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Howmet laval bursts from its shell.

Faced with capacity and quality issues at, an overloaded plant, Howmet Laval ramped up the world's largest aluminum investment casting facility to meet the needs of its demanding customer base and its new strategic initiative.

A critical objective for today's casting facilities is to achieve the proper mix of people power and technology power for production. In some cases, this mixture is 90%-one and 10% the other but determining the proper levels of each is required to deliver a quality product on time at high productivity levels.

As a producer of aircraft, aerospace and commercial components, Howmet Aluminum Casting, Ltd., Laval, Quebec, Canada, faces an even tougher balancing act than a typical manufacturer. Due to the complexity of the castings it produces and the exacting standards of its customer base, Howmet Laval Part of Howmet Aluminum Casting, Ltd. (Alcoa, Inc.), headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio doesn't have the latitude of ting a specification range. Every casting must be "perfect," provide the customer the highest value, and, most importantly, be profitable.

To achieve this perfection and maintain profitability with typical production runs of less than 10 parts/week, a high level of human involvement during pre- and post-casting is required. This includes manual wax pattern assembly that may take more than 8 hr per component, manual casting grinding and finishing, and repetitive visual, penetrant and X-ray inspections. This intense labor usage is complemented by technology--from the firm's 100% robotic shell building to its proprietary, controlled solidification casting processes. How these technologies complement each other is what allows Howmet Laval to succeed.

This formula has led Howmet Laval and its parent, Howmet castings, to a leadership position in the industrial gas turbine and aerospace engine markets with healthy market share, according to the firm, The funny thing is that on the outside, Howmet Laval appears to be humming along without a bump in the road. The truth is that on the inside, the firm has spent the last two years reinventing itself from both a business and production perspective. Howmet Laval and Howmet Castings see the future of its markets, and if it doesn't change and proactively go after that future, then its leadership position will be a thing of the past.

From a strategic planning perspective, Howmet Laval (and Howmet Castings overall) is in the midst of employing a new marketing strategy, the Alcoa Enterprise Solution, to unlock the value of castings by moving itself up the supply chain and integrating itself with its customers. From a production perspective, Howmet Laval has spent the last three years designing, building and ramping up the world's largest aluminum investment casting facility to open up new doors for expansion.

A Strategic Shift

Howmet Castings was purchased by Alcoa in 1999 and immediately became part of the Alcoa Industrial Components Group. In 2002, Alcoa shifted its business strategy and reorganized Howmet Castings into the Alcoa Aerospace and Commercial Transportation Group. This new segment of Alcoa's business grouped together its casting, forging, fasteners and wheels facilities into a $5-billion in sales, 45-plant and 20,000-employee group.

Along with this structural change, the marketing drive for this group and specifically for Howmet Castings and its Laval plant has changed. Alcoa has developed its Alcoa Enterprise Solution system to drive its subsidiaries up the supply chain of their customers. For Howmet Laval, this system's goal is to integrate its manufacturing processes with their customers.

Howmet Laval plans to push its customers during the casting design process to allow it to become involved and serve as design engineers and materials managers for a specific cast component or integrated system. This would put Howmet Laval in charge of component design, procurement activities, casting production, finish to print castings, sub-assembly (for an integrated system) and inventory management. Howmet Laval believes that this initiative will make it an indispensable resource for the customer, and will allow it to facilitate a greater number of conversions from forgings, machined hogouts and weldments to investment cast components (Figs. 1 and 2).

"We want to help our customers take some of the cost out of the market," said Gary Warness, vice president, Howmet Structural Castings Group. "But we have to educate the customer about what the true costs are and what the hidden costs are. To begin a conversion to casting, we need to show our customers a 25-30% cost reduction from the beginning in addition to a weight savings."

Beyond Howmet Laval, Alcoa as a multi-process firm (casting, forging, extrusions, sheet and plate) can meet a variety of metal component needs. Thus, customers in search of metal components have a jack-of-all trades supplier. With these strengths, Howmet Laval (and Howmet Castings) is seeking to target longer-term contracts with customers on casting orders, eliminating the order to order relationship that leaves the foundry up in the air in terms of casting production six months from now, much less two to three years down the road.

For Howmet Laval and Howmet Castings, this new business strategy will be deemed successful if it produces two main results-growth in its current markets and growth in its conversion business. Currently at 8% market share in the airframe structural component market (this market share figure is for all metal airframe components, not just castings), Howmet Laval sees this as its greatest opportunity for growth due to the conversion opportunities.

"We are the world leader in IGT and aircraft engine cast components," said L. Michael Senesac, director of business development, Howmet Aluminum Castings. "But this doesn't necessarily translate to airframes. We have the capability and technology to succeed."

According to Howmet, its outlook for the aircraft sector predicts:

* large commercial aircraft build rates will stay flat for several more years;

* regional jet demand will increase beyond the levels from 1992-2001;

* military and business jet build rates to increase through 2006.

This forecast will open up job opportunities in airframe components in three markets. And, if the aero-engine market segment remains positive due to the increases in regional and business jet build rates, Howmet Laval can expect significant growth.

But to supplement the aerospace and commercial markets Howmet Laval also has begun to position itself in a new market--high-performance automobile and marine applications. Currently accounting for 7% of its aluminum casting shipments, this segment presents an opportunity to showcase its casting capabilities for a different market and customer.

Casting a New Laval

For Howmet Laval, the new Alcoa drive to provide customers complete solutions would have been a fantasy in the late '90s. The firm's foundry (located in Montreal at the time) was operating on overloaded capacity with insufficient manufacturing space. During a discussion about the old plant, one employee remarked that they used to trip over each other in the wax pattern assembly room. In addition, the plant had to use a conveyor that went outside between two buildings to transport wax assemblies to the shell room.

As business for this plant continued to build through the '90s, the result was a decline in the plant's on time delivery performance and an increase in scrap rates. In the competitive aerospace market, this combination can mean the kiss of death in months.

The solution is the new 180,000-sq-ft investment casting facility in Laval, Quebec, Canada (just north of Montreal). In designing the plant, Howmet searched its existing facilities as well as outside the casting industry for a plant layout. The firm polled all the engineering resources from within Howmet Castings for help. The result is a U-shaped manufacturing floor layout (Fig. 3), which provides "optimum product flow."

"The differences between the old and new plants is like night and day," said Sylvain Poissant, general manager of Howmet Laval, who came on board at Howmet to run the new plant. "It is amazing the castings they were able to produce at the old plant. With that ability and our new facility, we have the perfect marriage."

The plant operates with a single-piece flow system in which there is no inventory of components. This allows Howmet Laval to have quicker feedback with problems from any stage of production to another. With the complexity of some of the parts in production, the early determination of production pitfalls can save, in some cases, more than $10,000/casting.

Production via Labor, Technology

The wax pattern assembly department at Howmet Laval is a labor-intensive area, With short production runs of complex, thin-walled components (typical component orders are 10-100 parts/month), automation is difficult to integrate during pattern builds.

The firm has 12 wax injection presses. The multiple piece patterns and gating systems are then assembled by hand using fixtures. For each casting, assembly steps for the workers are shown picture by picture on printed specification sheets from the plant's MRP system.

Once the patterns are assembled, they are placed on a conveyor system also controlled by the MRP system. The hook on the conveyor has a bar code that is scanned along with the process sheet for the wax assembly placed on it. This identification number then follows the pattern/casting through the rest of the production process.

An interesting feature Howmet Laval built into the new wax assembly department is exacting temperature control. If the temperature in the assembly room raises or lowers by 1[degrees], an alarm sounds, forcing a corrective action.

"It was a culture shock for our workers when they moved to the new plant," said Poissant. "Our processes now are more robust as we document and detail everything."

From assembly, the wax pattern is conveyed to shell building where a similar temperature alarm is in place. Without touching human hands, a new pattern is pulled by a robot that scans the hook to determine the proper shell build system. Howmet Laval uses a proprietary shell system and applies between 5-10 layers for each mold built. The robot controls the entire shell building process.

The foundry has two shell building cells at the plant, each with two slurry tanks, and a maximum casting size of 2 m in length, 1 m in diameter and 700 lb. Currently, only one shell building line is operational.

After building, the shells are dried on racks and then pulled as needed (and scanned) by the casting department. The shells are autoclaved to remove the wax and then poured via conventional investment casting or one of Howmet's two in-house developed controlled solidification investment casting processes.

Controlling Grain Structures

For Howmet Castings, casting technology development is its lifeblood as it is the one point in the process in which the foundry distances itself from the competition by routinely producing castings with mechanical properties near the alloy theoretical maximum (Table 1). Thus, the firm holds its secrets as tight as any foundry.

At Howmet Laval, each of the three casting processes use varying levels of metallurgical control during solidification to refine the solidification microstructure of the final component and increase the mechanical properties. In aluminum casting, three different levels of microstructure refinement and final casting mechanical properties can be achieved depending upon the rate of metal solidification.

The foundry has nine conventional casting stations and five controlled solidification casting stations. Melting for these casting stations is performed in a 1200-lb electric crucible furnace, with the melt transferred to the casting stations via electric pouring ladles.

Conventional gravity pour casting at Howmet Laval is standard pouring from a ladle into a pre-heated shell mold. For the controlled solidification processes, Howmet Laval uses various methods to control the rate of heat extraction from the solidifying alloy and mold. For components requiring the highest mechanical properties, Howmet Laval uses its fastest solidifying casting process known as Sophia.

Developed 25 years ago, the Sophia process uses rapid solidification techniques that remove aluminum alloy superheat quickly from both the metal and the mold (without the use of chills). The result is a fine microstructure in both thin and thick sections of the castings that is produced in a repeatable and controlled manner.

"The Sophia Process uses a unique engineering approach, combined with metallurgical advances related to solidification control, to achieve high mechanical properties in castings that are significantly free of microporosity," said Peter Budkewitsch, Howmet Laval business development manager. "The process has developed over the years to offer high-strength capability for everything from small to very large complex engine and structural castings serving both commercial and military aerospace applications."

Determining Quality

After solidification, the gating system on the castings is cut in the casting department before proceeding to finishing and inspection. For most foundries, casting finishing and inspection is a necessary evil. Nobody wants to do it, but it has to be done. For Howmet Laval, finishing and inspection is as critical to the process as pouring and casting solidification because nearly 100% of its components must be visually inspected twice, liquid penetrant tested and X-rayed. These are the demands placed on it by the customer base. In addition, as a part of the finishing and inspection process, Howmet Laval must perform heat treatment and straightening procedures as required.

For Howmet Laval, the first two years of production at the new facility have seen a roller coaster ride in finishing and inspection. The foundry is driving toward a consistent scrap level of below 5% (typical aircraft and aerospace supplier scrap levels are around 10%). Thus far it hasn't been able to achieve this due to two problems: the ramping up of a new facility with new equipment (which always hurts scrap rates) and the major learning curve the plant has faced since taking on 300 new part numbers that were transferred in May 2001 from the now-closed Howmet plant located in City of Industry, California. Each of these 300 parts had to be requalified for their customers from the old plant to the new one.

"The new jobs from City of Industry forced us to deal with too many learning curves at once," said Poissant. "It took us a while to get back on track but our scrap numbers are coming back to where they should be."

These new parts also hurt Howmet Laval's on-time delivery performance. However, the plant is happy to say that it is on track to achieve 100% on time deliver in 2003 and a scrap rate better than the industry norm and on the way to its target.

Full Capacity

Currently the plant is operating at 50% capacity. It was built with the future in mind--anticipation for new conversion business and growth in the airframe sector. When operating at full capacity, it will employ 800.

"We wanted to build the capacity before it was needed to ensure our capabilities were strong when new work comes on board," said Poissant.

It's the dawn of a new era for Howmet Laval. ft has a business strategy pointed toward a future of hand-in-hand partnerships with customers and a new investment casting facility equipped with the technology and know-how to deliver an edge as a commercial and aerospace cast component supplier.
Table 1

Range of Specification Minimum Mechanical Property Requirements Achieved
by Howmet Laval

Alloy Preferred Ultimate Tensile Yield Elongation
 Temper Strength (ksi) Strength (ksi) (%)

A201 T7 60 50 3-5
C355 T6 41-50 31-40 2-3
A356 T6 32-38 22-27 2-5
A357 T6 38-50 28-40 3-5
D357 T6 45-50 36-40 3-5

RELATED ARTICLE: Howmet Aluminum Casting, Ltd. Laval, Quebec, Canada

Year Founded: 1969

Metals Cast: A357, D357, E357, F357, A356, C355 and A201 aluminum alloys.

Mold Capabilities: Investment casting.

Facility Size: 180,000 sq ft (150,000 sq ft manufacturing, 30,000 sq ft office).

2002 Shipments for Howmet Laval: 14,000 units

Employees: 320

Year Opened: 2000.

Markets Served by Howmet Laval: Aerospace engines and airframe structures, fluid control pumps and housings, electronic chasis and housings, and motor sports.

Howmet Lava Top Officials: Mario Longhi, president & CEO, Howmet Castings; Gary Warness, vice-president, Howmet Structural Castings Group; and Sylvain Poissant, general manager, Howmet Laval.

Howmet Castings Plant Locations: U.S.--Allentown/Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; Cleveland, Ohio; Dover, New Jersey, North Haven and Winsted, Connecticut; Hampton, Virginia; Hillsboro, Texas; LaPorte, Indiana; Morristown, Tennessee; Whitehall, Michigan; Wichita Falls, Texas. Global--Dives, Evron and Gennevilliers, France; Exeter, United Kingdom; Georgetown, Ontario, Canada; Laval, Quebec, Canada; and Terai, Japan.
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Title Annotation:Howmet Aluminum Casting Ltd.
Author:Spada, Alfred T.
Publication:Modern Casting
Article Type:Company Profile
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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