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 The equipment was outdated.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.
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.”