Metalcasting Supply Chain Responds

Shannon Wetzel

The COVID-19 virus has proven to be an economic and manufacturing disruption on a global scale. Supply chains that have relied on international sources faced major delays, certain industries have halted, while others are desperate for sources to ramp up production. 

The metalcasting supply chain is feeling this disruption like all other manufacturing industries. And while the scale is global, many of the immediate relief efforts started close to home, like donating masks to local hospitals and medical offices or producing parts to reopen an area hospital. 

Making Medical Equipment

With data indicating U.S. hospitals were facing a critical shortage of ventilators to treat coronavirus patients, a domestic supply chain needed to be bolstered and ramped up quickly. U.S. manufacturers responded strongly, with many companies like Ford and General Motors shifting gears and overhauling their operations to meet the challenge. 

Foundries also responded in kind as critical early contributors to the ventilator supply chain. For example, AFS Corporate Member Pier Foundry & Pattern Shop (St. Paul, Minnesota) began casting internal parts for ventilators, MRI machines, and portable X-ray equipment. To meet the need, Pier figured it would need to make 2,500 sand molds to pour 150,000 lbs. of iron by the end of May for COVID-19-driven orders. The foundry worked with its customers to shift the schedule around in order to deliver the essential parts in a timely manner.  

AFS Corporate Member Kirsh Foundry (Beaver Dam, Wisconsin) manufactures a counterweight that sits at the bottom of a ventilator produced by GE Medical of Madison, Wisconsin. The iron part is about 18 x 4 x 2 in. and is also used in other medical equipment like incubators.

“On an average year we ship roughly 2,000 counterweights,” said Megan Kirsh. “This year we will be shipping approximately 8,000. Our customer contacted me regarding the increase in orders in mid-March. At that time, they were looking to have 2,200 pieces delivered by early June. That quickly escalated to 5,000 pieces by early July, then 8,000 pieces by August. The forecasts and orders were changing on an almost daily basis.”

Kirsh Foundry has produced about 5,000 counterweights since March using overtime labor to create capacity in the mold and finishing departments, while optimizing throughput time at certain points in the process, according to Megan Kirsh. 

“These steps allowed us enough room to juggle our load vs. capacity on that production line, and protect on-time delivery for our other customers,” she said. 

The counterweights also require both machining and paint operations, so Kirsh Foundry has been working closely with those outside suppliers to decrease their lead times and deliver parts to the end customer faster. 

Another foundry responded to the urgent need for more respirators. AFS Corporate Member Baker Manufacturing (Evansville, Wisconsin) rushed two orders to make cast iron parts that are installed on the presses that make them. 

“Our story starts with a customer sending us an urgent email stating that they had an order for ‘castings that go into presses that are used to assemble respirators,’” said Jennifer Wilger, purchasing manager, Baker Manufacturing. “They simply requested them ASAP.  We’ve now ran two different castings with this application. They are castings that we had made in the past, but with little frequency.”
The first order was placed March 25, with another order for a different casting coming in on March 26. Baker Manufacturing cast, ground, blasted and inspected the orders in two business days. A third order for the same casting as the first order came in on April 16.

“The minute that our plant manager was informed of the requests, he maneuvered our production schedule to mold them the next business day,” Wilger said. “We sent out an alert to all of our foundry supervisors, who then communicated these special orders to their teams. Everyone here at Baker takes great pride in our small contribution to keeping America healthy.”  

The companies that have been called on to produce these needed parts quickly face another challenge: making more with fewer workers. As employees are forced to stay home with their kids or because they are ill, businesses are finding ways to be flexible, such as staggering shifts and breaks. 
AFS Corporate member Smith & Richardson (Geneva, Illinois), which makes tooling pieces for the casting industry, as well as performs casting machining, also produced parts for ventilator valves. As orders for the valves ramped up Smith & Richardson shifted its production to begin making the ventilator parts in two shifts and on Saturdays. It also instituted daily temperature checks and a daily questionnaire asking if the employee or a family member were experiencing any of the coronavirus symptoms.

The company was first contacted March 17 by both of its existing ventilator customers asking for an urgent increase in orders with expedited delivery. The lead time on Smith & Richardson’s equipment was about six weeks at the time. The ventilator parts also require outside secondary services, so Smith & Richards had to make sure those services were available and its supply chain was going to be robust.  

Typically, the company produces about 2,000 parts per year for ventilator equipment. As of May 20, it had produced 72,000.

Innovative Solutions

COVID-19 has pressed individuals and businesses to be creative and collaborative in how to fight the epidemic. AFS Corporate Member Refcotec, which typically produces paints, glues and coatings for foundries, was “uniquely positioned to assist with the COVID-19 response …with access to the required ram materials, as well as the necessary blending and bottling capabilities” to make hand sanitizer, according to a company press release.

The shift in production was made in response to shortages that left first-responders and members of the community without this safety necessity.

Refoctec’s R&D team worked quickly to develop a formula with the materials it had access to, following FDA guidelines. The product is FDA, CFC, HHS, and WHO compliant.

Other metalcasting businesses have been putting their 3D printers to work. While typically the printers are used in foundries to help with pattern making, metalcasters are now using them to print open-sourced face shield designs. Pier Foundry has been focusing its face shield efforts on supplying its local St. Paul medical community. 3D printing equipment to help make parts for face shields used by the St. Paul area medical community.

AFS Corporate Member Washburn Iron Works (Washburn, Wisconsin) and Waupaca Foundry (Waupaca, Wisconsin) are doing the same for their area health providers, teaming up with other local manufacturers to produce hundreds of face shields.

In Kohler, Wisconsin, foundry workers at AFS Corporate Member Kohler Co. are facing more downtime than normal due to pandemic-caused softening of orders. So instead they are producing approximately 1,000 “Badger Shield” face masks a day in partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Makerspace.

Helping Increase Available Hospital Beds

One of the largest concerns surrounding the coronavirus epidemic has been the potential shortages of hospital beds that would put other patients in danger. Federal, state, and local agencies have stepped into action to provide makeshift, temporary medical spaces to handle any influxes, and foundries helped launch these efforts in their own ways.

Earlier this spring, AFS Corporate Member Ashland Foundry (Ashland, Pennsylvania) received a call from a customer who needed two impellers to make pump repairs for the USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy. The request was urgent because these ships had a mission to fulfill—both are hospital ships for the U.S. Navy—and they were called on to provide emergency onsite care for Los Angeles and New York City. 

Ashland Foundry cast, machined, balanced, quality checked and shipped the parts within five business days.

In Illinois, a new fire suppression system was needed at a closed suburban Chicago hospital before it could reopen to support COVID-19 relief efforts. AFS Corporate Member Pentair (North Aurora, Illinois) responded quickly to deliver and manufacture a new water pump.

As the world continues to battle the coronavirus and then recover from the economic disruption, the capabilities, challenges, and needs of the supply chain will evolve. The American Foundry Society has a webpage dedicated to providing resources to its members and the industry at      

Click here to view in the June 2020 digital edition.