,” he emphasized. “Unnecessary costs can creep in if clear direction is agreed upon, making it a moving target for both customer and supplier. For example, if a part is hidden in the end-use application, does it need an “A” surface finish? And ask yourself: Can you live with the draft needed to cast this product? What design features are critical? Does the product require secondary services?
In addition, verify the supplier has quality control procedures in place. Are they ISO9001 certified? How frequently are parts inspected? What happens if my part is out of spec?
More Due Diligence
The more you educate yourself about a prospective foundry partner, the better. Weber recommends tour the facility before you decide––“A tour can reveal a lot about a supplier,” he said.
During the tour, keep asking:
Do they have experience in similar materials, sizes, complexities, and industries?
What value-added services do they provide?
What is their quality control process?
Are they proactive and dynamic in communicating and problem-solving?
Do they have modern and well-maintained equipment? (Look for robotics, cleanliness, and safe practices!)
Are they moving forward with the industry to continuously improve precision, efficiency, and quality?
Do they have long-lasting, loyal customers who stay because they find them reliable?
Meanwhile, what should the casting buyer be researching and understanding versus the design engineer?
Weber says that both buyers and engineers have important roles in the selection of a vendor––and it is important that their conversations overlap.
While a buyer wants to control costs, deliveries, and communications, it is important to understand from the engineer/design perspective if the route they are going will result in a complete, high-quality, reliable product that meets design standards.
Overall, look for:
Stability in a company––has the company been in business for a day or decades?
Communication from multiple avenues in the company––value in getting questions answered in a timely way, independent of the department the question is from
Reliability––can the vendor consistently deliver.
Differences Among Foundries
Naturally, all aluminum foundries differ from one other, and some of those differences can affect their ability to do the customer’s job.
To be clear on what will be potentially impactful for your job, Weber advises keeping these topics in focus:
Is the foundry constantly improving and using newer technologies? A great example of this would be robotics. While manufacturing demand increases, the labor market has been and will continue to be a challenge. Not only do robotics help fill in labor gaps, automation creates more desirable job roles and improves safety, precision, and efficiency.
Is the foundry actively involved in the industry and looked at as an expert in casting? Do they really know the best way to make your product with a high-quality result?
Can the foundry complete all secondary processes? Many castings require machining, polishing, powder coating, and more. The more you can get done under one roof, the better. There are hidden costs and headaches associated with constantly shipping and receiving your product for multiple operations. Look for a foundry that will supply a complete part.
To make sure you’re comparing apples to apples, the manufacturer/casting customer should revisit the request for quote carefully.
“Being able to compare RFQs to one another is extremely important,” Weber said. “This starts up front with understanding the overall customer goals. If this isn’t understood, the project could be substantially under- or over-quoted.”
To get the most accurate quote, Weber recommends sharing a model or print of your design and communicating your needs for material, size, strength, EAU, machining, finishing, and inspection. The quote will include costs for tooling and every operation needed to make your design a reality.
How can you spot a red flag that signals a foundry might not be the right fit?
Weber re-emphasizes key best practices that will give you, the customer, confidence you’re making the best choice:
“Always plan an onsite visit,” he echoed. “Does the foundry show the capabilities to complete the job you are asking them to do? Are they busy, and are they staffed correctly? Is the facility clean and organized, or is it dingy and unkempt?”
These clues can give a clear indication about whether a casting supplier is able to meet the customer’s quality requirements and expectations for the end product.
The real biggest benefit robotics and automation provide is the consistency of product coming off the line, says Weber. Press, machining centers, robots, etc., are all programmed to follow strict instructions of operation. Unless the product differs or there is a failure of equipment, the press, machining center, and robot, will continually produce the product the same way. This consistency is important at each step but also provides value savings downstream to limit or eliminate mistakes.
In addition to the demand for increased automation, more and more casting customers are actively seeking products made in the U.S.––in fact Weber says it’s the new No. 1 question he’s been hearing in recent years. But it’s a question that sometimes seems to contradict customers’ tendency to evaluate foundries solely on price.
“Labor costs are generally misunderstood,” said Weber. “While a lot of companies are being directed to re-shore, the reason they went offshore in the first place was due to low costs. Offshore foundries typically have low costs due to low wages, less employee benefits, and exploitable labor laws.
“There is major value-add of being able to work with domestic companies that is not calculated in the cost of product,” he added. “How do you put a monetary value on a purchasing agent waking up in the middle of the night to talk to a supplier? What’s the cost of transportation? How does the political landscape affect your production? And finally, if parts do not meet your quality expectations, it’s much easier to take corrective action when you’re both here in North America.”
Weber says his company has received many inquiries about reshoring casting products. Experiences since 2020 have motivated many companies to domestically source their supply base to ensure product availability and reliability, he observes.
Can US. foundries handle the increased capacity created by reshoring?
“I think it is a mixed bag,” Weber said. “Some companies were failing prior to COVID, and the process was expedited with the pandemic, which merely highlighted existing weaknesses. Today, however, there are numerous foundries with great capabilities across the United States ready and willing to take on the work.”
At the end of the day, the due diligence to thoroughly vet a new foundry boils down to finding the casting experts who want to work with and be successful with you as you launch or transition your product, Weber concluded.
“Communication of expectations is the key to success,” he said.
“Customers: Document exactly what you want. Articulate what is critical.
“Foundries: Set a process that meets customer expectations, and make sure the customer knows where your process excels and where it may be limited.”