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The Truth About Trust and the Real Parts Potential of Foundry Partnerships

Kim Phelan

As a senior-level castings decision-maker, Tim Dorn has an “unfair” advantage. The vice president of sales and engineering at Amerequip, which makes backhoes and other wheeled power equipment for its OEM partners, Dorn has a degree in materials engineering with an emphasis on iron metallurgy. He started his career at Neenah Foundry and worked at two other foundries as well as a heat treat/austempering company before arriving at his present position 13 years ago. Into the “mold” of his metalcasting past, much experience has been poured—today, his casting expertise helps guide strategic decisions about weldment conversions. 

In his early days at Amerequip, Dorn remembers walking through the plant and being struck by the magnitude of improvement and saving opportunities available to his company by converting many weldment parts to castings. While not all had volumes that warranted the switch then, Amerequip has since multiplied parts volumes many times over to the point where Dorn and his team have embarked on a mission to identify those with greatest ROI potential as castings. 

After many years on both sides of the foundry-customer relationship, Dorn believes in the value of collaboration. As a former foundry floor and technical manager, he has acquired deep respect for the scientific and process-related knowledge foundry engineers bring to new casting designs and casting conversions alike. Casting Source recently spoke with him to learn what it takes to get to true foundry partnership—and why it’s worth it. 

Casting Source Magazine: Casting specifications are of utmost importance––what are the key criteria and attributes you’re looking for when evaluating a foundry supplier?

Tim Dorn: We look at the process quality––quality of the casting is one thing but is the process in place repeatable? The nice thing is, with my foundry experience, I’m able to wade through that fairly quickly. But coming back to the front end, when we’re working with the design engineers, we’re looking at how the casting is going to be fed [the liquid metal], and where the shrinkage is going to be. Every casting has shrinkage; it’s just a matter of moving it to a place that’s not critical in the form, fit, and function of the part.

CS: Is there some specific technology you want to see in place at the foundry?

Dorn: Solid modeling software is important. With one of our last castings, which was a backhoe bucket, we were running into some challenges with shrinkage and iron feeding, so the foundry ran many solidification reviews. It’s a unique design, and the bucket is something that’s never been done before in cast ductile iron, and there’s a reason for that. If they didn’t have the capability to do flow analysis on that mold, I don’t think we would have had the success that we’ve had. 

So, it’s a matter of answering, how can they support what we’re looking for? Because we’re not bringing ‘suitcase’ weights to the foundries. We’re not bringing just bumper-stop blocks. We have pretty intricate castings. Another example was the backhoe swing frame––this is what the backhoe hangs from off of the tractor. The entire weight, the stress, all the forces that the backhoe takes, go right into that casting, so it has got to be rock solid. 

But it’s going to be difficult for somebody that doesn’t have good foundry knowledge to judge these things. 

CS: That’s a good point––what would you suggest for a casting buyer who’s never stepped foot in a foundry? How can they get up to speed so they can discern which foundries can best serve their needs?

Dorn: Some foundries offer a “Foundry 101” seminar where they walk customers through all the processes for making a casting. They can also reach out to AFS––they have some fantastic classes; I’ve been to many of them. 

Then, get out and tour foundries and talk with them. It’s going to take a bit of an effort. It’s not going to be something that will just come by reading a book. 

The first thing is recognizing the opportunities for their company to convert weldments to castings at a cost benefit, good ROI, and product quality improvement. I truly believe that there are opportunities––we’ve got many more here. 

But frankly, it’s going to take a commitment on the part of the company. They have to get to that point of saying, ‘we do believe there’s opportunity for us in reducing costs and improving product quality by converting a weldment to a casting.’

CS: These days, is the goal of most casting buyers to just get the RFQ out and find the lowest price? 

Dorn: I think it spans the full spectrum. I’ve met some phenomenal casting buyers who understand the industry and what it means to have a high-quality foundry. Maybe it costs a little bit more, but in the end, there’s an ROI. It comes back to getting that education and really believing in it. If you don’t have the education, you’re going to generally buy on price. 

CS: You’ve talked about cost benefit and ROI that come with converting a weldment to a casting––what else can a casting buyer leverage by leaning in and listening to their foundry partners?

Dorn: I’ll give you an example: We had a step casting that was challenging because of the way we designed it; it was very chunky. Initially, the casting design was almost exactly like the weldment. In working with the foundry, they came back to us with some excellent ideas on how to lighten that casting up and still not compromise the strength of it. 

Waupaca Foundry recently commissioned a new horizontal mold line at Plant 1, and they invited us to come when they had the first pour. We saw there might be some new capabilities for us to put castings on there that we couldn’t do otherwise. What I’m saying is, when you talk with the foundry and see what they have, they’re going to show you new possibilities you might not have known about. 
Let’s be honest, anybody can design a pattern, rig it, gate it, and pour a casting. It’s asking the questions like, ‘Have you thought about this?’ and looking at other ways of doing things. 

We’ve had foundries bend over backwards for us, doing flow analyses on the weekends, educating us, showing us the limitations and the capabilities. Even down to the end, when we made the bucket teeth, they came in and helped us with developing a trim press die to improve the turn time on production. 

It’s things that you don’t know about or even think about from a foundry end—is the foundry going to bring these up and present them to us as options? 

CS: What are you intentional about doing to enhance your relationships with foundries?

Dorn: I really think it’s being transparent. Sometimes you’re holding cards close to your chest as you’re going through these programs. But the better way, I think, is really believing that you have a true partnership and becoming more and more transparent about what is going on. 

We had a team from Waupaca come through our plant. We went as a group through our operation and stopped at any point where anybody saw a weldment that looked like it could be a good casting. They would give us their thoughts, such as ‘this is a pretty thin section and you’d have a tough time feeding that.’ So, we all learned a lot together; that’s invaluable to have that collaboration.  

CS: What does a strong foundry partnership really look like in the trenches?

Dorn: It’s true collaboration. I’ve been in situations where our two teams would get together, and if you were an outsider, not knowing who we were, you would have thought we were all from the same company–– the way we talked and interacted, it was amazing teamwork. With the two foundries we work closely with, we’ve developed some very good relationships with the engineering groups. When we go there, it feels like you’re just going to meet with colleagues. 

CS: We’ve heard many unfortunate cases where parts designers create their casting designs kind of in isolation and then ‘throw it over the wall’ for the foundry to execute. What happens when companies have that mindset?

Dorn: Let me approach that in a roundabout way. Number one, we are focused on developing castings, either as upfront in the initial design or converting existing weldments into a casting. We are constantly looking for casting opportunities, and we develop those upfront––we’ve done it in the past, and we will continue to do so in the future. We have a senior project engineer here at Amerequip and all he focuses on is converting weldments over to castings. 

We design and manufacture backhoes for our OEM partners––we design wheeled, powered equipment, mowers, snow removal equipment, lots of different products. When we start a project, we’re typically working off of a tight timeline. These can be very complex pieces of equipment that we’re developing, so we don’t always have the luxury of going through this product development and tacking on top of that an iron casting development that could push this timeline out months––so it becomes a challenge. 

In our engineering group, we look at the ROI based on volume, forecasts, and complexity, and we develop the casting. We typically design the initial casting at Amerequip, and then we ‘throw it over the wall’ to the foundry. We say, ‘this is what we’re thinking; what would you do with this? How could you make this work?’

CS: Sometimes casting customers don’t tell the foundry what the end application of the casting is going to be. What’s the downside of withholding this information?

Dorn: I would say that’s coming from a company or a buyer who does not understand the foundry industry, or not well enough. It comes back to how do you get somebody engaged to believe in the value of the relationship? Because if they believe in it, then they’ll understand, “I’ve got to engage the foundry in the end product.” 

The foundry has to truly understand what my need is, not just that I need a casting in this shape.  We are very transparent about exactly how a casting is going to be used. The foundry is there to help us. 

CS: Three years ago, many manufacturers learned about supply chain fallibility the hard way. What happened at Amerequip?

Dorn: Back in 2012, I got together with our supply chain manager with a focus of pulling all castings back to North America. And for virtually every casting that we had control over, we did that. We started working with Monarch Industries in Canada, a great foundry and great people to work with. I believe we’ve got everything over here, excluding our customer-defined suppliers overseas. 

CS: That was an incredibly fortuitous move, eight years before everything came to a grinding halt in 2020! Why did you do it?

Dorn: I started in 2010––and I got to talking to our supply chain manager, and he knew of my background in castings. All the castings he was buying were coming from China, or at least the majority of them. We were running into quality and delivery problems, and it took us about two years before we had everything brought back to North America.

I had the benefit of having traveled to China in my previous position with Applied Process, and I had been through some of their foundries––my initial response was, you don’t know what you’re getting. In some cases, they could take your pattern from one foundry and move it to another foundry in another city, and you won’t even know it. So, you lose the integrity of the process. 

In this discussion with our supply chain manager, I said we need to look at this hard because whatever we’re getting, we can’t trace it back. That’s what really brought us to the reshoring, and it has been a good thing for us.

I’m not going to say that was always at a cost reduction; there was a cost impact to us in some cases. But what we realized was better response, better relationship with the people that we’re buying the castings from, and we were able to have inventory held here in the United States––we knew there was inventory available even if there was an issue. In the long run, it benefited us. Unfortunately, buyers will often just look at what is that down and dirty price, delivered. They don’t take anything else into account, such as the full lifecycle ROI or the cost of eroding customer relationships due to quality issues. 

CS: What do you want casting buyers and designers to walk away with and maybe try to put into practice?

Dorn: It really comes to (1), if you’re a medium to larger manufacturing company, similar to Amerequip, know that there are casting opportunities with what you’re doing on a regular basis, every single day, that can save you money and improve product quality. Then (2), get the education so you understand what the foundry process is.  

Click here to view the column in the May/June Casting Source Digital Edition.