Case Studies in Foundry 4.0

Katelyn Stanek

It’s been called the next stage of the industrial revolution—“Industry 4.0,” or, for metalcasters, “Foundry 4.0.” Using data analysis, connectivity, automation and more, metalcasting facilities are growing smarter and smarter. But what is “4.0” technology, and how are foundries implementing it? Below are three examples of ways metalcasters and their suppliers are integrating these new opportunities into their processes.

Robotics and Automation

When AFS Corporate Member Waupaca Foundry (Waupaca, Wisconsin) opened a new machine shop about a year ago to finish castings for the heavy-duty truck market, it did so with one eye on the future—and one on its present.

“This facility is representative of everything we’re doing in regard to automation,” said Sara Timm, Waupaca’s marketing and communications manager. “But the machining facility is very progressive.”

Across Waupaca’s seven foundries and two machining facilities are approximately 135 robots helping to create the company’s gray, ductile, austempered ductile, and compacted graphite iron castings.

“We use robotics and automation in every department, pretty much, from the core room to the mill room to packaging,” said Jarrod Osborn, vice president of manufacturing and engineering at Waupaca. “What we’ve experienced with automation is movement away from repetitive roles in the foundry, as well as better ergonomics and safety, and making it a more desirable job.”

In the new machining facility at its headquarters in Wisconsin, a robot unloads raw castings and places them on a conveyer, while automated guided vehicles transfer parts to machining cells, where CNC lathes produce tight-tolerance components. Even stacking parts onto pallets is automated. This is representative of the Foundry 4.0 movement transforming metalcasting plants across the world.

“Foundry 4.0, in my vision, is a totally interconnected workspace where the equipment and the machines are connected and making decisions based on data rather than having human interaction,” Osborn said. “The machining cells are the decision-makers. They request parts and tell it when the parts are complete.”

At Waupaca’s machining facility, human input comes mainly in the form of quality control and machine-tending. Of course, automation doesn’t mean a lack of employees—the facility has about 15 workers on staff. But employees use different skills than they otherwise would have. This has led to an overall shift in Waupaca’s workforce. 

“It’s changing the nature of the jobs that we have here today,” Timm said. “Jobs are becoming more skilled, less repetitive, less physically demanding. We’re increasing those jobs and those wages.”

As robotics and automation complement the workforce, they attract a new kind of employee, according to Osborn. They also reveal a different side of foundry work.

“We develop the automation and robotics internally, so we have a good group of technical people,” Osborn said. “By having that set of tasks or jobs, it entices the younger crowds. Many people don’t look at the foundry as a high-tech workplace, but once they see what technology we have and the direction we’re heading, it sheds a new light on opportunities.”

Machine Learning

Metalcasters know a problem when they see one—defects, failures, or other issues. But those problems are relatively rare. How much do they know about their successful castings?

“You’re making 96% or 97% good parts, but you don’t look at them because you’re focused on when there’s a problem,” said Adam Kopper, engineering program manager at AFS Corporate Member Mercury Marine (Fond du Lac, Wisconsin). “Are we knowledgeable on when things are good? Are we using that data to our advantage to help us identify when things are not good? I felt like the answer was no.”

This realization is part of what spurred Kopper, a PhD candidate in materials science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, to dive headlong into machine learning, a subset of artificial intelligence that uses data analysis to allow computers to identify patterns and make decisions.

With machine learning, Kopper said, foundries could identify potential problems before they arise by recognizing slight anomalies in, say, temperature, that might otherwise be ignored. This is one of nearly countless opportunities—some of them already in action, others mainly theoretical—that manufacturers will take advantage of as machine learning grows.

“All the equipment talking to each other, engineers or analysts being able to get at that data--the key thing is you’re making data-driven decisions,” Kopper said. “How do we capture that knowledge and ultimately have the machine make those decisions? That’s the long view.”

In a metalcasting facility, machine learning could involve many things—monitoring pressure in real time to look for unexpected deviations, or watching a machine’s amp draw to anticipate equipment failure. The latter is becoming commonplace, Kopper said.

“What manufacturers are doing now is moving from preventative maintenance to predictive maintenance, which is putting monitors, flow sensors, amp meters, whatever you can measure, on that machine, so you know what it looks like when it’s running well,” he said.

Ultimately, although machine learning is about looking toward the future, some of it can be used to preserve today’s knowledge and put it to use.

“I think a key issue in our industry, and in a lot of manufacturing, is that we’re losing expertise,” Kopper said. Machine learning addresses that, he continued, by asking, “How do we capture that knowledge? How do we turn tribal knowledge into data? What data describes that tribal knowledge?”

Augmented Reality

Augmented reality might seem like something you’re more likely to find in a Silicon Valley startup than in a metalcasting plant, but for AFS Corporate Member LAEMPE REICH, using augmented reality in foundries makes perfect sense.

The Trussville, Alabama-based manufacturer of core machines has offered augmented reality service subscriptions to its customers for about a year, lending remote maintenance help to staff at foundries all over the world. Augmented reality allows a computer-generated image to be superimposed over a person’s real-world vision with the aid of glasses or other viewing devices, combining those images into a cohesive view.

“Fundamentally, it’s a rock-star pair of safety glasses on steroids with a computer stuck inside of it,” LAEMPE REICH co-owner Peter Reich said. “But it’s not about the lens. It’s who’s behind the lens. It’s our technicians empowering you to fix your machine.”

Foundry workers wear the augmented reality lenses to transmit real-time video of what they’re seeing to a technician at LAEMPE REICH, who gives step-by-step instructions on how to repair the core machine or perform preventative maintenance. But augmented reality technology means this goes far beyond a typical call to a help desk. As the technician speaks instructions into an accompanying headset, he or she also superimposes images directly into the foundry worker’s line of sight—anything from diagrams to hand-drawn arrows pointing to the exact spot maintenance should be performed. The worker wearing the glasses can manipulate those windows with the swipe of a hand.

“It’s about working together towards a common goal, and the device allows us to do that,” said John Letts, who works in sales for LAEMPE REICH. “They’ve got a crescent wrench, they’ve got a multimeter, and now we want them to have a LAEMPEar device.”

When workers use augmented reality for the first time, “There’s kind of a big grin, like, ‘Man, this is cool!’” Letts said.  But one of the company’s goals is to normalize the use of this type of technology in foundries.

The services offered through augmented reality are the same things the company provides during a regular onsite visit, but the new technology allows it to give assistance without travel time and expenses, among other benefits. Letts said augmented reality connectivity has another kind of upside, too—workers remember more, and as a result, they gain confidence in their own abilities to fix and maintain the machines. 

“Augmented reality allows you to work in your immediate environment, and when you work together using these intuitive tools, the knowledge is retained.  So, the foundry personnel is empowered and a need for training is satisfied, all of which can lead to higher retention for the foundry,” Letts said. “And when our industry adapts new technologies and new tools, there is an opportunity to attract a new generation of skilled labor. That’s a win.”

Although augmented reality is an emerging technology, Reich said it shouldn’t intimidate workers who don’t have high-tech skills – just the opposite. In a world where machinery is growing increasingly complex, a pair of AR glasses can open up a lot of possibilities, he said.

“We got an experienced guy at the foundry who has all the skills he’s needed for a generation to repair and operate machinery, but in most cases, he gets left behind when a new machine with new features lands in his plant. Rather than embrace that, sometimes fear and defeat enter,” Reich said. “[Augmented reality] changes that. Rather than have our technician doing the repair, this empowers him to address the issue with us virtually looking over his shoulder, many times inputting better documentation and focused coaching than if we’re there.”      

Click here to see the story in the April 2020 Modern Casting digital edition.