Back in the Black

Since a 2006 change in ownership, Anchor Castings has rebuilt much of its facility and established itself as a dependable 10-person job shop.

Nicholas Leider, Associate Editor

(Click here to see the story as it appears in the March issue of Modern Casting.)

When Bill Wolfgram purchased Anchor Castings in Neenah, Wisconsin, in 2006, he didn’t have much experience with metalcasting operations. In fact, he’d never even seen the inside of one. The lifelong entrepreneur had owned a number of retail businesses, ranging from a pet supplies store to a company focused on recycling antifreeze to a sports complex.

But a decade ago, Wolfgram entered the casting industry after a number of visits to the 15,000-sq.-ft. Anchor Castings. The nonferrous casting operation had fallen on difficult times by 2006, after being purchased by an employee in 1993. The equipment was outdated. The facility was unkempt and poorly lit. The quality of the castings wasn’t meeting customers’ demands.

In light of such considerations, it’s only natural to ask: What, exactly, did Wolfgram see in such an operation?

“This was the first foundry I’ve ever walked into,” he said. “I noticed a few things that needed to be fixed, but all the while, the orders never stopped coming in. Whenever I’d come visit, the demand from customers was always there, even in spite of everything that needed to be cleaned up.  The bottom line is, it looked like fun.”

In the decade since he purchased the small job shop, Wolfgram has invested nearly $1 million to update equipment, increase storage, streamline accounting practices and minimize pattern storage. With a lean 10-person workforce, Anchor Castings is revitalized in filling an interesting niche in the metalcasting market, providing castings and prototypes to end-users in a wide variety of industries, including architectural, food processing, and pump impellers and volutes. Anchor Castings also works with other, larger casting facilities for short runs and collaborative R&D projects.

Renewed Reinvestment

Although Anchor Castings was buoyed by a steady stream of orders when it was bought, Wolfgram knew improvements needed to be made—in the facility, in the casting process and on the business side of the operation. Pouring roughly 75% brass/bronze and 25% aluminum, the facility had equipment that had not been properly maintained or updated for decades.

A new roof was installed in 2007.  The next year, major improvements included a new green sand muller, nobake mixer and induction furnace. The shop floor was resurfaced and lighting improved. General cleaning became an emphasized ongoing task.

“We needed to do a lot,” Wolfgram said. “After we improved how we did business, we needed to look at the shop. We needed to revitalize a lot of what we used to make quality castings.”

One labor-intensive project focused on Anchor Castings’ storage of patterns. In the months and years after the transition in ownership, the number of patterns on-site was halved, from nearly 8,000 to the roughly 3,500 currently stored in the main facility and a separate warehouse. Many of the stored patterns were obsolete. Employees went through the inventory piece by piece, calling customers to see if pieces should be kept, returned or discarded.

The transition in human resources was equally dramatic. Under the previous owners, the shop had 16 full-time employees. Within a few years of the new ownership, just two remained while the staff underwent considerable turnover. Within the first six months Wolfgram hired Tom Zaborski, who had a vast knowledge of casting operations and maintenance. (Since retired, Zaborski still comes in once a week just to stay connected.) Wolfgram hired Dennis Kiekhaefer as sales and service manager, a 35-year veteran of the metalcasting industry, and Mike Bader as operations manager, who has been in the industry since 1981.

“I’m not a foundry guy,” Wolfgram said. “Through this whole thing, I’ve relied on the experience of those around me to make quality castings. What I brought to the table was organization and business logic. Take care of the customer with quality and on-time delivery.  I tell our customers ‘our job is to keep you out of trouble by providing what you need when you need it.’”

One unavoidable challenge for a job shop such as Anchor Castings is the size of its workforce. With 10 full-time employees on the shop floor, a single absence can be a major blow to production. Not only is that 10% of the workforce, the expertise of each worker is amplified in such a setting. In order to minimize disruptions, Anchor Castings tries to diversify the skill sets of its workers. The workforce is small but turnover is remains relatively low.

“If one person is sick or there’s a family issue, someone else has to pick up the slack,” Kiekhaefer said. “We don’t have an abundance of people to fill in or move from one department to another. Our guys are cross-trained and flexible, but we are naturally limited by the size of our workforce.”

Working eight hour shifts Monday through Friday, the workforce is expected to help out in any possible way. Wolfgram points to having two trained patternmakers on staff who work in different departments.

“They are not here as patternmakers, but they are experienced,” he said. “They are plenty able to work on patterns that are here. It’s a real benefit to have people in-house who can fix patterns if need be. That can save us a lot of time and trouble for certain jobs. Their expertise helps with rigging patterns and pouring procedures, saving us and the customer time and money.”

Fast & Flexible

In addition to a flexible workforce, Anchor Castings must be able to react to changing production demands. Being a short run job shop, the facility must be able to change priorities quickly and efficiently. Should a customer call with an immediate request, the metalcaster must be able to respond.

Of the two molding lines, nobake represents about 80% of production volume, with typical castings ranging from a few pounds to 700 lbs. (317.5 kg). The remaining 20% is in green sand, with maximum weight of 20 lbs. (9.1 kg), due to flask size. Both lines can run simultaneously, depending on a day’s required projects.

“Every morning, we meet and discuss what needs to be done that day,” Bader said. “We may plan on doing a specific part, but we’ll get a phone call and have to change on the fly. We have to be able to do this. You have to take care of a customer that’s in dire need and still satisfy other customers.”

Anchor Castings puts its current streak of on-time deliveries at 10,000 castings. Emphasizing customer communication and process improvements, the metalcaster is able to meet time-sensitive demands. Though business has been good in recent years, Wolfgram knows the nature of a small job shop includes some unpredictability.

“We aren’t near full capacity, but some of that is by design,” he said. “We are always looking for new orders, but we know how quickly things can change. You can have a good month of sales in a single day, but that can change and it does.”

In addition to serving customers in end-use industries, Anchor Castings works alongside area metalcasting operations on a number of different projects. The facility partners with 12-15 different plants, with Anchor Castings handling many jobs that just aren’t practical for the larger operations. In 2015, for example, the facility produced more than 400 impellers, ranging in size from a few ounces to a few hundred pounds.

“These are complicated items that a lot of foundries just don’t want to do in small numbers,” Kiekhaefer said. “But we are very good at it so that’s a niche market that works well for us.”

Anchor Castings also operates as a type of R&D consultant for other metalcasting operations. One such project involved an oversized aluminum oil pan nearly 5 ft. (1.52 m) in length. With a final weight of just 62 lbs. (28.1 kg), the casting required 2,400 lbs. (1,089 kg) of sand. The metalcaster was scrapping nearly 80% of its castings when it contacted Anchor Castings for assistance.

“After two initial parts were scrapped, we made some changes and immediately started making sound castings,” Wolfgram said. “We made 50 in a row without scrapping a single one—and that completed the order.”

At that point, Anchor Castings instructed the other metalcaster how to produce sound castings. This type of collaboration is not unusual, allowing the facility to support and collaborate with similar businesses. Though a relatively small casting facility, Anchor Castings has carved a unique niche for itself serving end-use customers and other metalcasting facilities.

“Being totally new to the industry, I came in with a different perspective and I could ask why things were done a certain way,” Wolfgram said. “At the same time, I rely on people with a lot of experience, who know how things get done. I think that mix has helped a lot.” 

ncountering a scenario in which you are forced to suddenly and immediately suspend melting operations for an extended period can be a death sentence for many metalcasting facilities. Small to mid-size businesses are the backbone of the industry, but many do not survive when forced into extended downtime. One disaster-stricken metalcaster, however, found resilience through its own perseverance and a circle of support from peers, friends, suppliers, teams from installation and repair providers, an original equipment manufacturer and even competitors.
Tonkawa Foundry, a third-generation, family-owned operation in Tonkawa, Okla., was entering its 65th year of operation this year when a significant technical failure ravaged the power supply and melting furnaces on January 17. Thanks to the textbook evacuation directed by Operations Manager Carrie Haley, no one was physically harmed during the incident, but the extent of emotional and financial damage, and just how long the event would take Tonkawa offline, was unclear.
Tonkawa’s power supply and two steel-shell furnaces would have to be rebuilt. No part of the reconstruction process could begin until the insurance company approved removal of the equipment from the site. The potential loss of Tonkawa’s employees and customers to competing metalcasters seemed inevitable.
Within two days of the incident, repair, installation and equipment representatives were on site at Tonkawa to survey the damage. Once the insurance company issued approval to begin work, the installation team mobilized within 24 hours to remove the equipment and disassemble the melt deck.
Since the damaged equipment was installed in the 1980s and 1990s, Tonkawa and an equipment services and repair company quickly strategized a plan and identified ways to enhance the safety, efficiency and overall productivity of Tonkawa’s melt deck.
“The most critical issue was for our team to organize a response plan,” said Steve Otto, executive vice president for EMSCO’s New Jersey Installation Division. “We needed to arrive at Tonkawa ready to work as soon as possible and deliver quickly and thoroughly so they could get back to the business of melting and producing castings, and minimize their risk of closing.”
Several years after Tonkawa’s melt deck was originally installed, an elevation change was required to accommodate the use of a larger capacity ladle under the spout of the furnaces. Rather than raising the entire melt deck, only the area supporting the furnaces was elevated. As a result, the power supply and workstation were two steps down from the furnaces, creating a number of inconveniences and challenges that impacted overall work flow in the melt area. Additionally, the proximity of the power supply to the furnaces not only contributed to the limited workspace, but also increased the odds of the power supply facing damage.
The damage to the melt deck required it to be reconstructed. It was determined to be the ideal opportunity to raise the entire deck to the same elevation and arrange the power supply, workstation and furnaces onto one level. The furnace installation company provided the layout concepts, and with the aid of Rajesh Krishnamurthy, applications engineer, Oklahoma State Univ., Tonkawa used the concepts to generate blueprints for the new deck construction. The results yielded a modernized melt system with an even elevation, strategically placed power supply, enhanced worker safety and increased operator productivity.
“Eliminating the steps and relocating the power supply farther from the furnaces was a significant improvement to our melt deck,” Tonkawa Co-Owner Jim Salisbury said.
Within four days of insurance company approval, all damaged equipment had been removed and shipped for repair.
The insurance company required an autopsy on the damaged furnace before any repair work could begin. The forensic analysis was hosted by EMSCO in Anniston, Ala., in the presence of insurance company personnel, as well as an assembly of industry representatives from the companies who had received notices of potential subrogation from the insurance company.
Tonkawa’s furnace was completely disassembled while the insurance company’s forensic inspector directed, photographed, cataloged and analyzed every turn of every bolt on the furnace over a nine-hour workday. The coil was dissected, and lining samples were retained for future reference.
While the furnace sustained extensive damage, it did not have to be replaced entirely.
Structural reconstruction was performed to address run-out damage in the bottom of the furnace, a new coil was fabricated and the hydraulic cylinders were repacked and resealed. Fortunately, the major components were salvageable, and ultimately, the furnace was rebuilt for half the cost of a new furnace.
“The furnace experienced a significant technical failure,” said Jimmy Horton, vice president and general manager of southern operations, EMSCO. “However, not only was the unit rebuilt, it was rebuilt using minimal replacement parts.”
Though work was underway on the furnaces, Tonkawa was challenged with a projected lead time of 14 weeks on the power supply.
When accounting for the three weeks lost to insurance company holds and the time required for installation, Tonkawa was looking at a total production loss of 18-20 weeks. From the perspective of sibling co-owners Sandy Salisbury Linton and Jim Salisbury, Tonkawa could not survive such a long period of lost productivity. After putting their heads together with their furnace supplier, it was determined the reason for the long turnaround on the power supply could be traced to the manufacturer of the steel cabinet that housed the power supply.
The solution? The existing cabinet would be completely refurbished and Tonkawa would do the work rather than the initial manufacturer. This reduced the 14-week lead time to just five weeks.
Tonkawa is the single source for a number of its customers. Although lead-time had been significantly reduced, the Tonkawa team still needed a strategy to keep the single source customers in business as well as a plan to retain their larger customers.
Tonkawa pours many wear-resistant, high-chrome alloys for the agriculture and shot blast industries. Kansas Castings, Belle Plaine, Kan., which is a friendly competitor, is located 50 miles north of Tonkawa. Kansas Castings offered Tonkawa two to three heats every Friday for as long as it needed.
“We made molds, put them on a flatbed trailer, prayed it wasn’t going to rain in Oklahoma, and drove the molds to Kansas Castings. We were molding, shot blasting, cleaning, grinding and shipping every Friday,” Salisbury Linton said.
Others joined the circle of support that was quickly surrounding the Tonkawa Foundry family.
Modern Investment Casting Corporation (MICC) is located 12 miles east of Tonkawa in Ponca City, Okla. Though MICC is an investment shop and Tonkawa is a sand casting facility, MICC’s relationship with Tonkawa dates back years to when Sandy and Jim’s father, Gene Salisbury, was at the helm.
“Gene was always willing to help you out,” said MICC owner, Dave Cashon. “His advice was invaluable for us over the years, so when the opportunity arose to support Sandy and Jim, we volunteered our help.”
 MICC offered to pour anything Tonkawa needed every Friday in its furnace. Tonkawa brought its alloy, furnace hand and molds, while MICC provided its furnace and a furnace hand for three heats. Many of the specialty parts Tonkawa produces were completed with MICC’s support.
When Salisbury Linton approached Cashon and asked him to issue her an invoice to cover the overhead Tonkawa was consuming, Cashon told her if she brought in six-dozen donuts every Friday morning they’d call it even.
“We’re all kind of like family,” Cashon said. “We’re all part of the same industry and though we may be friendly competitors at times, you don’t want to see anybody go through what they’ve gone through and it could have just as easily been our furnace that failed. While we all take the appropriate measures and perform maintenance to prevent these scenarios from occurring, they unfortunately still occur from time to time in our industry.”
Tonkawa had recently added steel work to its menu of services and Central Machine & Tool, Enid, Okla., was able to take Tonkawa’s patterns and fulfill its steel orders so it would not fall behind with those customers, while CFM Corporation, Blackwell, Okla., took three of Tonkawa’s employees on a temporary basis and kept them working during the downtime. Additionally, a couple of Tonkawa’s major suppliers extended their payables terms.
Thanks to Tonkawa’s suppliers, friends and its personnel’s own passion, persistence and dedication, the business is up, running and recovering—placing it among the few shops of its size to overcome the odds and remain in business after facing calamity.
 Nearly eight months after that devastating Saturday evening in January, Salisbury Linton reflected on the people and events that helped Tonkawa rise from the ashes. “We certainly would not have the opportunity to see what the future holds for Tonkawa if it weren’t for all the kind-hearted people who cared about what happened to us. Everyone still checks in on us.”