General Foundry Service Sells Value

Shannon Wetzel, Managing Editor

AFS Corporate Member General Foundry Service Corp. (San Leandro, California) operates green sand, nobake sand, permanent mold and rubber plaster mold lines, but it is selling finished parts to its customers, not processes.

“Customers don’t care how things are made, they just want the end product,” said Edward Ritelli, president of General Foundry Service. “Our foundry focuses on the processes, but customers focus on the part. They just want an end-shape. Which is why we have such an extensive machine shop.”

In the 65,000 sq.ft. building that General Foundry Service designed, built and moved into in 2009, the company runs a variety of casting processes, along with secondary operations like machining, in order to provide complete parts to its customers for their gamut of needs.

“Our target customer is someone making high-value capital equipment needing three to 10 castings per instrument,” Ritelli said.

General Foundry Service likes to be the provider for all the castings needed in the equipment, but each part has different requirements that make it more cost effective in different processes. For instance, General Foundry Service will supply sand castings for the thicker-walled base castings of an instrument, plaster molded castings for the thinner-walled cosmetic pieces and permanent mold castings for internal parts and higher volumes.

“Typically, our customer can’t ship if we don’t ship, and most of them don’t carry a lot of inventory,” Ritelli said.

Located near Silicon Valley, General Foundry Service is surrounded by entrepreneurs with creative ideas they want to bring to market quickly. For many of them, General Foundry Service has positioned itself to be the answer by making itself flexible and a turnkey solution provider.

Customized Solutions
General Foundry Service, which was started in 1946, was landlocked with 25,000 sq.ft. of building space when it made the move to build the new plant at its current location. The additional space and opportunity to start from scratch has enabled it to improve productivity and workfloor—helpful in a place with multiple casting processes to juggle.

The modern building, newly installed LED lights, and enthusiastic tour guide John Ritelli, business developer for General Foundry, leave an effective impression on customers. He is the third generation in the family to help run the business, following the legacy of his late grandfather who started the foundry and served as an AFS National Board Member in the 1990s.

“The tour starts the conversation,” John Ritelli said. “They see the geometries we produce here, and their creative juices start to flow. They realize what we can offer.”

Ed Ritelli said the key to their business is to find out what the customer needs and fill that need. But the solution has to make sense for General Foundry Service, too.

“Our core competency is melting metal and pouring into a useful shape and we are going to stick with that,” he said. “Being in California, we also look at the environmental parameters.”

Edward Ritelli said General Foundry Service waited to add nobake sand casting until the 90s, when environmentally benign binders were readily available. It maintains tight control over both its nobake and precision sand (a version of green sand) processes because of the stricter standards within the state of California.

It beneficially recycles the sand, along with its plaster from the rubber plaster mold process.

“We use fine-grained olivine sand to achieve the 125 RMS surface finish,” John Ritelli said. “We use a closed loop sand system, and we want our molds to have the best sand right up against the tool.”

The casting surface finish is important for the types of markets the foundry serves, which includes medical equipment, homeland security, telecommunications, semiconductor, bio tech, and other emerging industries.

“Our castings are on million-dollar pieces of equipment,” said Keith Krook, business development manager, General Foundry Service. “We don’t leave our customers high and dry because their experience is our best marketing.”

Once a client is in the door, General Foundry Service can work with its engineers on determining the most cost-appropriate process. Typically, the sand process is used for bulkier parts such as machinery bases. The permanent mold process is used to produce parts like skateboard trucks (the piece that attaches the wheels to the skateboard) and dental chair instruments. Meanwhile the plaster process is often a choice to ask as a bridge from prototype to production.

“Choosing a process is part of a dialog with the customer,” Krook said. “We can look at a more broad overview and use the best process rather than just the one we happen to offer. Our friends are the engineers—they run a lot of startups and are the decision makers. We are already saving them money going to casting, and we can take that further. We can help the engineer combine parts and produce a single, cost saving cast component

On top of the precision sand, nobake, permanent mold and rubber plaster molding, General Foundry Service is also experimenting with investment casting. As with adding the nobake line, the company is weighing its options based on customer demand and environmental impact.   

“A customer kept asking us to make a part that can only be made in investment casting, so we started looking into it,” John Ritelli said. “We want to be the foundry of the future and the investment casting market is growing.”

Currently, the business is working with solid mold investment casting. If demand for investment casting grows, the foundry will consider transitioning to shell mold investment casting.

“It has to be customer-driven and environmentally benign before we move on to the next step,” Ed Ritelli said.

With so many different processes, training is important for General Foundry Service to stay lean.

“A lot of what I spend my day on is workforce,” Edward Ritelli said. “We are a union shop and we give employees the option to be cross trained and most can fit in at least two departments. We have a smaller crew and work a lot of overtime. When we hire them, we tell them the more they can do for us, when we slow down, the more likely they will be kept around.”

General Foundry Service keeps a grid of employees and which departments they are skilled at working, so as work ebbs and flows across departments, they can be moved around.

“Lean manufacturing comes down to labor force and controlling costs,” Krook said. “Cross-training helps with that and there is a willingness among the crew to try new things. Cross-training also helps from an ergonomics standpoint.”

For successful cross training, the foundry knows the existing, skilled personnel are a great asset.

“We have developed and continue to develop good work instructions, but a lot of training is job shadowing and good management,” Ed Ritelli said. “Labor is our highest cost, so it is what we work on managing the most.”

Part of the Toolbox
As Ed Ritelli noted, General Foundry Service’s core competency is melting metal and pouring into a useful shape. Machining is part of that core competency, as well. Ninety-five percent of the castings the foundry produces are machined in-house on one of its 16 CNC machines. General Foundry Service will also manage other secondary operations like plating, painting, powder-coating, pad-printing or silk screening for its customers.

On the front end, the aluminum metalcaster has an in-house pattern shop and seasoned patternmaker aided by computer aided manufacturing patternmaking. General Foundry Service is also an early adopter of additive manufacturing.

“As far back as the 90s, we were making parts for ultrasound equipment where we used stereolithography to print patterns, and from that we made rubber tools to make plaster castings,” Ed Ritelli said. “On that ultrasound equipment we produced eight to 10 castings from the base, all the way to the transducer housing and handles. Really, that’s our perfect type of customer, and we were doing 3D manufacturing.”

Today, the metalcaster also uses 3D printed sand molds to help customers bring their products to market quickly.

“It’s part of the toolbox,” John Ritelli said. “If we need it, we will use it. We evaluate our capabilities on every job for what makes sense for the customer. We want long-term, repeat business.”

The combination of prototyping, casting, machining and secondary operations at General Foundry Service has set it up to be full-service, turnkey shop that can help a customer develop a prototype, introduce it quickly to market, provide a bridge to higher volumes and then produce at those higher volumes.

“The ownership is fiscally conservative—we know what we are good at and we work as hard as we can to capture jobs,” Krook said. “But we reinvest and are adding value to our customers’ supply chains. We are taking headaches away from the customer.”  

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