Fall River Foundry Packs One-Two Punch

The brass caster wanted to add a second automated pouring line but first needed to improve its sand system. Now, after a two-year, $4-million investment, the facility has revamped its sand and molding operations.

Nicholas Leider, Associate Editor

(Click here to see the story as it appears in the October issue of Modern Casting.)

There’s a time and place for on-the-fly decisions, and “going with your gut” can make for a great success story when everything works out perfectly. But when it comes to business, and the prospect of a seven-figure investment, calculated and well-researched may be the approach more likely to pay off.

Fall River Foundry, a green sand copper-base job shop in Fall River, Wis., had long considered a potential addition to its molding capabilities. The metalcasting operation ran an automated molding line that could fill large volume orders for castings anywhere from 2 to 50 lbs. The facility also had a squeeze molding line to handle small volume orders in a variety of sizes. But while interfacing with customers over the years, company executives noticed they were unable to serve a specific area of the market.

Brennen Weigel, Fall River’s president and CEO, had spent years planning an expansion to its automatic molding capabilities to handle high volume orders for so-called “trinket-sized castings,” meaning castings between 0.25-2 lbs. Fall River Foundry—the group also includes diecasting and machining operations—could run small orders on the manual molding line or larger orders on the automatic line, but a void existed between the two.

“Being a job shop, flexibility is obviously something we prioritize,” Weigel said. “We wanted to broaden our capabilities, so we could meet more of our customers’ demands. We saw a real need for this new automatic molding line.”

By 2013, 14 years after the installation of its first automatic molding, Fall River was ready to actively pursue a secondary automatic molding line after a steady period of growing sales. Fall River largely services the water meter and plumbing industries, which remained relatively stable while the housing market fluctuated in the wake of the recent global recession. Many of Fall River’s customers were seeing increasing demand because of municipalities looking to generate revenue through the use of water meters, which feature large cast brass housings.

“If a town puts in a new road, it’s not going to see any financial benefit from that,” Weigel said. “But if you expand water metering in your infrastructure, you will capture more revenue. Many of our castings are heading to these types of applications, which allowed us to have some record months when other foundries were struggling to keep the lights on.”

With interest rates relatively low, Fall River approached potential upgrades on strong financial footing, but an internal obstacle in the casting facility had to be dealt with first. The plant had roughly 80 tons of sand storage to handle both automatic and manual lines. Adding a second automatic molding operation would overly tax the sand delivery system, to the point it would need to be revamped and expanded.

“We’re a job shop so, much of the time, we don’t have the luxury of running ahead,” said John Vick, executive vice president. “We have to meet our customers’ requirements for on-time delivery. We couldn’t shut down for an extended period of time to install a completely new sand system, which made things a little trickier.”

Fall River’s maintenance superintendent Dale Schultz, though, brainstormed a way to avoid an extended shutdown that would cause significant problems in the supply chain. He realized the casting facility could continue to run near its current production level while preparing for the eventual switch to the new system.

Plans called for keeping the existing muller, screening and handling system, while upgrading the conveyor belt, two elevators, shakers and additional storage.

“We removed one squeezer to accommodate the improvements,” Vick said. “The added capacity allowed us to handle the additional demands on sand prepping and cooling. All the while, we could prepare for a faster conversion to the new system so our operations could continue virtually as-is.”

That switch to the new sand system was planned to occur over the Christmas shutdown in 2013. By doubling storage space for as much as 160 tons, Fall River was able to handle the increased capacity associated with the automatic molding line.

“When we made the switch, it was remarkably smooth,” Weigel said. “We had to fine-tune its operation and how we worked with it, but the improvement to our molding line was almost immediate.”

After the sand system was up and running, Fall River began pursuing the new automatic molding and handling equipment. In February 2014, the order was placed for a 14 x 19-in. flaskless molding machine from Equipment Merchants International (EMI), a Cleveland-based foundry equipment supplier.   

The final approved layout of the automatic molding machine was a challenging endeavor, considering the constraints of the designated area available in the Fall River facility. The equipment needed to fit under the current sand belt conveyor and over an existing sand return pit, all while working into the flow of melt and casting extraction and sand return. The mold machine operators also needed access to the molding machine on both sides for core setting. 

“The molding line was located in a tight footprint, which required no external units, such as pusher cylinders protruding out of the envelope,” said Jerry Senk, president, EMI. “This required some innovative solutions. The power unit was removed from the molding machine and combined into a single unit with the external mold line. The mold line itself needed streamlining, which included under the pallet car mold line index and brake units, as well as the end transfer units that featured rotary actuators. The melt traffic aisle way on the end of the mold line was most critical to Fall River’s plant flow.”

The total project time, including design, build and installation, was initially scheduled to meet Fall River’s requirements. Equipment supply is typically in the range of 30-32 weeks with a confirmed design, yet this project needed a custom mold handling solution, which would normally extend this timeline. The project was sped up by closely coordinated engineering efforts from Fall River and EMI. Installation time was reduced by planning all the machine’s hydraulic and pneumatic manifold locations with pre-piped locations, implementing pre-wired Harding connectors for all electrical connections, and confirming all foundation pads locations with embedded plates to eliminate the need for grouting. These efforts resulted in a quick installation and start up in less than a month after shipping.

“It was as close as you could come to plug-and-play,” Weigel said. “We’ve got a great industrial engineer that worked with EMI. We had the computer-generated drawings so we could overlay all the footprints. It was surprisingly seamless.”

Fall River’s primary operator was trained to use the new equipment alongside the provider’s technician. The expected bugs with starting up such a significant operation were worked out while the casting facility improved production speed on the new line.

Only a few existing jobs were retooled for the new line, with Fall River preferring to pursue orders from both new and existing customers. The installation of the new automatic molding line has boosted total production at Fall River’s facility by 12.5% with additional capacity available to produce more.

“We’ve seen orders from both new and existing customers,” said Scott Sitkin, sales manager. “We have a lot of existing customers who are realizing we can fill specific orders. We’re also seeing new customers approach us to quote projects we previously wouldn’t have been able to handle.” 

ncountering a scenario in which you are forced to suddenly and immediately suspend melting operations for an extended period can be a death sentence for many metalcasting facilities. Small to mid-size businesses are the backbone of the industry, but many do not survive when forced into extended downtime. One disaster-stricken metalcaster, however, found resilience through its own perseverance and a circle of support from peers, friends, suppliers, teams from installation and repair providers, an original equipment manufacturer and even competitors.
Tonkawa Foundry, a third-generation, family-owned operation in Tonkawa, Okla., was entering its 65th year of operation this year when a significant technical failure ravaged the power supply and melting furnaces on January 17. Thanks to the textbook evacuation directed by Operations Manager Carrie Haley, no one was physically harmed during the incident, but the extent of emotional and financial damage, and just how long the event would take Tonkawa offline, was unclear.
Tonkawa’s power supply and two steel-shell furnaces would have to be rebuilt. No part of the reconstruction process could begin until the insurance company approved removal of the equipment from the site. The potential loss of Tonkawa’s employees and customers to competing metalcasters seemed inevitable.
Within two days of the incident, repair, installation and equipment representatives were on site at Tonkawa to survey the damage. Once the insurance company issued approval to begin work, the installation team mobilized within 24 hours to remove the equipment and disassemble the melt deck.
Since the damaged equipment was installed in the 1980s and 1990s, Tonkawa and an equipment services and repair company quickly strategized a plan and identified ways to enhance the safety, efficiency and overall productivity of Tonkawa’s melt deck.
“The most critical issue was for our team to organize a response plan,” said Steve Otto, executive vice president for EMSCO’s New Jersey Installation Division. “We needed to arrive at Tonkawa ready to work as soon as possible and deliver quickly and thoroughly so they could get back to the business of melting and producing castings, and minimize their risk of closing.”
Several years after Tonkawa’s melt deck was originally installed, an elevation change was required to accommodate the use of a larger capacity ladle under the spout of the furnaces. Rather than raising the entire melt deck, only the area supporting the furnaces was elevated. As a result, the power supply and workstation were two steps down from the furnaces, creating a number of inconveniences and challenges that impacted overall work flow in the melt area. Additionally, the proximity of the power supply to the furnaces not only contributed to the limited workspace, but also increased the odds of the power supply facing damage.
The damage to the melt deck required it to be reconstructed. It was determined to be the ideal opportunity to raise the entire deck to the same elevation and arrange the power supply, workstation and furnaces onto one level. The furnace installation company provided the layout concepts, and with the aid of Rajesh Krishnamurthy, applications engineer, Oklahoma State Univ., Tonkawa used the concepts to generate blueprints for the new deck construction. The results yielded a modernized melt system with an even elevation, strategically placed power supply, enhanced worker safety and increased operator productivity.
“Eliminating the steps and relocating the power supply farther from the furnaces was a significant improvement to our melt deck,” Tonkawa Co-Owner Jim Salisbury said.
Within four days of insurance company approval, all damaged equipment had been removed and shipped for repair.
The insurance company required an autopsy on the damaged furnace before any repair work could begin. The forensic analysis was hosted by EMSCO in Anniston, Ala., in the presence of insurance company personnel, as well as an assembly of industry representatives from the companies who had received notices of potential subrogation from the insurance company.
Tonkawa’s furnace was completely disassembled while the insurance company’s forensic inspector directed, photographed, cataloged and analyzed every turn of every bolt on the furnace over a nine-hour workday. The coil was dissected, and lining samples were retained for future reference.
While the furnace sustained extensive damage, it did not have to be replaced entirely.
Structural reconstruction was performed to address run-out damage in the bottom of the furnace, a new coil was fabricated and the hydraulic cylinders were repacked and resealed. Fortunately, the major components were salvageable, and ultimately, the furnace was rebuilt for half the cost of a new furnace.
“The furnace experienced a significant technical failure,” said Jimmy Horton, vice president and general manager of southern operations, EMSCO. “However, not only was the unit rebuilt, it was rebuilt using minimal replacement parts.”
Though work was underway on the furnaces, Tonkawa was challenged with a projected lead time of 14 weeks on the power supply.
When accounting for the three weeks lost to insurance company holds and the time required for installation, Tonkawa was looking at a total production loss of 18-20 weeks. From the perspective of sibling co-owners Sandy Salisbury Linton and Jim Salisbury, Tonkawa could not survive such a long period of lost productivity. After putting their heads together with their furnace supplier, it was determined the reason for the long turnaround on the power supply could be traced to the manufacturer of the steel cabinet that housed the power supply.
The solution? The existing cabinet would be completely refurbished and Tonkawa would do the work rather than the initial manufacturer. This reduced the 14-week lead time to just five weeks.
Tonkawa is the single source for a number of its customers. Although lead-time had been significantly reduced, the Tonkawa team still needed a strategy to keep the single source customers in business as well as a plan to retain their larger customers.
Tonkawa pours many wear-resistant, high-chrome alloys for the agriculture and shot blast industries. Kansas Castings, Belle Plaine, Kan., which is a friendly competitor, is located 50 miles north of Tonkawa. Kansas Castings offered Tonkawa two to three heats every Friday for as long as it needed.
“We made molds, put them on a flatbed trailer, prayed it wasn’t going to rain in Oklahoma, and drove the molds to Kansas Castings. We were molding, shot blasting, cleaning, grinding and shipping every Friday,” Salisbury Linton said.
Others joined the circle of support that was quickly surrounding the Tonkawa Foundry family.
Modern Investment Casting Corporation (MICC) is located 12 miles east of Tonkawa in Ponca City, Okla. Though MICC is an investment shop and Tonkawa is a sand casting facility, MICC’s relationship with Tonkawa dates back years to when Sandy and Jim’s father, Gene Salisbury, was at the helm.
“Gene was always willing to help you out,” said MICC owner, Dave Cashon. “His advice was invaluable for us over the years, so when the opportunity arose to support Sandy and Jim, we volunteered our help.”
 MICC offered to pour anything Tonkawa needed every Friday in its furnace. Tonkawa brought its alloy, furnace hand and molds, while MICC provided its furnace and a furnace hand for three heats. Many of the specialty parts Tonkawa produces were completed with MICC’s support.
When Salisbury Linton approached Cashon and asked him to issue her an invoice to cover the overhead Tonkawa was consuming, Cashon told her if she brought in six-dozen donuts every Friday morning they’d call it even.
“We’re all kind of like family,” Cashon said. “We’re all part of the same industry and though we may be friendly competitors at times, you don’t want to see anybody go through what they’ve gone through and it could have just as easily been our furnace that failed. While we all take the appropriate measures and perform maintenance to prevent these scenarios from occurring, they unfortunately still occur from time to time in our industry.”
Tonkawa had recently added steel work to its menu of services and Central Machine & Tool, Enid, Okla., was able to take Tonkawa’s patterns and fulfill its steel orders so it would not fall behind with those customers, while CFM Corporation, Blackwell, Okla., took three of Tonkawa’s employees on a temporary basis and kept them working during the downtime. Additionally, a couple of Tonkawa’s major suppliers extended their payables terms.
Thanks to Tonkawa’s suppliers, friends and its personnel’s own passion, persistence and dedication, the business is up, running and recovering—placing it among the few shops of its size to overcome the odds and remain in business after facing calamity.
 Nearly eight months after that devastating Saturday evening in January, Salisbury Linton reflected on the people and events that helped Tonkawa rise from the ashes. “We certainly would not have the opportunity to see what the future holds for Tonkawa if it weren’t for all the kind-hearted people who cared about what happened to us. Everyone still checks in on us.”