Ready for Some Conversion Conversations?

Kim Phelan and Joanne Costin

With labor and materials costs rising, manufacturers are looking for savings anywhere they can.  Conversion to iron casting from fabrication could be a solution. Casting Source asked several casting experts to share how to identify opportunities, access casting education, and ensure a successful conversion process.  

When Casting Works Best 

Brad Roth, vice president, supply chain and operations support, at Wisconsin-based Neenah Foundry, an AFS Corporate Member, recommends looking at the complexity of the existing fabrication and an annual quantity that could support the tooling investment.  

“The higher the complexity, the better the chance it will be a good candidate for conversion,” added Scott Plosczynski, director of casting engineering at Neenah Foundry. “The more pieces and the more cuttings, the better.” A casting, he explained, can consolidate them into as single, all-in-one, streamlined part ready to assemble in the end application. 

Josh Jaycox, engineering director at AFS Corporate Member Dotson Iron Castings in Mankato, Minnesota, concurs that a certain volume needs to be present have casting make sense. “If your volume is high enough, and the cost savings is sufficient, you will get a return on that tooling investment, and then after that, it's all money in the bank.” 

“Anytime a fabrication shop is making the same thing over and over again, those are always a candidate for a casting,” said Mike Summers, general manager at AFS Corporate Member Wear-Tek, a metal casting production foundry based in Spokane, Washington. “Especially a fabrication that ties up valuable manufacturing time and resources.” 

“Even if you're making 10 a day––if that eight-hour period ties you up, so you can only get 10 made and you have to make them 365 days a year in order to make production, that's still worth looking at,” said Summers.  

Another sign that casting may be a good fit is if you are having issues with the weld process or assembly. “Sometimes casting and then machining will provide a much better assembly,” said Plosczynski.  

“What I've seen in weldments or fabrications is a tendency to add more material to compensate for potential failures,” added Jaycox. “In casting, it's a single piece and you only put the material where it's required for the structural integrity. With fabrication, you can end up with a lot of added weight, mass, and then cost.” 

Mark Mundell, sales manager at AFS Corporate Member Lethbridge Iron Works Co. Ltd., based in Alberta, Canada, believes it comes down to an analysis of people and things.   

“Do you have enough people? “Do you have enough capital to buy a piece of equipment to weld? Do you have a good enough supply chain, either internally or externally to bring seven different little pieces together before they are even being welded? Do you have an internal system that's good at keeping track of the inventory of those seven parts, and scheduling them all to come together?” 

In addition to the challenges of making a part, Mundell looks at the design.  

“Does casting make it functionally work better?” he said. “Does it make it stronger? Is it more consistent, more repeatable?” 

According to Mundell, casting avoids inconsistencies from part to part and provides an opportunity to add material in specific locations to strengthen high-stress areas.  

“I try to establish what the challenges are for the company—where the win is—and then it’s a cost discussion,” said Mundell. “Nine times out of 10, cost is the deciding factor.”  

Mundell finds a cost analysis can be challenging because customers may not understand the true cost of fabrication after factoring in labor and managing all the different pieces. “When you look at the true costs, casting makes more sense.” 

Travis Scholten, sales manager at Wear-Tek, also asks customers where their pain points are. This can reveal work centers that are overloaded and opportunities where casting may be able to streamline the process.  

“You may be able to take multiple manufacturing disciplines and move it into one casting operation with some finished machine work,” he said.  

When Casting Isn’t a Good Fit 

Equally important is knowing when an iron casting won’t likely be a good option. Low volume production tops the list, but there are other limitations, as well.  

“If that fabrication is going to end up welded to another steel fabrication, that's usually not a good candidate, because iron doesn't lend itself to welding,” said Plosczynski. “It can be done, but you need to have very good process control in the welding, so that's why we don't recommend it.” 

Mundell agrees that knowing whether a part is fastened or welded on is a big consideration.  

“A company new into castings may not realize this because they’ve always welded everything together,” he said. 

Benefits of Casting  

According to Summers, adding strength to a fabrication can require a lot of extra steps, but casting allows strengthening features such as ribs and gussets to be cast into the design with a lot fewer headaches and less labor.  

“Things like logos, phone numbers, and names can all be built into the tooling,” said Jaycox, as he held up a sample iron casting featuring a company logo cast into the part.  

With cost being a primary driver of purchases, Mundell encourages customers to consider the cost of carrying inventory for all the pieces that will be used in a fabrication as well as the cost of disposing the pieces that become scrap.  

“When you have a sheet of metal and you punch out each piece that you are going to fabricate, you are creating excess that you have to deal with,” said Mundell. Casting takes complexity out of the system because instead of tracking multiple SKUs, there is only one single casting SKU.” 

Manufacturers need to think beyond the cost of the tooling. Jaycox focuses on showing manufacturer customers what they will save in the long run in both labor and materials.  

“By only putting material where you need it, you consume less material,” he said. “In terms of labor, if you are mounting pieces in a jig, as well as welding seams and joints, it can be very time consuming. In casting, we can make hundreds or thousands of pieces per hour.”  

How to Learn More About Casting 

These experts agree that it would be advantageous for manufacturers to have a better understanding of the benefits of casting. “I think it’s the responsibility of the foundries to actively promote the advantages and educate customers,” said Plosczynski. 

Neenah Foundry and others offer a Foundry 101 training that helps customers understand how they are driving cost into what they are doing by choosing fabrication over casting.  

“We love to see close engagement up front with customers so that we can lead them down the correct path before they get so far into the design,” said Plosczynski. “If we get involved early, there’s a lot of opportunity for value-analysis engineering.”  

Dotson Iron Castings hosts casting lunch and learn events at customer locations called “Design Essentials.” Its purpose is to teach engineers and designers a little bit about castings. Another program, called “Casting Masters,” includes two half-days of training at the foundry. One half-day is spent on the production floor where participants can see the entire metalcasting process from start to finish. The other half-day is spent in the classroom.  

“Getting in the foundry is important because it helps you understand casting a little bit differently,” said Jaycox. 

“When engineers come to the foundry and see all the different shapes that are being cast, it really gives them a whole different perspective,” added Mundell.  

If a conversion opportunity presents itself, the sales team at Lethbridge does its homework before meeting with customers. They will visit a customer’s website and dealership [if applicable] to examine equipment.  

“When I get in front of you, I've already familiarized myself with your equipment,” said Mundell. “We can talk about your challenges and the options to overcome challenges. For a company that wants to start considering conversions, I think a case study prepared by the foundries that you're interested in is extremely important. This really highlights where the cost is coming into the fabrication, and how we're going to pull it out into a nice curvy, sexy-looking component.” 

All of our experts recommend that companies interested in exploring castings invite a foundry into their operations to crawl around their equipment and get to know their process.  

“We’ve done many walkthroughs over the years with our customers,” said Plosczynski. “In our opinion, that's one of the best ways to identify and expedite opportunities for conversion. You gain a lot of knowledge, not just about the part itself, but how it's being used in the end product. That can really help to drive opportunities.” 

Tips For Parts Designers 

Experts offered several tips that will help parts designers facilitate the conversion process. Sharing knowledge about the end use, the part’s function, and how the part is assembled is key.  

“Some of the creativity requires seeing the bigger assembly picture to see what the best outcome will be,” said Plosczynski.  

“Remove the existing fabrication from your mindset,” advised Jaycox. “That will allow you to take full advantage of the casting process.” Designers should also consider whether a part that is currently welded in place might be, as a casting, fastened in place instead.  

Roth believes you can improve opportunities for success if the foundry is involved early on and invited to develop a proposal.  

“From that point, you should expect some back-and-forth collaboration before finalizing the details,” he said. 

“We don’t do the design but we can guide the engineering group at the customer to make things in the most manufacturable way they can be,” added Cindy Hann, sales director for Neenah’s Industrial Solutions Group. 

When choosing a foundry, Jaycox thinks it’s important for manufacturers to choose a partner that is likely to be a good fit based on volume, as well as cost and quality. He defines high-volume foundries as those producing more than tens of thousands of pieces; mid-volume would be 1,000 to 10,000 pieces; and low volume foundries doing below 1,000 pieces. “Cost structures will be very different based on the type of work the foundry is set up to run,” he said. 

Find the Opportunities  

There may be more opportunities to utilize casting as a cost-effective alternative to fabrication than you think. Increasing your knowledge of casting conversions and sharing important information with foundries early in the process will help ensure casting delivers both cost savings and quality improvements.  

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