Metalcaster of the Year: Benton Foundry’s Coremaking Expansion

Shannon Wetzel

In a lush setting of 200 acres of trees, vegetation, and streams, Benton Foundry operates in a clean, modern-yet-unobtrusive facility in the mountains of central-eastern Pennsylvania. Within its walls is a world-class foundry that showcases a commitment to smart, incremental, and consistent reinvestment. Most recently, the iron metalcaster has completed one of the largest expansions in its history, which involved 70,000 sq. ft. of new and renovated space to improve and enhance its coremaking capabilities. Finished in the fall of 2022, the expansion increased capacity, improved process control, enhanced efficiency, and added 50 new jobs. For this accomplishment, Modern Casting has named Benton Foundry its “Metalcaster of the Year.”

The core room capital investment project is just the latest example of the modernization and growth mindset established by Fritz Hall in the 1970s and adhered to ever since. His son, Jeff Hall, Benton Foundry president since 2013, has carried on the legacy.

“My father was very motivated to turn this into a successful business, as was his father AJ Hall,” Jeff Hall said. “And the mindset was always to keep the profits in the business and to reinvest them. As a result of that mindset, they started working off five-year CapEx, cash-flow budget plans in the mid-1970s. And we continue to do that to this day. We are now in our ninth five-year plan. So, our modernization mindset has been in place for basically 45 years.”

What does nearly five decades of reinvestment look like? At Benton Foundry, it’s a compact, efficient melt deck, automation where warranted throughout, good visibility within the plant, excellent air quality, an active apprenticeship program, and production growth from 18 tons a day to 225. 

“In that time, we’ve never lost money,” said Tim Brown, Benton Foundry vice president. “And we’ve been a survivor when the foundry industry has gone from 8,000 foundries to less than 2,000.” 

How It Started

Even though Benton Foundry strategizes in five-year plan increments, Hall admits the most recent project has spanned 10 years as the metalcasting operations worked to catch up the rest of its systems to its melting department, which features two 10-metric ton Inductotherm induction furnaces with a dual track system and two 4-metric ton Inductotherm induction furnaces.

“We had more melt capacity than anything else,” Hall said. “We could pour 300 tons a day, and at that time we were probably pouring 125 tons a day. So, we looked at our supporting systems and what our footprint would need to hit 225 or 250 tons a day.  We’ve gone through several different phases since then to maintain or improve the flow.”

The first thing to address, Hall said, was to relocate the maintenance department.  In 2015, Benton Foundry relocated approximately 15,000 sq.ft. of maintenance department space to the northwest corner of the building and added functionality for engineering resources and high-density storage units.

 “The next phase in 2017 was adding another sand silo for tempering our sand system,” Hall said. “That way we had 725 tons of sand, or enough capacity to match up with that 300 tons a day on the melt side.”

Next, Benton Foundry turned its focus to the pattern shop and pattern storage. They relocated  the lab above a portion of the pattern storage area to free up floor space, while considerable work was done to upgrade the way the foundry stored and retrieved its patterns. 

“One of the objectives for pattern storage was to eliminate the manual handling of the pattern. Now everything—location, work instructions, etc.—is digitized,” Hall said. 

When a specific pattern is needed, the part number is entered into the computer system and then picked with a Crown forklift. The pattern is placed onto a day rack that travels out to the molding machine where it is picked and placed with the help of a hoist.

At the time of this expansion, Hall was aware of recent catastrophic foundry fires, so the pattern storage area was also built in a two-hour fire-rated room with fire doors and positive pressure. 

“The patterns are protected from a risk management standpoint if we are ever to have an issue,” he said. “And we decided to incorporate that same concept for our core box storage as part of our latest project.”

With between 4,000 and 5,000 part numbers, the pattern tooling is a critical asset to protect.

“Some of those tools, like water jacketed manifolds, can be $40,000 to replace,” Hall said.

Almost There

By 2019, Benton Foundry had increased the capacity of its sand system to match the melt system and made important chess moves with its maintenance and pattern storage to improve operational flow and make room for additional renovations. 

At this time, sales were at target, the foundry had the necessary labor, and the plant was running as close to full capacity as it could. The next bottlenecks requiring attention were coremaking, core assembly, and casting cleaning and grinding.

The solution launched Benton Foundry’s largest expansion to date. Not only did it entail creating a new core room and core sand system, but it also involved moving shipping, adding more space for grinding, replacing its 1970s fleet of cleaning machines, and adding more robotic grinding equipment.

In 2019, Benton Foundry’s existing core room could process around 5,000 tons of prepared core a year. The goal was to double the capacity. The renovation also added capabilities and designing for the potential use of resin systems and alternative materials as well as the possibility of using reclaimed sand for coremaking. 

In the renovated core room, the bulk products enter the south end of the facility where the sand is prepared and distributed to the coremaking machines. Important features include:

• Two new 200-ton raw sand silos plus a silo for bentonite.
• Mixer deck with 750-lb. and 300-lb. capacity OMCO mixers.
• Resin room with two 6,000-gallon capacity resin tanks.
• Weigh deck for automatically measuring the sand additives.
• Solex heating and cooling unit to control the sand temperature.
• Two 12,500 cfm MT Systems scrubbers.

In the coremaking area, Benton Foundry increased its Isocure machines from six to nine, with a provision to go to as many as 13. On the shell side, the foundry has six machines with the ability to handle 12 in the future, depending on the work mix. Benton Foundry also purchased two Laempe LL20 core machines that were featured at CastExpo 2022.

The cores are assembled, dipped, and staged closer to the molding machines for streamlined process flow. 

“Our new coreroom can produce roughly 10,000 tons of prepared core a year. And it does so in a way that has given us much tighter process capability and much better flexibility in terms of the recipes and the types of sand and types of additives that we can run,” Hall said. “It also allows us to bring all materials in by bulk. So, there’s a freight savings. And it’s a significant improvement in terms of working conditions and environment. The entire facility is now positive pressure.”

As part of the addition to the south side of Benton Foundry, four new loading docks were built at the new shipping location. The old shipping area was repurposed for automatic grinding. Six Vulcan Foxall robotic grinders were relocated there, and two additional automatic grinders were purchased and installed. Benton Foundry also switched its abrasives for its robotic grinding cells to the 100% diamond-coated super abrasives offered by Engis Corp. 

The manual grinding area, although it accounts for a much smaller percentage of work, was also updated.  

“About 75% of all of the products we ship are ground robotically,” Hall said. “We are trying to get that up to about 80%, and we have the provision that we can add additional robotic cells in this area.”

Finishing off this most recent CapEx project, Benton Foundry replaced its old Wheelabrator cleaning machines with two 34 cu.ft. tumble blast units from Blast Cleaning Technologies, along with a 21-cu.ft. barrel drum and monorail system. These were also featured at the Cast Expo in 2022.

Environmental Stewardship

Benton Foundry’s expansion was built on the south of the building in order to achieve a transportation model of material flow. 

“The fewer times you have to move things, the better off you are.  We wanted to take the opportunity to straighten out our systems,” Brown said. “We located the sand silos, the resin tanks, and the bentonite tanks to the south. Then we prepare the sand, make the cores, and do the ancillary operations of coating and assembling them. Then we stage the cores right in front of the molding line, so it’s basically a loop.”

The plan had a hurdle, however. South of the iron foundry are wetlands and by taking it away to put in a new driveway, Benton Foundry had to recreate the wetland acreage several times over. 
“We had to go through the Corps of Engineers, different Pennsylvania DEP departments, as well as the county. And that process took about four years to get everybody on board and get the approval,” Brown said. 

Benton Foundry created two new wetlands areas in its vicinity and fenced them in to protect them from deer. According to Brown, the wetlands are meant to filter rain runoff to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Benton Foundry also added a riparian buffer to keep sediment out of the water. 

The wetlands removed by the driveway were not 100% healthy. They were full of diseased hemlock, insect infected ash, and invasive plant species. The $500,000 environmental expansion included:

• 1.6 acres of engineered wetlands (2.5 times what was removed).
• Plantings of over 1,200 native trees and shrubs.
• 0.71-acre rain garden and bioretention area to take the runoff from the main employee parking lot.
• 0.4-acre infiltration berm.
• 0.25-acre amended soil zone to mitigate some highway runoff.
• 2.7-acre vegetated swale with check dams and water quality filters.

“The goal is to have less rainwater flow into the Chesapeake Bay during surge events,” Brown said. “The system that is underneath the blacktop is an elaborate system to slow the water and let the sediment fall out before reaching the stream. It is pretty ornate.”

Benton also was awarded the 2022 Green Foundry “Sustainability & Stakeholder Engagement” Award for some of these initiatives.

Finding Funding Support

With 45 years of incremental capital expenditures under its belt, Benton Foundry has become successful in winning state funding to help support many of its projects. For example, the foundry received a $70,000 grant from the state of Pennsylvania to redesign its core assembly area with the help of a student from Penn State Behrend who worked two summers designing the system to be 25% more productive. 

“And it’s going to be ergonomically a lot easier for people,” Brown said. “That student received tuition reimbursement toward his master’s degree in industrial engineering. So it was a win-win situation.”

Benton Foundry was also awarded a generous $3 million grant through the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) for its expansion and robotics investment. RACP is administered by the state’s Office of the Budget for the acquisition and construction of regional economic, civic, recreational, and historical improvement projects.

“Funds are available in many places that people just aren’t aware of,” Brown said. “The governor has discretionary funds each year—hundreds of millions of dollars. And then the Senate and House leadership also have input. So, you submit what program you’re doing, and then on the merits of the program, you may get an award. For the $3 million grant, our state senator, John Gordner, was our champion. And that’s the largest award ever done in Columbia County.”
The main talking points Brown uses when applying for funding is straightforward and highlights the importance the foundry has on the local economy: “We’ve been in business since the 1800s, and this project was going to add at least 25 new jobs plus maintain jobs that are paying over $20 an hour with excellent benefits.”

Benton Foundry has also been successful in winning funding through Pennsylvania’s Act 129 for energy efficiency and conservation plans. 

“As part of it, the utilities have to reduce their electrical demand,” Brown said. “Everybody has a fee on their light bill—it might be $2 a month for a residence. That goes into a fund, and then energy efficiency projects are done out of that. You have the obvious, which is LED lights. But most of that low hanging fruit has been picked, and now we are into the specialty projects.”

Act 129 projects at Benton Foundry include adding variable frequency drives on its dust collectors, which received nearly $100,000 in grants, and installing a Viking Technologies hydraulic gate crusher that breaks long, rangy gates into smaller pieces that are easier to handle and make a denser charge. The gate crusher resulted in a 40% reduction in charge time and lower kWh/ton. The PPL’s final analysis confirmed a savings of 906,281 kWh/year, and they provided in excess of a $54,000 rebate.

During the last seven years, Benton has saved over 4 million KWHs per year through Act 129 projects (Table 1).

This represents a 13.5% reduction in annual electricity consumption.

Developing Talent

Finding and earmarking funding for improvement projects is one thing, but someone has to do the actual engineering legwork. For that, Hall credits Benton’s talented team.

“A key reason for our depth of talented people ties into our apprenticeship program and scholarship endowments we have,” he said. “In our in-house apprenticeship program, employees can apply and go through a qualifying round of interviews and testing. We evaluate their goals versus what our needs are and make sure our goals are aligned. It starts out as a two-year program where they work for 20 hours and go to school for 20 hours; we pay them for 40 hours of work, and we pay all expenses. When they’re done with the two-year degree, they have to commit to staying with us for two more years. Our retention has been very, very high, and we’ve been doing this for probably 20 years.”

Benton Foundry also offers apprenticeships for four-year and master’s degrees. Through this program, the iron caster has accumulated a dozen associate-degreed staff, 20 with bachelor’s degrees, and six people with master’s degrees. 

“For an organization of our size and the iron industry, we think that’s greater than most,” Hall said. “We also have an endowment at the Pennsylvania College of Technology that helps fund that apprenticeship program. Typically, we have no less than two students going to school every semester.” 

Benton Foundry is not immune to the labor challenges many industries are facing today. But through career opportunities and maintaining a positive working environment, Brown said they are making inroads. 

“The automation we are doing is part of that,” Hall added. “So is the improved lighting, housekeeping, and ventilation. It allows us to migrate from the traditional young, male workforce to a much larger pool of people, recruiting men and women of varying ages.  Women are the greatest untapped resource in the foundry industry.”

Business Ahead 

Construction of the 70,000-sq-ft. renovation was completed in summer of 2022, and the new departments are up and running, but work is still underway finetuning equipment and process flow. Benton Foundry is also currently strategizing for the next five-year plan due to launch in 2025. 

In the meantime, the foundry is busy fulfilling orders for its diverse range of customers who are eager to help fill the growing capacity. No single customer represents more than 10% of sales and no industry represents more than 20%. 
“Some of our customers are very happy that we’re expanding, so they can get a larger allocation of the tonnage because it’s more intricate castings that not every foundry can make,” Brown said. 

With demand for domestically sourced, complex iron castings remaining high, you could say that Benton Foundry has been preparing to take advantage of market opportunities since Fritz Halls’ first five-year capital expenditure plan in 1975. 

“When we do capital expenditure projects, we’re not focusing on where we’re at, but the future,” Hall said. “We have a lot of flexibility in design, but it’s also easily scalable. The infrastructure is in place, so we can just add a machine when and where needed so we keep the flow of the plant that we want. And that’s how we’ve historically done it.”

Click here to view the column in the June 2023 Modern Casting digital edition.