Finding a niche with lost foam: even though the lost foam casting process has yet to be embraced fully by the metalcasting world, two small lost foam facility owners explain how they have advanced their businesses.
In one of the world's oldest industries, a handful of small metalcasting operations have found success with one of the industry's youngest processes. These small businesses took a step away from conventional sand casting to grasp the opportunities presented by lost foam, such as tighter tolerances, greater design capacities, cast-in passageways and little or no draft.
The idea was to take a process being perfected by General Motors, Detroit, for the production of highly complex engine blocks and cylinder heads and translate these skills to the job-shop market.
Chuck Irish, owner of Irish Foundry, and Sid Tankersley, president and owner of American Foam Cast, both established lost foam facilities within the last eight years and have worked to improve their capabilities. Although one company began to use lost foam in addition to a present facility, while the other started a Greenfield project, they both demonstrate that through a proper business outlook and smart investments, small lost foam operations are finding a niche in the industry.
Why Lost Foam?
In the metalcasting world, there are only three non-captive aluminum lost foam job shops (one also pours copper-base alloys) in the U.S., while sand casting, the traditional process, remains at the top. But what a company could offer with a lost foam facility appealed significantly to both Irish and Tankersley.
"We manufacture value-added castings," said Irish. "The cast part might be more expensive initially, but the total cost of the component, because of reduced or eliminated machining, less assembly and less of the other aspects, can make it more cost-effective for its customers."
Irish, a continuous fifth-generation metalcaster, launched a sand casting facility in 1985 in Seattle. His company's lost foam operation began in 1999 after the evaluation of different processes.
"We realized our strength was in the ability to assist in designing value-added castings to our customers," he said.
American Foam Cast, which Tankersley established in 1997, began with a similar approach to Irish, as in what lost foam could offer customers. But the lack of lost foam facilities also played into Tankersley's decision to run a casting plant with this process as opposed to other well-known methods.
"Lost foam was then and still is somewhat of a niche process," he said. "If we decided to go green sand, permanent mold or diecast, there were already a lot of established players out there. At that time, there were only a handful of players in jobbing lost foam aluminum, and it's still that way."
Tankersley was able to set off from the pack at the beginning, which still did pose a challenge for marketing.
Despite the fact that there are only a small number of lost foam job shops across the country, Irish and American Foam Cast still have to compete in the entire metalcasting market. At times, selling their process to potential customers has been a struggle.
One of the steepest hills both companies have encountered is having customers disregard lost foam strictly due to the higher tooling costs than traditional casting.
Although customers might be turned away initially by costs, certain lost foam components can be less-expensive than those cast by traditional methods. With a total-cost perspective (from design to finished component) when evaluating lost foam, customers save on expenses that are unavoidable in sand casting.
When American Foam Cast drew in its first potential customers, some were hesitant on utilizing lost foam because of its intricacies. But Tankersley said that many of his customers have moved beyond that mindset, and in fact, some had prior knowledge of the process before coming to his company. For those who are foreign to the process, Tankersley and his staff stress to customers that lost foam provides the ability to design without cores while casting in geometry and features from the start.
They also stress that lost foam is the only process that is practiced at the facility to assure their customers that the staff is enthusiastic about administering the process correctly. "We jumped into (lost foam with both feet." Tankersley said. "We tell our customers we have confidence in this process."
Irish takes a similar approach in proving to customers that lost foam can fabricate multiple parts to make one casting or transition from thin- to thick-wall components without a riser. Irish also pushes the value-added aspects of lost foam in his sales, but through his facility's first five years, he has always relied on one certain idea. "There has to be complexity to the casting," he said. "A good candidate for lost foam should utilize these tremendous advantages."
An example of this was when Irish cast a heating burner with more than 200 0.125-in. as-cast holes. If cast in green sand, the component would require core assembly/removal and chaplets to support the core, and the small holes would not be achievable through a traditional casting process.
In addition to seeking new customers, Irish has advertised his capabilities in several industry publications, a technique he said has paid dividends for the business.
In order to support the advertising costs and sell lost foam solutions to customers, a small business needs the funding sources as well as a well-educated staff who can teach the process.
Irish, who moved his company to its current 16,000-sq.-ft. site in 1994, financed all of the move from his personal assets.
During the last several years, Irish also has benefitted from joining Seattle Executives, a network of business representatives in the Seattle area. "I realize the challenges of businesses are universal," he said. "With this network, it has been helpful to interchange thoughts (purchases and finances) with other companies."
Additionally, the company gained technical assistance from GM. Irish credits the automotive company as well as several other lost foam facilities and committees for extra knowledge and tips to help his facility advance. "The advantages have been gained when GM shares such a thing as how a wooden tongue depressor can act as a tie bar (a brace to support two ends of a foam pattern across a gap) in a lost foam design," Irish said. "It's a simple thing, but for us, it was extremely important."
Even with outside help, Irish notes that lost foam cannot be learned overnight. "You need at a significant period of time (up to several years) just to understand what questions to ask about the process," he said. "You learn a lot yourself just by doing it."
Irish, whose facility trains all employees in-house, mentioned that the company's timing for becoming involved in lost foam played to its advantage (rather than practicing lost foam at his company's startup in 1985). He mentioned that in the last 5-10 years, there have been advances in polystyrene, coatings and ceramics that have significantly benefitted the industry.
Like Irish, American Foam Cast also trains employees in-house, gaining knowledge from other facilities and consortiums. Tankersley, who has been involved in lost foam since 1987, attributes some of this to handed-down knowledge from more experienced employees who can provide the additional information that outside sources may not have. But American Foam Cast also has appreciated help from other companies, such as Vulcan Engineering Co., Helena, Ala., who helped the facility set in motion its in-house foam pattern production in 2002.
To support his facility financially when the company first began, Tankersley received financial assistance from local investors and banks as well as the U.S. Small Business Administration. Contrary to the tooling cost issue, Tankersley noted that the necessary capital to operate a lost foam facility versus other processes is not overwhelming, and
running an entire plant with the process would allow the company to obtain customers whom it wouldn't with another process.
American Foam Cast differs from Irish here in regards to lost foam being the only capability at the facility. "When we talk about our company in particular, we just didn't back into lost foam," he said. "We don't have two or three other casting processes while lost foam is being subsidized by a winner in the shop somewhere else. Lost foam is the only thing we offer."
Advancing the Opportunity
From day one, the American Foam Cast staff has been adamant about making lost foam the "winner" in their shop. When Tankersley built the facility literally from the ground up, he and his colleagues examined what would be essential to get a good jump into the industry. One of the biggest investments that the facility has possessed since it opened is an automated casting line, which Tankersley said was a large part of getting ahead in the business because it gave the company higher throughput rates.
"That wasn't something we would want to withhold to begin with," he said. "For us to have as much credibility as possible, we felt we needed a state-of-the-art, automated cast line."
As the company received more orders (aluminum components weighing 10 lbs. or less), it was able to invest more money back into its own operation. By 2002, the company earned enough profit to more than double the size of its 25,000 sq.-ft, facility to 55,000 sq. ft. as part of a vertical integration development plan for the business. The result was an increase in sales and a 15% increase in employment to 25. A more significant benefit was the installation of multiple foam pattern-making machines, which allowed the company to produce its foam patterns in-house, an operation that it previously outsourced.
"As we grew and brought in more business, we had some issues and felt we wanted more control with foam-making," Tankersley commented. "So, we brought the foam-making capability in-house, which reduced leadtimes, and that's another core competency we have right now. When we go to a customer, it helps us on several fronts in showing them what we can do."
In addition, having foam-making capabilities on the inside allows American Foam Cast to practice just-in-time lean manufacturing and work closer with customers on design details. This also has opened room for the company to look into ferrous and copper-base markets as well as initiate plans to develop in-house machining capabilities.
Lean manufacturing methods at Irish also have played a role. The Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) of the company was to produce a lost foam production system that could circulate every two minutes, which would give employees enough time to operate the system efficiently.
"The BHAG from Good to Great by Jim Collins was inspirational in the internal design and construction of our automated lost foam line," Irish said.
The lost foam operation now occupies 6,000 sq. ft. of the building, while the remaining 10,000 sq. ft. are used for the green sand capabilities. Because the main focus of the operation is to make foam castings, the company outsources its foam patterns.
Irish produces aluminum and bronze components, such as exercise equipment and marine valve housings. Additionally, new inroads have been created in the heating and medical markets.
The fact that Irish and American Foam Cast have gained success within the first 10 years of their operations is contrary to lost foam's lack of popularity in metalcasting facilities. Tankersley noted that this is likely due to its young age. "With lost foam, you're talking barely 20 years of being out in the open, and the learning curve has been very steep versus green sand, which is thousands of years old," he said.
However, Tankersley also alluded to how those who have embraced lost foam have helped its development increase greatly in a short time and know the process well.
When comparing small jobbing facilities to enormous lost foam production plants, Tankersley mentioned that regardless of size, everyone in lost foam is in the same boat. "You still put your pants on one leg at a time," he said. "We're doing the same thing as the large shops. We start from the foam bead and go all the way through to the finished casting."
Further, Irish has staunchly encouraged more metalcasters to practice lost foam. "We are trying to get more facilities involved because it would be advantageous to lost foam in the long run.
"It's sort of like having a restaurant built across the street from your own. If the food is good, both will grow."
For More Investigation
"An Investigation Into the Effect of Process Parameter Settings on Air Emission Characteristics in the Lost Foam Casting Process," S.U. Behm, K.L. Gunter and J.W. Sutherland, AFS Transactions (03-031), 2003.
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|Date:||Dec 1, 2004|
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