Wisconsin Precision Invested in Growth
Are we in or out? It was a simple question that leaders at Wisconsin Precision Casting asked each other in 2020 when they saw significant market shifts happening in the investment casting industry. But the answer could have huge ramifications for the business and would require total commitment to succeed.
With two investment casting plants in East Troy and Lake Geneva and a combined 145,000 sq. ft. of space, Wisconsin Precision Casting had a couple things many other U.S. investment casters didn’t have—open capacity and a diverse portfolio of alloys poured.
So, when major players in the industry shifted focus with changing ownership or management strategies—leaving casting buyers suddenly shopping for a new casting source—Wisconsin Precision found itself in a prime position to take advantage.
“We knew taking on a significant increase was going to be a challenge financially and logistically,” said Tony Ansorge, general manager and co-owner. “We all sat around the table and discussed whether we wanted to do it. We all decided to take that chance, and it worked.”
How well did it work? In 2022, Wisconsin Precision saw a 50% increase in sales. Plus, the investment caster has become more strategic in its job selection—spreading out its customers across several industries.
“The way our customer list looked in 2022 versus 2017 is totally different,” said Tim Mathers, sales manager. “We’ve aligned ourselves correctly with the type of customer we want.”
The Road to Now
Wisconsin Precision Casting started in 1964 in a 40,000-sq.-ft. facility in East Troy. According to Mathers, the plant served the business well until 2013, when it became too busy for the space available.
“The business was jobbing out a lot of work to other investment casters as we were growing,” he said. “One of those companies was Northern Precision in Lake Geneva.”
When that 105,000-sq.-ft. facility went up for sale, Wisconsin Precision jumped at the chance to bring the capacity under its umbrella.
“It was a huge undertaking for a 40,000-sq.-ft. facility to take on so much more space, but we had a good head of steam going into it,” Mathers said.
In fact, at the time, Wisconsin Precision was Northern Precision’s biggest customer. Still, the plant had a lot of capacity to fill, and Mathers was brought on in 2016 to fill up the Lake Geneva facility.
In 2018, Wisconsin Precision took a hit when its largest customer announced it no longer needed product from the foundry—the program was shutting down and the parts were obsolete. Thirty percent of the business was gone.
“As you can imagine at the time—we had this big mouth to feed, this new facility, and our number one customer went away,” Mathers said. “We had to take a hard look at what we were doing and increase the sales and marketing effort. And really, we had to make sure we were satisfying our customers. That was a big part of our growth.”
Ready, Set, Grow
At face value, increasing a business’s sales is an obvious goal. But in 2020, the kind of growth that potentially was on the table was going to completely upend Wisconsin Precision’s status quo. The engineering team would be tasked with preparing a huge number of new jobs for launch, scheduling would have twice as many balls in the air to juggle, and leadership would need to rethink which jobs and customers to target.
“It’s been intense, and we knew that going in,” Mathers said. “We talked that there was an opportunity here for us to really grow into that next level, and engineering was on board with it. We knew it was going to be tough for the next two years [to launch a significant amount of new work], but when we came out, we would have all this business, be more profitable, and have the ability to do more things we couldn’t do in the past. We have a great engineering staff, and they responded well to the challenge.”
Of the new jobs brought into Wisconsin Precision in the last two years, Ansorge estimates about 70% supplied tooling already built. This eased some of the burden of engineering completely from scratch, but staff still had to work through the steps to launch—casting samples, completing PPAPs, etc.
“We’re always looking at the process and how to improve,” said Claude Klemowits, president and co-owner.
In one instance, a new customer brought over 144 part numbers. Tooling existed, but according to Ansorge, it was the culprit responsible for a handful of quality issues. Tooling modifications for 144 parts is a tall order for an engineering staff of six.
“We developed a process to modify and change them out of necessity,” Ansorge said. “It was too hard to keep track otherwise.”
Each new project is assigned an internal team consisting of an engineer and a customer service/in-house sales/production planner. The two-person team is joined by Mathers to help provide the customer reliable contacts for information.
“That engineer and customer service person stay with the project and know all the issues and how to communicate best with the customer,” Mathers said. “Communication and relationship are huge parts of our sustainability.”
Klemowits points out that the team relationships help smooth scheduling discussions and put someone in the customer’s corner to identify potential new needs.
“We don’t anticipate everything, but we can say ‘this doesn’t seem right,’ or ‘a new order might be due’ and reach out to them,” he said. “A few years ago, when our lead times were extremely long, we did lose a couple of jobs, but ultimately they came back because they liked that relationship.”
Wisconsin Precision uses foundry ERP software for scheduling, and one engineer is dedicated to running it. The company is careful to provide customers accurate lead times and has been mindful of maintaining a reasonable lead time while bringing on new work.
“We are careful that we are not overscheduling the system,” Klemowits said. “And in our communications with the customer we give them a realistic delivery time.”
Part of the challenge of 50% growth in one year is to set the business up so it can maintain that level of production and keep every customer satisfied with their delivered result. Wisconsin Precision became nimble in terms of investing in equipment and process improvements to meet customer demands.
Last year, the foundry in Lake Geneva replaced its batch ovens with a 40-ft.-long tunnel oven. The installation required renovating the pouring and finishing areas, and knocking out a hole through a wall to fit the large piece of equipment in the space.
“It has an added air feature so it’s pumping extra oxygen to the burn portion of the oven to help get all the wax out of the molds, which improves temperature control and scrap reduction,” Ansorge said. “From a quality perspective, it’s a huge step up.”
Seeing rising lead times for third party, value-added activities like machining, Ansorge and Klemowits also began investing in more CNC machines for the company’s machine shop. Ansorge estimates they’ve increased the amount of machining equipment by 50%.
Wisconsin Precision is also making regular investments in automation. While the company does not currently experience labor as a pinch point, it is making necessary preparations in anticipation of future needs—particularly if sales continue to grow. Even with last year’s substantial sales growth, neither plant is operating a third shift yet.
“For workforce, we are not as bad off as others—we are doing OK,” Ansorge said. “But we are continuing to try to incorporate automation to mitigate that. We do what we can—we have robotics for dipping and we have a lot of automatic grinders that require a human to operate but they are dimensionally consistent and require less training. We are also investing in wax trim presses instead of manual trimming.”
The investment caster has also become more selective with its quoting, seeking only customers that best fit their style—from process to volume to communication. Gone are the days when one customer accounts for 30% of business.
“Now, we have a really diverse portfolio both in customer names and SIC codes,” Mathers said. “We don’t have a lot of customers in the same industry. For long-term growth, we feel that diversity is important.”
Today, no customer accounts for more than 10% of sales. Industries served include dairy or food-grade equipment, pumps, security hardware, mining, construction, agriculture, recreational, and industrial equipment. Wisconsin Precision looks for high-mix, low-volume work and is drawn to customers who have small-volume orders but across a large number of programs, as well as companies that are headed toward growth spurts of their own.
“We want to align with customers we can grow with and have opportunities themselves where they are growing,” Mathers said. “It’s a great mesh for us—they have a business to grow, and we have capacity for them.”
While Ansorge is happy with the company’s achievements over the past couple of years, his hope for the future is to gain more organic growth through new designs.
“I would almost prefer not to get as many jobs with existing tools because it’s not new business for the industry—it’s just investment casting jobs sliding around,” he said. “I would prefer to see our business increase naturally, and prototyping is going to be a big part of that.”
Bringing New Customers to Investment Casting
One of the first stops on a tour of Wisconsin Precision’s Lake Geneva plant is the 3D printing room, where multiple machines are working to print patterns (and sometimes fixtures) for prototype work. This is where Mathers sees a huge potential for expanding into yet more markets.
“Almost 15% of our business is rapid prototyping, and some of that is leading to new production applications, whether directly or by gaining visibility,” Mathers said.
One of Wisconsin Precision’s engineers has dedicated a lot of time on dialing the printing process in, Ansorge said. An area of main concern with the printed patterns has been the surface finish caused by the multiple layers. The engineer has been working closely with a few printer manufacturers to find ways to fine tune the process and material to obtain the desired finish.
“The great thing about the process we use is the only prototype piece is the pattern,” Mathers said. “We treat it as a production part throughout the facility. We have several applications, especially in ag, that actually will use the prototype for field testing. The material properties from the prototype are going to be identical. That’s a huge advantage versus a straight 3D-printed metal part. We definitely see a niche for us, and we need to continue to up our game in our capabilities.”
Wisconsin Precision even pours 3D printed sand molds. The molds are delivered by the supplier straight to the pouring area, which can accommodate the sand molds alongside the investment casting trees.
“Obviously, we are very committed to prototyping,” Klemowits said. “We are always keeping eyes open for new things developing. We want to be aware of technologies that are coming out. We’ve even looked at printed metal. At this point, it didn’t seem viable for us, but we are open and looking at different things that we can do better for our customers.”
Ultimately, the core of Wisconsin Precision’s growth strategy is delivering on what they’ve promised.
“At the end of the day, customers want quality parts in a timely fashion,” Ansorge said. “When we do that, they are going to be happy.”