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Badger Pattern: mastering the market.

Badger Pattern: Mastering the Market

Dick Blankenheim looked out over the bustling production floor of his sprawling Badger PAttern Works' plant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. All three of the wood, plastic and metal production lines were clearly busy as four workers huddled over a thick sheaf of mechanical drawings on a foreman's desk.

"We have jobs going through the shop now for more than a dozen different automotive engine block and cylinder head patters, which is about average for us," Blankenheim said. "But the interesting thing is that five of them are time-critical patterns for overseas automobile manufacturing customers, two of whom are repeats and the other three representing new business.

"Badger now produces patterns for customers in Great Britain, Spain, Canada, Mexico, West Germany, South America and the Far East. Ten years ago, nearly 100% of the patterns we produced were for domestic users, and about then was when we first began to lose business to foreign competitors. They simply outbid us.

"In the last decade, however, there has been an almost indefinable but very welcome twist to the pattern business. First, there were many U.S. patternmakers who lost considerable business to overseas shops and suffered serious financial loss. Then, slowly our domestic shops began to turn the tables. Now, we're priced right, our technology is tops, we can deliver what we promise, and we're winning back some of the business we lost to offshore patternmakers. That loss of business was a shock, but it forced us take a look at how we did business. Looking back, we were too insular, too complacent and almost totally unprepared for the global competition that hit us in the '80s."

The patternmaking industry has changed since Badger was founded in 1943, but it still relies on the skills of artisans who do pretty much what patternmakers have always done. Changes in methods and materials have affected mnagement decisions, employee training and pattern shop capabilities, but the company's ability to cope with change, Blankenheim stated, has exceeded what other countries have been able to absorb.

"Patternmaking is a vital part of the world's metalcasting industry, and for us maintaining a competitive edge increasingly requires more innovation, aggressive marketing and committing to higher capital investment budgets," Blankenheim said. "To assist our marketing people, we agree in advance to absorb a portion of the project cost on a penalty basis should we fail to meet delivery deadlines."

Rising labor rates in the industries served by patternmakers have put pressure on pattern designers and builders to reduce or eliminate secondary finishing operations on castings. The intense competition among pattern shops is levering them to seek new technologies and systems that allow them to manufacture more accurate, higher quality products faster and at less cost.

Customer expectations are greater, and patternmakers are being driven as never before by unprecedented demand for lower prices, higher quality and ontime delivery. It's a scenario not unlike that facing many other industries, but it is particularly acute for patternmakers, due in part to the changing nature of the foundry industry, Blankenheim said.

The broad mix of American cast metal products has, if anything, increased the need for foundries to control costs, quality and delivery--and the logical starting point to accomplish these objectives lies with the patternmaker.

Market Flux

Despite the fewer U.S. foundries, droves of overseas pattern suppliers have been attracted to the apparent opportunities in the American pattern market. However, foundries are no longer bound by traditional buying channels. Supplying patterns and tooling also has been dislocated somewhat by the new reality of global competition. Just as offshore foundries are now suppliers to American casting users, so have domestic pattern users been attracted to foreign patternmakers. The allure, of course, has been lower costs, but buying from suppliers whose pay rates for skilled workers are far lower than their American counterparts is nothing new.

According to Blankenheim, it has been harder during the last five years to keep his shop full because of increasing competition from all quarters. The company makes all types of patterns, but specializes in high-production pattern tooling for the automotive, marine and aircraft industries.

He said 30-35% of his business is automotive-related, with the balance spread between railroad, construction equipment and housing.

"Our sector of the metalcasting industry went through a severe economic shakeout a few years ago in concert with a downturn in the foundry business," Blankenheim said. "Many patternmaking firms went out of business. We also lost significant amounts of our domestic business to overseas patternmakers, just as American foundries did.

"Prices were better than ours in many instances and workmanship was acceptable. Japanese automakers here bought Japanese patterns almost exclusively. European patternmakers solicited and won a great deal of American foundry pattern and casting business, and are still factors in this market.

"Changes in the traditional market relationship between the patternmaker and his foundry customer changed in many ways in the early '80s, but the downturn in foundry production and the advent of strong foreign competition were the most devastating factors for pattern shops."

The Climb Back

The whole pattern supply business, however, is beginning to turn around, Blankenheim said. The loss of so many marginal pattern companies actually helped the marketplace. It provided room for U.S. patternmakers to assess their competitive situation--to realize and market their skills, ingenuity and organization in the long process of regaining market share and moving into new markets.

The remaining U.S. patternmaking companies are servicing the highly competitive domestic pattern market well, but it is important that they maintain the aggressive marketing skills in order to remain viable in the long term, he said.

"Delivery times form overseas pattern shops have been a problem, and time is everything in patternmaking," Blankenheim said. "Price not withstanding, this is, I believe, the weak link for foreign producers trying to sell into the American market. Service is the key to the tooling business. You have to be a slave to delivery dates, and, of course, you have to be able to deliver exactly what the customer ordered. Foreign shops still remain busy with U.S. work, but the process of winning back some of the pattern business lost overseas in the 1980s is well under way."

Blankenheim said his company can deliver patterns in about two-thirds the time and at as good or better prices than the best foreign shop. Price, quality and delivery are the keys, but delivery is the dominant requirement to getting and holding business from anywhere. Like Badger, many of the larger pattern manufacturers now have offshore sales representation, and on-time delivery is one of their strongest selling points.

"We're currently shipping patterns, mostly for high-volume automotive production, to overseas markets that were new to us just a few years ago. Our work with the Chinese began when we were a subcontractor to an American foundry products supplier," Blankenheim said. "Now Chinese foundries order patterns directly from us. Once we win a contract, we stand a very good chance of keeping an account.

"Pattern size, complexity and delivery date are often deciding factors in our favor. The more difficult the pattern and the tighter the customer's production schedule, the better our chances are for getting the job."

Part of the U.S. pattern industry's advantage stems from the fact that American patternmakers work differently from their foreign competitors, Blankenheim said. Overseas shops tend to be very linear in their approach to making patterns. First, they complete their design work, then build their models and finally put the job into production. This is a time-consuming method.

Badger Pattern Works and many other U.S. shops meld all three disciplines within a team production approach to speed the pattern manufacturing process. At Badger, the design engineering group works closely with the model shop, and the metal department is brought in to work out fabrication requirements as soon as the pattern tooling is sufficiently defined.

Common practice in his shop, Blankenheim said, is to assign a pattern job to a project leader whose task is to coordinate the shop's resources to complete the job efficiently and economically. This practice allows locating and reconciling any anomalies in the customer's overall tooling concept as the pattern project moves conjointly through the respective design engineering and wood, plastic and metal production departments. Typically, this can shave a third off the quoted delivery times from offshore patternmakers.

People Power

Patternmaking is an intricate trade that requires a highly motivated, skilled work force. Patternmaking companies have traditionally relied on local vocational trade schools and junior colleges to provide this kind of craftsmen.

When these institutions closed or proved unable to graduate basically educated, trades-bound people, Badger, like many other industrial firms, instituted in-house job training to meet its growing skilled manpower needS.

Badger had a staff of two during its first year, rising to eight people in its first 15 years. Today its staff numbers 150, half of whom have been trained by the company. The company occupies a modern, 50,000 sq-ft plant that has just gone through its third expansion. A smaller plant in Texas does specialized, high-tolerance pattern work.

The company hires new workers based on their ability to visualize 3-D shapes and their aptitude for sustained, accurate and independent work. Badger's five-year apprentice program has virtually eliminated turnover and guaranteed a steady supply of journeymen patternmakers fully capable of keeping pace with the evolutionary changes in the industry.

Blankenheim said that the next generation of Badger management is being trained now in the company's apprentice program.

All of the company's present top management and its entire sales force are patternmakers first and executives second, Blankenheim said, adding that "anyone of us can, and often does, take an active role in customer order production, particularly when design considerations or delivery times are critical."

Changing Industry

Like many large pattern shops, Badger runs three distinct departments, one each for wood, plastic and metal pattern manufacturing.

Wood is still the basic pattern material. However, the use of plastic to construct patterns, which accounts for only 5% of the shop's volume, is growing rapidly because it offers the shortest turnaround time after production of a master pattern.

Plastic patterns and tooling are lighter, simple to duplicate, modify and repair, and they save time and money. The use of polystyrene plastic for expendable pattern casting (EPC) allows castings to be made that are virtually uncastable by conventional production methods.

Blankenheim believes that by the year 2000 the American pattern shop won't be the same, though it will still be recognizable. One big differences will be the importance of maintaining in-house engineering departments for problem-solving and for customr consultation. Reliance on computers to verify designs and drive patternmaking equipment is used now to direct CAD/CAM machining, but even that will change.

Badger has seven full-time design engineers working directly with customers to solve pattern production problems before the tooling is built or to completely engineer customer patterns. Blankenheim said his engineers even make "house calls" to customers' plants to see first hand what casting parameters must be met to manufacture successful patterns. They also trouble-shoot problems for foundries experiencing casting difficulties with patterns.

By the next decade it will be common for a pattern shop and a customer to exchange computer tapes or floppy discs, relying less on blueprints and more on software to define final pattern configuration, Blankenheim said.

He said several of Badger's larger automotive and aircraft customers submit pattern tapes that contain undimensioned wire frame computerized models. Badger engineers can then integrate them into a shared resource management system that controls drawing and machining programs.

This system was used recently to build in record time a combination V-12 and V-16 cylinder block with 178 cores and an aircraft component having 112 coreboxes. Badger's computer interrogates the tapes or discs to add dimensions, shrinkage, actual cutter paths and other features. Based on those interrogations, wood or plastic master models are produced. This duplication (called finite element modeling) is a component of Initial Graphic Exchange Specifications (IGES), a computerized dimensioning software system developed by the National Bureau of Standards.

Stereolithography and laminated object manufacturing (LOM) processes for making accurate prototypes directly from a CAD database without any tooling or machining are revolutionary methods of producing patterns quickly and accurately. They will lead patternmaking into the 21st century, Blankenheim said.

Stereolithography uses a lase to trace outlines of computer-guided "slices", or very thin cross sections, of a part onto a photoactive polymer. In contrast, the LOM system stacks metal foils according to a CAD program to produce a part.

New processes involving plastics, ceramics, arc spraying and laser cutting are being developed that will vastly improve the industry's ability to shorten development cycles by creating prototypes of complex shapes in less time and at less cost, Blankenheim said.

Wire electron discharge machines (EDM) are particularly exciting to patternmakers because industrial EDM metal cutting systems are already in use. EDM equipment is being applied to produce patterns using fewer operations to manufacture high-production, complex patterns in less time and at lower cost.
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Title Annotation:includes related article about new competitive factors facing pattern-makers; profile on Badger Pattern Works in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Publication:Modern Casting
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 1, 1991
Previous Article:The business cycle turns down.
Next Article:Waste characterization & analysis: now, it pays to know your wastes.

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