Different Strategies, Same Goals

Brian Sandalow, Associate Editor

Whether it’s week-long shutdowns or intermittent breaks, metalcasters are using planned maintenance to keep their facilities and equipment working properly.

Just by the nature of what they do, metalcasting facilities are not easy places to maintain. They deal with tons of molten metal and use complicated equipment to form crucial and dependable components.

Keeping it humming takes work and planning. Metalcasters might not all share the same strategies, but they have the same goal: keep their plant running as safely and smoothly as possible.

Blackhawk de Mexico (Santa Catarina, Nuevo Leon, Mexico)
Rodrigo Calderon, the plant manager for AFS Corporate Member Blackhawk de Mexico, did not mince words when asked about the importance of scheduled-maintenance shutdowns.

“It’s completely crucial,” he said. “It’s a very good time to make sure everything is working properly.”

Blackhawk is a gray and ductile iron foundry, and one of its biggest priorities is the energy it uses for melting. The transformers and the rest of the equipment that makes melting possible doesn’t need to be in good shape. Calderon said it needs to be in “perfect” condition. The downtime with scheduled shutdowns makes that possible.

“It’s also a safety issue,” Calderon said. “You can have a really big issue with safety, like a fire or other hazards.”

Blackhawk usually has two shutdowns per year. The first is in the middle of the year, which lasts for only a few days and is not for full maintenance. Instead, it is a review of the plant and its needs, and includes predictive maintenance for the transformers and energy stations.

The second shutdown comes in December and can last as long as 10 days, depending on how much work is needed. Sometimes, that means installing new equipment or replacing old machines, and work on the transformers.

“Normally, we use an external company for the maintenance of the transformers,” Calderon said. “For all the energy supply equipment, we use an expert. They have all the equipment, all the measuring devices and thermographic cameras with better resolution.”

Plans for this shutdown start in October with meetings every 10 days, and in November the meetings become weekly and involve production staff, maintenance and the plant’s management. At times, Calderon said, it’s important to involve the purchasing department if outside contractors or suppliers need to perform the maintenance. As he said, it’s better to know too early than too late that something is needed.

“Because you are going to shut down the power, you have to empty all the furnaces due the cooling system,” Calderon said. “You have to empty all the furnaces, empty the holding furnace, which is a 60-ton furnace. Normally, we use that time to make the inductor change to the holding furnace. That is the importance of the December shutdown.”

Bhawk 3
Blackhawk’s December shutdown is used for major projects and installations.

Planning is key.

“Make sure you see all the details, because once people are outside the plant, to bring extra people in or to bring people back from vacation is going to be difficult,” Calderon said. “You need to plan it as early as possible.”

The December shutdown is used by Blackhawk for major projects. Last year, the company installed robotic cells for the grinding area. Every project has a timeline, and Blackhawk uses software so everybody can access a timeline on mobile devices. There is a project manager who follows the different activities during different days, and there are more meetings between Calderon and other managers for progress reports.

“Sometimes, you have a little bit of a delay,” Calderon said. “But if you follow the plans with discipline, you will get results. Make sure that everyone that needs to be involved is involved.”

As Calderon alluded to, the planning for a scheduled-maintenance shutdown is not a light issue. It requires time, calculations and a coordinated effort between all departments. One key is to make sure the foundry’s customers are still being served, and Calderon said Blackhawk takes that into consideration.

For Blackhawk, those customers might be undergoing their own planned maintenance.

“Normally, our customers also have a shutdown. Some of them have shutdowns twice a year if they are in construction or agriculture. They have a one-week shutdown in the summer, and a two-week shutdown in December around Christmas,” he said. “We have monthly meetings with them to hear their scheduling and production forecasts. We plan the shutdowns together in December.

“We use the same time they are going to be stopping. Sometimes we need a couple days more. We plan to make sure they have enough castings to get their work done.”

As for the foundry workers who might not be directly involved in the maintenance shutdowns, Calderon said the company tries to give them breaks “as much as possible.” However, if an area needs new equipment, the workers need to be familiar with the change and be ready to produce when the shutdown is complete, usually around the first week of January.

“It depends on the area. If the finishing area is involved, you want to bring the team leaders back a couple days before to make sure everything is going to work normally,” Calderon said. “You have to make sure the equipment is going to work properly.”

Aarrowcast (Shawano, Wisconsin)
A producer of more than 50,000 tons of gray and ductile iron castings annually, AFS Corporate Member Aarrowcast does not carry out long planned-maintenance shutdowns. Instead, they are performed in shorter group blocks that are staggered over long weekends.

“We’ve learned that if we don’t do that maintenance shutdown, and do these timely preventive maintenance and predictive maintenance activities and repairs, we will pay for it in the long run with excess downtime,” Aarrowcast president and COO Randy Brull said.

Aarrowcast has a detailed preventive maintenance system, predictive maintenance system, and work-order system. The predictive and preventive maintenance is generally performed in normal down times during the week or every day. And when the shutdowns occur—usually once per quarter—the focus is most likely equipment.

Aarrow 1
Aarrowcast, which specializes in large-cored iron castings, performs scheduled maintenance in shorter group blocks that are staggered over long weekends.

“It’s really fixing it before it’s broken,” Brull said. “It’s an attempt to fix just before it breaks. During our maintenance shutdowns, we’ll spend time repairing things we know are worn, but also things we have predicted that will fail in the near future.”

As far as timing, Aarrowcast tries to do as much of the work as it can around holiday weekends because they will already be down.

But that isn’t the case all the time.

“In some cases, it is planned just on periodic need,” Brull said.

Maintenance is a big job, and Aarrowcast does use outside services to help. They do it for a pair of reasons.

“We have our normal maintenance crew we are supporting, and in a shutdown we are trying to get so much work done, we bring outside people in to help and just to support them. We’re trying to maximize the amount of work done in that shutdown period,” he said.

“And in some cases, it’s just a technical skillset that we may not have. It may be something specific to a piece of equipment that the manufacturer would have that we don’t have. We may not have the technical skills to do everything.”

Clearly, Aarrowcast has plenty of skills and is experienced planning their maintenance. If the shutdowns occur during non-holiday periods, they will inform customers and make sure they have enough castings to fill needs.

In general, a successful maintenance schedule comes back to planning.

“There’s an extensive maintenance plan that says, here’s what work has to be done, here’s what we can do during that time period and the maintenance team holds that responsibility to make sure they are doing the right things to be most effective,” Brull said. “They are evaluating downtime records, they are evaluating predictive maintenance reports. They are just looking for noise vibration and planning what they have to do based around those results.

“It becomes a challenge because there is quite a bit of planning that has to be done and coordination because you have many people with many different activities taking place in a short period of time,” Brull said. “It’s critical that the plan is established, that the parts needed are staged and ready to go, and there is a solid plan.”  

Click here to see this story as it appears in the August 2019 issue of Modern Casting.