Blackhawk Bets Big on Nobake

The ductile and gray iron caster hopes to fill a niche by producing larger castings with a new $21 million nobake molding facility.

Nicholas Leider, Associate Editor

(Click here to see the story as it appears in April's Modern Casting.)

When Quimmco Group, Monterrey, Mexico, purchased Blackhawk de Mexico, Santa Catarina, Mexico, in 2003, the gray and ductile iron casting facility underwent a remarkable turnaround. What once was a green sand facility struggling to turn a profit producing gray iron castings for the electric motor industry grew into one of Mexico’s leading metalcasting operations, earning MODERN CASTING’s 2009 Metalcaster of the Year award.

Blackhawk’s latest transformation was temporarily delayed by the economic unrest of the last decade. Original plans for a new $21-million nobake molding line were approved in late 2008, just as the U.S. and global economy began its precipitous fall. Specializing in ductile iron castings for the heavy truck and farm equipment markets, Blackhawk was forced to table its plans while orders dried up.

“Within a month, it was put on hold,” said Blackhawk CEO Patricio Gil, of the expansion project. “By March 2009, we lost 80% of our volume. We didn’t lose customers, just volume. There was really nothing we could do.”

Blackhawk produced just 6,600 metric tons of castings in 2009, half the total from the previous year. But the metalcaster bounced back in a big way the next two years, producing 10,800 metric tons in 2010 and 15,468 metric tons in 2011, a record total. The facility’s outlook improved so quickly in those two years that Blackhawk broke ground on its new 50,000-sq.-ft. nobake molding line in February 2012, less than three years after weathering the worst economic crisis in its 13-year history.

Identifying Potential

Blackhawk produces a variety of castings between 4 to 200 lbs. (approx. 2 to 90 kg), including differential cases, carriers, slip yokes and wheel hubs for the heavy truck market and hydraulic components, flywheels, steering arms and retainers for farm applications. When Blackhawk executives began to notice potential demand for larger castings, ranging up to 700 lbs. from existing clients, the company soon realized a new market.

“We identified the niche and started digging a little bit with our agriculture and off highway customers,” Gil said. “We never paid attention to compressors, and at the end, they found us. Now, large compressors are part of this niche.”

Once Blackhawk set its sights on castings from 200 to 700 lbs. (approx. 100 to 300 kg), Gil and his team had two options: expand the current green sand operation or opt for a nobake process to handle the larger castings.

Al Alagarsamy, a metallurgist who had previously worked with Blackhawk before joining the team of experts to help with this expansion, was an advocate for a nobake line, thanks to the process’s lower tooling costs and relatively less complex sand system for heavier section castings.

“You can still make this type and size of castings in a green sand flask,” Alagarsamy said. “But costs can go up with the larger castings. The sand system can be very complex. I think Blackhawk made the right choice with nobake.”

The lower tooling cost also encourages shorter run parts, with Blackhawk aiming for orders in the low- to medium-volume range of 500-5,000 parts.

“You are able to lower the cost of patterns because you can use plastic, wood and other materials,” Gil said. “There’s less stress and lower volume, so it’s easy to justify new patterns.”

The investment associated with the potential expansion also favored the nobake option. For 12,500 metric tons per year in additional capacity, the nobake option would cost around $20 million, while an alternative plan to increase the green sand operation by 40,000 metric tons per year would have required $50 million to be competitive. When Blackhawk approached its parent company with the two proposals, Quimmco opted for the nobake option.

“We presented the two alternatives,” Gil said. “And the board came back and said, ‘OK, let’s first go with the smaller project and see where we’re at.’”

Building a Team

Blackhawk began clearing space for its expansion in late 2012 and construction began in February 2013. Plans called for the project to be completed in two stages. The initial $15 million phase included building the facility and installing the molding, melting and pouring lines. The second phase includes an expansion of the existing warehouse and installation of a thermal sand reclamation system. (Sand reclamation currently is mechanical.) These additions, with a budget of $6 million, will be completed as the nobake line approaches full production.

Blackhawk selected GEMCO, Eindhoven, Netherlands, to handle the engineering and installation of the Luino, Italy-based IMF nobake molding line with 55 x 47-in. flasks. Gil also brought in a team of outside consultants to help employee training.

“The two new technologies we are starting here [are] nobake molding and heavy section metallurgy,” Gil said. “Since we are adding these new things, we didn’t have the expertise in-house. Some of our people spent years in nobake foundries, but in general, it is a new process for us.”

Considering Caterpillar’s long history as a successful nobake metalcaster of similar components, Blackhawk brought in Jim Walkup and Bill Sullins, two retired Caterpillar engineers, to focus on mold and core production. With a combined 80 years of experience in the nobake process, the two emphasized process controls as a way to ensure the operation’s long-term success.

“We wanted to make sure they were going to go for quality,” Sullins said. “For process controls, we insisted they had tensile testers, sand conditioning equipment, an air flow meter and an infrared heat gun.”

To further ease the transition into the nobake process, Blackhawk developed a “pilot plant” that began operation in September 2013. Located alongside the green sand facility, the small plant featured a compaction table, mixer, bridge crane, pouring platform and mold manipulator, rollover and conveyors. With Blackhawk investing four months and $400,000, this operation gave engineers and hourly employees the ability to get hands-on experience in the nobake process without involving the full production line.

“They were able to hit the ground running,” Walkup said. “They got going very quickly. It allowed them the opportunity to avoid making the same mistake twice.”

The pilot plant continues to operate, with many parts starting on a smaller scale before going into full production next door. 

“They have a pretty sophisticated program when it comes to design, simulations and being able to bring jobs online,” Sullins said. “Working through the pilot program to production mode is not that difficult once everything is lined up to make castings. You’ve got the same type of mixture, the same chemicals, the same sand, so when you do your [part approvals], it’s very simple to run it over in the production area.”

Finally, when looking to secure coatings, resins and binders, Sullins and Walkup suggested a single supplier, considering the multiple variables in the nobake process.

“If you have all their products in house, you can stop a lot of bickering down the road,” Walkup said. “If you have a defect, and no one has one in the foundry that’s ever their fault, it’s hard not to take a little ownership if you’re supplying everything.”

Gil negotiated a three-year deal with ASK Chemicals, Hilden, Germany, that included necessary technical support and employee training. While cost proved important, ASK’s direct support in Mexico was another factor that led the deal.

Alagarsamy continued to work with the metallurgists, tooling managers and/or operations managers to prepare for metallurgical changes in the nobake process.

“As a foundry moves from small green sand castings to larger castings in nobake, there are differences in solidification time,” he said. “This affects nodule count and can [increase the possibility] for graphite floatation and exploded graphite. Both chemistry and inoculation need to be optimized.”

Competing for the Future

An expected 3,000 metric tons of castings will be produced in the new nobake facility in 2014, and Blackhawk anticipates the line to reach its full capacity of 12,500 metric tons within three years.  The orders are in place, though hurdles, namely product approvals, remain before production can increase.

“If we received approvals today for all the patterns we’re developing right now, we have enough jobs for two full shifts,” Gil said. “But it takes time. We already have orders for two shifts of production, but we need to go through that initial approval process.”

For the time being, Blackhawk has moved one high volume part from green sand to help the nobake line run on a more consistent basis. The transfer has the additional benefit of opening capacity in the green sand operation, which continues to operate near 85% of capacity. Also, the current expansion has led to approximately 20 new employees, with the possibility for 30 more as production increases.

While looking to fill a niche in larger castings, Blackhawk sits in a unique place as one of the only mid-sized metalcasting facilities in Mexico. While other facilities tend to be either much larger plants or smaller, family-owned shops, Blackhawk is without many competitors in Mexico. As a result, it tends to measure itself against similarly sized firms in the U.S.

While labor costs are much lower in Mexico, other costs can reduce the benefit of being south of the border. Scrap, sand and utility costs can be more expensive in Mexico. Also, because it competes directly with U.S. facilities, Gil knew he couldn’t rely solely on delivering low-cost castings dependent on less expensive labor.

“We decided to install a nobake line with automation and good equipment, because we want to be a big player that’s not relying on labor in Mexico,” Gil said. “That’s temporary. We want to be a very good foundry in terms of technology and technical support. In the end, it’s about quality.”