Flying Under the Radar

Kim Phelan

Situated in the heart of Montreal, the world’s third largest hub for the aerospace industry––behind Seattle and Toulouse, France––AFS Corporate Member Mitchell Aerospace manufactures precision sand castings for both commercial and military applications, mostly geared toward aero engines. Here, President Guillermo Alonso says the company is fortunate to be surrounded by aerospace-centric university programs turning out bright young engineers who represent the future of this casting supplier. Fortunate, he says, because North American aerospace casting capacity is battling to meet enormous demand, and casting shortages for the sector are largely attributable to talent shortages. And while the second major customer pressure of cost looms large, the need for more supply has become this sector’s No. 1 priority.

Alonso firmly believes that bringing young, energetic graduates into the foundry business will be critical in order to engineer processes and put more intelligence into the production of castings to make it repeatable and efficient. And that will contribute to increased volumes to satisfy the frustrated aerospace customer base that is tied by necessity to a channel that often keeps them waiting––at least since global response to the pandemic poked a wrench in the supply chain.

“I go out and visit clients and potential clients to understand what their concerns are, and what I'm hearing from them is that, because of supply challenges, sand casting is a ‘necessary evil,’” said Alonso. “There is a reduction of capacity in the sand-casting world, specifically in our world of medium to complex aluminum and magnesium sand castings, but they can’t get away from the need for them. They can't produce their parts by machining them out from a solid billet––they require too many intricacies in their geometries. I'm also hearing about their cost pressures, and costs are going up, not down. But the real pressure we have is to be able to meet the demand that our customers are asking us to meet because there is growth every year, and we see the trend going up.”

“What's limiting the capacity in the whole aerospace world is really engines. The major airplane manufacturers don’t produce their engines; they produce the aircraft and buy the engines from companies like Rolls Royce, GE, Pratt and Whitney, and so forth,” he continued. “And if those guys can't supply engines fast enough, then that's what delays the process. We, the casting people, are the ‘culprits,’ through no fault of our own. We’re not delivering enough to the engine makers for them to put into their assemblies and deliver finished engines. If I could hire 20 more people tomorrow, I would––it's just that labor is so scarce.”

“We have to bet on technology going forward: automation, robotics, and digitizing our processes to streamline our plants as much as possible and do more with the same amount of people."

Mitchell Aerospace is on an automation journey, moving toward more Industry 4.0 technology that will increase consistency and process repeatability at every level in the production of a casting, said Alonso. From core making to the assembly of cores into the mold, to the pouring––he says the whole process needs to be properly controlled and automated every step of the way. And beyond foundry digitization, the company is also exploring virtual reality goggles for more effective and consistent people-training.

Alonso says the growth needle is moving in the right direction for the sector, driven chiefly by consumer demand for travel globally. He says steady industry growth is especially noteworthy in the markets of India and Southeast Asia where infrastructure and airports are being built every year. He sees Europe emerging as an aggressive leader in aerospace manufacturing, and he actively prospects throughout France, Spain, Germany, England, Italy and Western Europe.” 

Solving the Capacity Problem

Although the North American market of aerospace casting suppliers is occupied by a small cast of players, perhaps 20 or less sources estimate, individual foundries are taking action to increase capacity. AFS Corporate Member Harmony Castings, Harmony, Pennsylvania, for example, is in the process of constructing its largest building addition in over 10 years. They’re running three shifts and actively exploring other ways to increase capacity, said Jason Oldenski, assistant general manager. 

Similarly, Tim Hartigan, president of AFS Corporate Member St. Paul Foundry in Minnesota, which makes bronze castings for the Air Force and the Navy, is focused on his company’s desire to double its square footage. “Locating the right place is challenging,” he said. “My preference would be to buy an existing foundry that has room for expansion because creating a foundry from scratch is a lot more expensive and requires a lot more in terms of the permitting process.”

Like Alonso, Hartigan sees demand going up for aerospace castings, which is partially attributable to the rise of reshoring. One factor that adds to the delay in filling the capacity gap is the time required to bring a new job online because of design complexities. 

“And there's a long qualification process,” he said. “We don't sell anything directly to the Navy, or the Air Force––it all goes to down-tier providers. Even if the manufacturer of an aircraft that we're making a part for is say, McDonnell Douglas, we're not selling to McDonnell Douglas; we're selling to a vendor that's selling to a vendor that's selling to McDonnell Douglas. So, there's complexity in terms of the qualification process. And when we send it to them, they may have to machine it or put it in an assembly, then it has to go to McDonnell Douglas, or Boeing or Lockheed Martin, and they have to qualify it. So, it’s really slow. That's the biggest impediment to growing even faster. But I've never been more optimistic about our business than I am today.”

In a direct answer to the capacity challenge, AFS Corporate Member Impro Industries USA Inc. in Los Angeles is currently expanding with a 2-million sq.-ft. greenfield facility in Mexico, as well as a 300,000-sq.-ft. dedicated aerospace plant that includes aerospace investment casting and surface treatment. Technical Director Mark White agrees customers are urgently determining how to capture foundry capacity suitable for their products. He says Impro’s global business model is helping to address these challenges with multiple world-wide facilities in all processes, providing a balanced safety net for its customers’ supply chain.

“There are two reasons why we can say we are answering the capacity in the industry,” White said. “One, if you walk through Plant 3 in China, it's on a par, from a technology standpoint, with any aerospace structural casting manufacturer in the U.S.––and it is built to grow. There's wide open floor space everywhere, and that's being filled up with capex as we speak. For investment casting, the capacity is endless. Two, is what we’re doing in Mexico. Customers will clamor to have that kind of capacity, because you’re not going to get that out of the existing foundries in the U.S. I don’t believe anybody [in aerospace metalcasting] is going greenfield like we did. 

“We're going to have a footprint everywhere,” White continued. “And we're going to be able to supply the top customers everywhere.”

He characterizes the aerospace casting buying marketplace as fervent with activity, citing major players like Boeing and Airbus that are building and buying as much as they can to support commercial and military demand. 

The Bar is High

Apart from tight security protocols associated with defense contracts, foundry sources say there’s little distinction in casting requirements between commercial versus military versus space craft applications. It’s a matter of meeting design specifications, period. But one thing that distinguishes the three segments of aerospace from other casting markets is the very high bar of testing, certifications, and traceability they all demand. 

For example, Alonso says Mitchell Aerospace’s quality systems are held to ISO 9100; furthermore, NADCAP certification is required for all its special processes such as non-destructive testing, heat treatment, and welding. White said requirements intensify if casting components are intended for airfoil rotating parts in the hot section of an engine. Additional casting testing, whether in-house or outsourced, would include radiography, spectrometry, tensile testing, x-ray, Faro laser scanning, Rockwell hardness, leak testing, radiation resistance testing, dye-penetrant testing, and more.

“There's almost an endless possibility of ways that [customers] could require things to be tested,” said Oldenski at Harmony Castings. “When you add the administrative paperwork that goes along with individual parts, this isn’t for the faint of heart. If you are not an organization with a good system, like the AS 9100, you're going to struggle because you just don't have the level of traceability down to every part that you need to support these customers. Ironically, most of the documentation has very little to do with the actual part itself––instead, it’s about how you control and manage your process and certify to the customer, you are providing what you said you're going to provide.” 

Barrier to entry into the aerospace sector, in fact, joins the reasons capacity shortfall is not a quick-fix. 

Achieving traceability also sets aerospace foundries into a whole different breed of metalcasters.

“Without traceability, we can't sell castings,” said Alonso. “Whenever we pour a mold, we automatically serialize that mold immediately. So, from the moment the sand mold is made, the part that's inside is already serialized. That serial number is then transcribed onto the metal when it's poured. And then we can track back from that serial number all of the information pertaining to the metal, the day it was poured, the temperature, the humidity that day––it allows us to have all that data in the event of any issues. We may not need it, but we have it.”

Currently, the documentation isn’t linked to Mitchell’s ERP, but with the company’s Industry 4.0 investment pilgrimage this year comes the expectation that further automation will soon be applied to the traceability process. “It starts from production planning all the way out to the molding process, the grinding, the non-destructive testing, the heat treatment––everything has to be digital,” he added. 

At AFS Corporate Member Ermak, part of the CaneKast family of foundries, Plant Manager Frank Betchwars adds that the testing as well as documentation to prove repeatability and traceability are obviously essential to ensure the safety of human life. So, whatever the design challenges, from very thin walls, machining features, heavy sections to be fed, consistent strength, alloys and heat treat process––it all needs to be perfect and exactly the same every time, he asserts. 

“It’s a matter of developing a super robust process to follow and making sure the employees are rigidly trained and do not to stray from it, understanding the severity of what that could cause,” he said. He added that designing tooling appropriately to hold required tight tolerances also ensures repetitive control on the floor where variations are prone to occur. “We've applied quite a bit of horsepower here, as far as the design goes and the engineering going into that. At the end of the day, it makes everything a lot easier on both the employees as well as me sleeping at night, knowing that there's less room for error.”

Cost-Conscious and Conservative

While it’s true that much of the aerospace sector works with a different kind of checkbook, cost considerations are nevertheless of high importance. One foundry that participates in one of the sector’s largest areas of casting demand––electronics boxes and housings––recently saw resistance against cost increases move to an extreme level.

“In the heat of the pandemic, people didn't care so much about price because they were desperate for product,” a source said. “But since then, costs exploded because the whole system was strained ... Inflation was real and grew substantially. So, beginning in the middle of last year and continuing in 2024, we are seeing professional purchasing and supply chain managers putting the gloves back on and getting back in the ring. We give them our latest pricing and they push it back and say ‘We have a ‘zero-inflation policy.’ We can’t accept your price increase.’ How do you respond to that?

Aerospace is also highly conservative when it comes to change. Legacy parts represent a majority portion of casting work among interviewed sources, and new designs are approached with great care. An exception to change-wariness, according to Alonso at Mitchell Aerospace, is an increased demand he has seen in the magnesium side of their business. He said magnesium is 30% lighter than aluminum, but also a new magnesium alloy has been developed that’s more resistant to corrosion and fire.

Any proposed change in an aerospace casting design occurs only within strict boundaries and protocols. Even so, occasionally a change is imperative.

“Sometimes customers complete the design before we’re involved, and a lot of times we get involved after another foundry wasn’t able to do it,” said White at Impro. “Once we get into it, we help them redesign or re-specify and help the customer understand why it didn’t work. 

In some cases, they finish the design and expect to see parts, but they may lack experience with castings. And that’s alright. We’re here to help them through it.”