Fan-tastic Castings: Putting a Spin on Supply Chain Management

Commercial fan manufacturer Big Ass Fans is handling its rapid growth through open relationships with its suppliers.

Shannon Wetzel, Managing Editor

(Click here to see the story as it appears in the January 2016 issue of Modern Casting.)

Large industrial fans spin silently above the open-air office environment at Big Ass Fans (BAF) in Lexington, Ky. They are the ever-present symbol of the company’s mission and foundation. Started in 1999 as the HVLS Fan Co. by Carey Smith, the company looked to reinvent the market with massive ceiling fans that moved a high volume of air at a low speed. When customers kept referring to these fans as “big ass fans,” a new company name and image was born.

The company model that relies heavily on engineering, research and development, and cutting edge marketing has created tremendous growth. From 2009 to 2015, BAF grew from  about 150 employees to more than 800, working in facilities worldwide to provide huge ceiling fans to manufacturing facilities, gyms, stadiums, restaurants and now even homes.

BAF has used cast metal components in a variety of its products from its inception, and use has grown and evolved as the company has grown and evolved. All the while, the fan maker has stuck to its original principles of pushing R&D and sourcing components locally.

“There are a lot of benefits [to relying on locally-made components]—supporting local economies, less waste and all that,” Smith said. “But quality control is our biggest reason. We assign a quality control engineer to each one of our suppliers to make sure the components they make match our strict design requirements. We work closely with suppliers as we develop new products and, in the rare case that an issue arises, it’s simply easier and quicker to work with a local supplier than an overseas supplier. The closer they are, the more agile they are.”

Sean O’Brien is a purchaser at BAF who has been with the company for 8 years—through the major growth spurt. He works with upwards of 250 machine shops, metal fab shops, robotic welders, plastic injection molders, metalcasters, screw shops and metal spinners.

“We have a very good relationship with our current suppliers,” O’Brien said. “We lean on them pretty hard for new product introduction, but we get them involved early for their advice on designing the part.”

BAF basically created a market for itself in large industrial fans, so it is creating new technology, applications and standards for the air movement industry. It has dedicated R&D facilities creating and performing standardized tests regarding aspects like airflow and sound. Business development staff identify customer needs, and engineering finds solutions to meet those needs—and quickly. BAF assembles its fans, but all other manufacturing processes are through outside suppliers, and they need to be onboard with the speed, flexibility and quality that has given BAF an edge over its competitors.

“We move fast, so complexity and confidence in the process are important to us,” said Richard Oleson, senior design engineer. “I personally have a fondness for casting. You can create a lot of details and I know what the part is going to be at the finish. Other processes, you have to put a lot of bolts and pieces together.”

When it comes to deciding what manufacturing method will be used to create a component, the product development team looks at the material and process that would best fit the task it has to perform from cosmetic and functional standpoints.

“We don’t do primary processing here. It sounds like a weakness but it leaves us completely free to choose the process that fits the applications, rather than sticking with the process that is on the shop floor,” Oleson said.  

Diecasting, which is the casting method most often used in BAF products, holds advantages of quality, detail and cost benefits for high volume production over other metal forming processes, and its surface finish is ideal for cosmetic applications. As Oleson explains, when fabricating with sheet metal, the material is pressed into a shape that is harder to keep within tight dimensional tolerances. “You design a part, but the fabricator will take a flat sheet of metal and press it into what they hope is your shape. The material wants to spring back. The sheet of metal has to be formed in stages and a lot depends on how the metal reacts. With casting, you can make more complex parts but it is a simpler process.”

As BAF has developed new products, the use of diecasting also has grown, particularly with the launch of a line of fans for which BAF designed and assembled the motor two years ago. Coinciding with the design of the motor was a push to redevelop several components as die castings at the same time.

“It was the first time we assembled our own motor,” Oleson said. “We designed the detail, structural requirement, precise location of the holes, and how the blades would rotate about the center of the motor. Casting allowed us to design all the shapes we wanted to shed weight and allow a path for the internal electronics to get to the motor.”

This motor—for the Essence line—is not the company’s first foray into diecasting, but it was the first time it made a concerted effort to utilize the process upfront when it could be most advantageous. Because the company moves so fast in product development, a few past components that might have been perfect for diecasting ended up as extrusions or fabrications because of the long tooling time associated with diecasting. Some of these have been converted to diecasting, but the Essence was the opportunity to get the parts as die castings from the start.

One of BAF’s directives to product development is to make fans that are as efficient, unobtrusive and quiet as they can. To achieve this, the various components of the fans must work seamlessly together in balance. Design details like concentricity of holes, dimensional tolerances and feature locations all are critical.

“Diecasting has better process control [than other metalforming methods] and gives us the number of parts we need,” Oleson said.
During the design phase of the electronics enclosure for the Essence motor, BAF worked closely with its die casting supplier, Production Castings, Fenton, Mo., to optimize designs and meet production deadlines.

“[Production Castings] has a relationship with other casting suppliers who do diecasting with a different spin—low volume rapid prototyping and investment casting,” Oleson said. “So we prototyped with investment casting and when we were happy there, we tooled up as a short run die casting—all before making a hard production tool. By the time we did the hard tooling, we knew a lot about the product. I don’t know if we would have done it that way if the opportunity was not there.”

Production Castings and BAF first connected at a trade show where O’Brien and Production Castings sales engineer Mark Preuss talked in great length about how the two companies might be a good fit for each other. About a year later, the fan manufacturer presented an opportunity to the casting supplier to produce a component on a tight deadline.

“Sean needed us to produce a die cast mold and provide first article samples that included secondary machining and powder coating in eight weeks or less,” Preuss said. “We accepted the challenge and they sent a supplier quality manager to visit us. Working closely with him and Sean, we were able to meet the challenge and the rest is history.”

At BAF, every supplier is assigned a quality engineer who examines each source for cost, quality and delivery. Before becoming a supplier, a company is visited by a quality engineer who will look at the infrastructure, evaluate quotes and review on-time delivery statistics.

“We have an ongoing process of finding new suppliers,” O’Brien said. “It starts upfront with the visit and going back and forth with quoting. We expect them to be upfront with us, and we are upfront with them in regard to volumes and forecast.”

O’Brien said he wants to know from the supplier what happens to the purchase order when it shows up in their inbox. He wants to know what the process is with the order after the account manager receives it, and what the checks and balances are for how it will be produced. 

“We ask for accurate lead times on our quotes so we can plan our lead time around that,” he said. “And anytime we get an updated forecast, we communicate that to the suppliers. When we partner with someone, we are very open as far as numbers we are going to need.”

This openness continues through the engineering and design stages of product launch. Through the prototyping phases of the diecast motor enclosure mount, engineers at Big Ass Fans worked closely with the casting supplier to make adjustments through the initial prototype, soft tool and hard tooling phases.

“On new projects, engineering works with us in advance to make sure the designs are feasible. Once the product line is in production, the engineering team is always ready to assist us with any quality and productivity improvements that we may want to implement,” Preuss said. “They understand our processes and are always open to new ideas to help us make a better casting.”

The result for the enclosure was a more sophisticated part, according to Oleson.

“We adjusted the shape of the curve, the details on the inside of the cap, and the cross-hatchings on the lid,” he said. “Our suppliers know their process better than us, so it is not uncommon for them to make recommendations to improve the function or manufacturability. The earlier diecast part we made was not as complex.”

The volumes and speed to production required by BAF steered the company to diecasting, but it had used sand cast and permanent mold cast components for a time in earlier years. You’ll still find some sand castings in the gearboxes the fan maker buys from a local manufacturer. But for the most part, BAF uses aluminum and sometimes zinc die castings and this use will likely grow, according to O’Brien, as the company continues to rapidly expand further into the commercial and residential markets, as well as lighting.

“I think we’ll continue with a strong need for castings in the future, because of the finishing capabilities, as we are getting into custom-type product lines,” O’Brien. “It’s going to just continue to grow.”

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.”