Southwest Steel Moving Forward

A Modern Casting Staff Report
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When Southwest Steel went over the 2 million-hour mark without a lost-time injury, it was an important accomplishment for the Longview, Texas, facility.  Five years ago, it implemented the “We Are Serious About Safety” plan that rewarded safety and stressed teamwork. Quality and safety teams were created with 15 members each whose ideas are heard.

That has led to rewards, awards and some attention from political figures.

In November, Texas state representative David Simpson addressed employees and guests at an event commemorating the accomplishment. He also presented Southwest Steel a state flag that once flew over the Texas capitol in Austin. In December, Congressman Louie Gohmert toured the facility.

"Touring the molding and casting processes at Southwest Steel Casting Company to witness the results of superb innovation and problem-solving was a great experience as well.  Also, seeing firsthand how such a critical industry, with emphasis on the safety of the workers, can fill the needs of the greatest industrialized nation in history," Gohmert said. "Metalcasting companies are such an invaluable asset to our nation, which made the tour of the stand-out company, Southwest Steel, a splendid example of American ingenuity solving one of the world's great needs.

"A genuine asset to the First District of Texas, Southwest Steel supplies the needs that keep other critical industries in business such as businesses involved in energy, construction, transportation, marine, railroad and mining."

But most important is the safety.

“It’s truly a testament of our awesome people and teamwork that we can lay claim to accomplishments such as Southwest Steel being one of the safest steel foundries in North America, achieving 1 million man hours with no lost time four times since 2001, the recent achievement of 2 million man hours with no lost time, a 0% DART rate and a 0% OSHA incident rate,” said Shawn Ingram, interim president, Southwest Steel. “When you think about the day in and day out processes in the foundry–pouring molten metal, welding operations, cutting operations, grinding operations–that’s when you really appreciate and respect these amazing accomplishments achieved by the men and women of Southwest Steel.”

A safety committee meets weekly and makes recommendations from people in the plant that are followed up on, creating an environment where everybody knows their ideas will be heard and acted on.

“It’s from the top down,” Ingram said. “It’s involvement from the top guy in the company all the way down, and he has to be actively involved in it. The employees have to see that number stand.”

That accomplishment can be seen as a testament to the facility and its employees, that it has the ability to reach such a lofty number. It figures that same attitude would translate to other parts of the business, something that’s helpful for a company trying to overcome certain challenges in an ever-shifting economy.

Staying the Course
Pouring since 1971, Southwest Steel provides castings, heat treating, machining, assembly, painting, and inspection. It has a 700-ton-per-month capacity spread over two facilities: one with 33,000 sq. ft. and another at 84,000. It uses nobake molding and pours various steels, including carbon, low- and high-alloy and stainless.

The 33,000-sq. ft. facility, called Plant 1, is where the smaller castings (5-200 lbs.) are poured, while the larger Plant 2 is where the 200-5,000 lb. castings are poured.

Thirty-one acres of manufacturing space are available, with on-site heat treat and mag-particle inspection. The facility includes a 1-ton induction furnace, 2-ton induction furnace, a 3-ton electric arc furnace and a 6-ton electric arc furnace.

Something else that’s helped Southwest Steel move forward is its recent push into rapid prototyping. The firm has utilized 3D sand printing successfully for cores and molds on several projects to reduce tooling cost and improve time to market for its customers.

“We have seen a significant increase in requests for the one off prototypes this past year,” Ingram said. “I don’t see these requests slowing down.”

Recently, Southwest Steel transitioned to a new type of sand. This was part of a production upgrade at the facility aimed at increasing efficiencies that included investing in sand and rollover equipment.

“We are a good foundry, we are a strong foundry and we are doing what we need to do in a down economy,” Ingram said.

This change in sand resulted in a 10% reduction in resin use. It also brought better surface finishing.

But the switch to a new sand wasn’t done on a whim. There's a detailed trialing process that involves Southwest Steel periodically looking at different products and suppliers, and sometimes that leads to something that can improve operations.

The trials started with limited testing at one of their two facilities, partnered with lab work. Testing included investigating a two-drum sample with resin before larger tests, prior to bigger castings and different circumstances.

“When all that’s good we will actually run it in production on a limited trial and an extended trial before we really make our final conclusions,” Ingram said. “There’s a lot of lab testing. We look at how it impacts the customer service, the tech service, delivery. Pricing is important but it’s not the most important thing. It’s quality and what can that product do for you. We don’t necessarily buy the least-cost product. There are things that we do pay a little more for to get a premium product that’s better suited for what we need.”

Part of a Family
Southwest Steel’s parent company is American Railcar Industries Inc., (ARI), St. Charles, Missouri. ARI acquired Southwest Steel in 1989 because it needed steel valves for
rail cars.

“We are thankful to our parent company,” Ingram said.  “They allow us to make improvements and invest capital when needed, even in a down economy. Thanks to our parent company, our employees and our customers, we are strong and doing what we need to do in the current economic situation.”

Though Southwest Steel still makes castings for ARI, it is far from captive to its parent company.

“ARI is more than our parent company, it is one of our top 10 customers and has been spectacular to Southwest Steel,” Ingram said. “ARI believes in being in the metalcasting business.”

That’s proven by the fact that Southwest Steel has a sister facility in Arkansas owned by ARI. Corbitt Manufacturing provides aluminum permanent and semi-permanent mold castings, small lot-size and/or high production machining and other services.

“Together we utilize our relationship in sharing resources to assist in keeping cost down,” Ingram said.

Even so, Southwest Steel knows the importance of diversifying its portfolio of customers in a soft market. 

Beyond ARI, Southwest Steel does business with multiple companies that are prominent in their respective industries.

When Southwest Steel tries to garner new business, it does it by showing off four things: safety, quality, timely deliveries, and cost. It provides valve bodies, thrust rings, gate valves and other products to serve a variety of customers.

Southwest Steel also has diversified by partnering with a Chinese metalcaster for over 15 years, providing more offerings and options.

“We manufacture castings for ARI, but not as much as one would think,” Ingram said. “Our largest industry served is the oil and gas industry.  We are growing into other markets such as construction, heavy trucks, nuclear and military.
“We are not a captive foundry.”

Diversifying Leads to Challenges
One client might need something one way with one set of specs and one set of requirements, while another client might need an item completed in a different way. Add in what a parent company wants and needs, and Southwest Steel has to deal with different demands on a daily basis.

To Southwest Steel, that’s simply part of life. It is a jobbing shop that does a lot of different work for a lot of different industries.

“Pretty much every job we take here is different," Ingram said. "All the requirements are different. Everything’s different about it, but we’re set up to do that.”

It’s clear that Southwest Steel has a trusted routine, and one that is continuing to work.

“We have a great team in place and from the initial sales call to the shipment of castings, our team has a very robust routine,” Ingram said. “Each purchase order received goes through contract review to determine what we must do to fulfill that specific order. It’s understanding the requirements and our planning, this is how we achieve shipping such a diversified product mix with diversified product requirements.

“Our product mix is very demanding on our scheduling and processing. It truly is the team working together, including scheduling, molding, pouring, finishing, and processing. All of our folks are setup and prepared to handle multiple types of work.”