Incremental Improvements, Lasting Results

Shannon Wetzel, Managing Editor

At AFS Corporate Member AB&I Foundry (Oakland, California), the walls do talk. The exterior of the McWane company’s plant, stretching across nearly an entire block, memorializes the history and people who worked there in a vast, colorful mural. The founder’s face and other past leaders’ faces are there, but so are the faces of machine operators, maintenance crew, and HR staff. One of the final panels depicts a large hole blasted through the wall to show a painting of the operations inside.

AB&I general manager Michael Lowe said it symbolized the company’s decision to open up more to the surrounding neighborhood.    

“To run a foundry in this modern era, you have to be open to the community, and create a community for your vendors, customers, and each and every team member,” Lowe said.

AB&I Foundry was started in a backyard in 1906 and moved to its current location in 1940. Twenty-four years later, the Oakland Coliseum was built less than a mile away. As the years passed, the region became more urbanized around the soil pipe and fittings foundry. All the more reason to beautify the outside and keep a step ahead of environmental, health and safety regulations.

“The previous manager was always about putting in the best and latest technology available. Long before it was required, we were putting in baghouses and other environmental controls,” Lowe said. “Long before it was common, he implemented profit sharing, treating employees as team members and creating a culture of owners.”

As the pipemaking market consolidated and lost market share to plastic pipe, AB&I stuck around. The principles the foundry clung to during the consolidation make up the foundation for its continued success.

“The best decisions are the ones made on the floor and the person closest to the machine usually has greater insight than the person in the executive office,” Lowe said. “It’s about empowering people to make improvements and innovate. Though we were not the biggest, we survived and thrived.”

Team Member Focused
AB&I doesn’t have employees, it has team members. Lowe emphasized how important it is for the business to trust in and rely on workers from all areas of the foundry to innovate.

“We share all information, including financial in monthly meetings where we talk about what’s going on. When there is an issue that needs to be addressed, we try to put people together who are closest to that and ask them to come up with a solution,” said Lowe, who was first hired in human resources at AB&I. “There are no time clocks here. It’s operated under trust and respect. I do one-on-ones with every team member. They understand the better the company does, the better they do.

“Better, faster, cheaper, safer,” Lowe continued.

The result of this mantra and empowerment of individuals has been continuous incremental improvements that have helped AB&I shave hours in processes, decrease costs, and improve casting quality, one experiment at a time.

“Take the pipe machines—the pipe superintendent is not technically an engineer, but he is playing with how we spray the slurry in the pipe molds to reduce the curing time,” Lowe said. “They are always seeing if there is a way to shave a half-second off here or three seconds off there. It’s in our DNA that he and his team show up saying, ‘how can this be a little faster?’ It’s all these little tweaks and innovative ideas and you do it over 10 years and end up shaving off a lot of time while preserving the quality and end product.”

AB&I holds frequent team building events and celebrations for accomplishments and record-breakers. Everyone, from machine operators to office staff, are encouraged to voice their ideas for improvement.

“Most of the ideas come from the operators—they are the ones sitting there watching the machine and how it is working,” said Dave Robinson, VP of plant operations. “The slurry for the pipe is just one of many innovations to try to reduce cycle times. Ten years ago our cycle times were 63 seconds and now they are 50 seconds. Shaving 13 seconds off a cycle when you are doing 600 cycles a day per machine and there are five machines running—it adds up.”

Historically, recruitment at AB&I has been through word of mouth, with many of the skilled positions filled from within through “home grown” team members. With little manufacturing in the Bay Area and a low unemployment rate, AB&I is adapting by providing an internal mechanical and electrical training program to teach those who have shown an aptitude for it and are already within the organization.

“Not everyone likes this type of work, but if they stay for a couple of years, they’ll stay for life,” Robinson said. “We all feel empowered and like we are making a difference. Our product hasn’t really changed—cast iron pipe has been around for more than 200 years—but it is made differently. Every day, every year we are thinking of ways to do things differently.

A comprehensive soft skills program has been launched for team leads, supervisors and managers. And the company occasionally brings in professors and outside instructors to augment training. The average tenure at AB&I is 19 years.

“We pay well, and we treat people well,” Lowe said. “We don’t have any secret sauce other than we have a good reputation.”

In the last year, AB&I has doubled down on that reputation by making a concerted effort to reach out to the community more than ever.

“We are trying to be completely transparent with the community and our neighbors,” Robinson said. “We are attending meetings and participating in programs and events—we’re not just focused on what goes on in our four walls.”

But as much as AB&I strives to be a good corporate citizen and employer, the bottom line is still the driving force that enables the foundry to provide well-paying jobs and maintain strong relationships with its customers.

“I work under the theory that low-cost wins,” Lowe said. “If you can manufacture it for less than your competitors, then you have a leg up. By getting all those little incremental improvements, you are driving down those manufacturing costs.”

Beyond incremental improvements, AB&I has also invested recently in installing a new nobake line for making larger fittings and some custom OEM parts. But most of the investment has been on the environmental side. The foundry extended its typical two-week summer shutdown to four this year to implement controls to reduce silica exposure and comply with the new OSHA silica standard. During this time, the foundry made changes to the sand muller system, implemented a push and pull ventilation system in the grinding area and added engineered controls to the main source, which was the automatic green sand molding machine. It also rebricked the foundry’s holding furnace.

“Corporate expects us to be in full compliance,” Lowe said. “So out of our major projects right now, most of them have to do with environment and safety.”

The Plumbing World
Although AB&I does some custom jobbing work, most of its production and revenue is in plumbing. Its pipe goes mostly into commercial buildings like stadiums, high rises, hospitals, schools and multi-family units. With the West Coast market expanding, the foundry is seeing an increase in volume from multi-family and high-rise units.

With so much product dedicated to one market, Lowe said he considers himself to be more in the plumbing then metalcasting industry—although he acknowledges the influence of both. AB&I’s direct customers are pipe distributors, who sell to contractors, making them indirect customers.

“The first thing installed in a large building is a soil pipe. It carries an emotional and strategic importance beyond its value,” Lowe said.

AB&I and McWane have started to create a corporate strategy of building this loyalty in contractors for their brand of pipe.

“We are taking all of the technical brains of product codes and standards and asking how we can influence or at least have a voice with those purchasers,” Lowe said. “To build a building, you have an architect, general and mechanical contractors, and a plumbing engineer, who designs the system and specifies the pipe. We want to have a voice to explain why it is important to specify cast iron pipe. Yes, the distributor is our customer, but we spend a ton of time with the engineer, inspectors and contractors. We’re trying to create markets.”

With the Oakland Raiders moving to Las Vegas and the Golden State Warriors building a new arena in San Francisco, the future of neighboring Oakland Coliseum is shaky. As the area becomes further urbanized, Lowe imagines the space could one day be filled with hotels and restaurants—hopefully filled with AB&I pipe. His vision for the future is to enclose all of the foundry—right now many areas are open to the outside—and hire Oakland artists to further cover the exterior with murals.

“I call it the art box. Oakland has a reputation for urban murals, so I picture a business woman or man sitting in their hotel looking out across the street and just seeing some cool art. We’ll fit into the neighborhood,” Lowe said.

For someone who, at age 14, declared he wanted to be either an artist or run a small manufacturing plant, the vision dovetails nicely with the young teenager’s dreams.

“I have no idea where I got that from,” said Lowe, who comes from a family of attorneys and entrepreneurs. “But the second I showed up here, it felt like home.”  

Click here to see this story as it appears in the August 2018 issue of Modern Casting