Gaining Customers by Degrees

Cast-in heating and cooling elements are crucial to a diverse range of temperature-based applications served by Cast Aluminum Solutions.

Shannon Wetzel, Managing Editor

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

As silicon wafers are heated to produce today’s microchips, an important cast aluminum heater is at work keeping the process at the required uniform temperature necessary for efficient, high-quality mass production. Cast Aluminum Solutions (CAS), Batavia, Illinois, makes these heaters, along with a wide variety of other thermal management parts for applications like blood dialysis, commercial food preparation, cryogenics and heating rocket fuel.

“We are a small niche provider that plays in major industries,” said Rick Ahern, CEO, CAS. “Overall, we are growing. And we are always working with existing customers on the next-gen product.”

The cast aluminum heaters produced via permanent mold processes by CAS come in various shapes and sizes. The company offers a standardized line of circulation heaters (Cast-X Circulation Heaters) but most of its business is making custom heaters. The key to the heaters are the cast-in cooling or heating elements.

“The unique thing about what we do is we achieve intimate joining to the heating element,” said Tony Meadors, vice president-sales and marketing, CAS. “Heaters that are cast-in perform more efficiently and last longer than those installed using non-cast techniques.”

The heating element is sheathed in a bendable stainless steel tube before it’s placed in a tool steel mold. CAS adds a support structure within the mold to support the location of the heating element and any other cast-in components. The castings are then poured in either a low pressure or tilt pour permanent mold machine.

Another way of making these components would be machining from billet and adding the heating element through various assembly and welding steps. Casting-in the tubing is more cost efficient and enables the heater to store more energy.

These parts are utilized in applications with very tight tolerances, so they must be machined to precise specifications, and the heaters must maintain temperature windows as narrow as +/- 0.1 of 1C.

In some instances, the heaters must also perform under a vacuum. The thermal elements must be carefully engineered through modeling to achieve the desired temperatures while working within the parameters of good casting design.

Thermal Design

One of CAS’ largest markets is semiconductor, which is a technology that has enabled significant development in computers and electronics.

“CAS heaters are involved in the front-end manufacturing of silicon wafers, which are the foundation of microchips containing millions of tiny circuits…the engine behind today’s cell phones, tablets and high-tech gadgets,” Meadors said. “These amazing things are made possible by our cast aluminum heaters, which deliver a high-tech, high-value-added solution at a low overall cost.”

Making a microchip is very complex process. Thousands of circuits are produced on a single silicon wafer. Microchip makers want to yield the maximum number of circuits off that platform.

“It’s a 12-in. piece of silicon, yet it has all this value,” Meadors said. “The industry is striving for smaller and smaller circuits and that means we have to have even more consistent heaters and part to part repeatability. Every heater we produce has to be absolutely perfect.”

At CAS, the design of a cast-in heater starts with thermal engineering—determining the best shape for the cooling tube or heating element to achieve a target uniform temperature. The CAS engineering team uses finite element analysis (FEA) to optimize its designs and migrate them to manufacturing. This process also employs process simulation models to evaluate and establish the location of flow-path tubes and heating/cooling elements within the mold.

“We look at things first from a thermal standpoint,” said Eric Hostert, CAS vice president–engineering and quality. “The heater’s location in the mold could affect the component’s performance. How the molten aluminum flows is also important. We can’t have voids or inclusions that might inhibit our products from achieving a uniform temperature.”

Maintaining a uniform temperature is important in myriad applications. In commercial quick-service restaurants, for instance, a consistent temperature on the griddle means every burger is repeatable, with consistent quality and no undercooking.  

While Hostert said 80% of the design work at CAS revolves around the heating element, achieving a consistent cast part around that element is also crucial. CAS developed PLC controls to monitor and augment key factors in the casting process, such as mold temperature, cycle times and the pressure used to eject the metal.

“A lot of the applications, such as wafer manufacturing, take place under vacuum and deal with potentially hazardous chemistry,” Meadors said. “These industries strive for safety and our heater is a part of this. It can’t leak under a vacuum. We’ve incorporated very robust monitoring and control mechanisms in-house, from X-ray and ultrasound testing to infrared and helium leak testing. We take no chances with quality.”

CAS, which employs 75 people, operates eight low pressure permanent mold machines and four tilt-pour permanent mold machines to cast parts up to 100 lbs. It pours 319, 356 and pure aluminum. Pure aluminum is used for the semiconductor parts.

CAS’s customer base is balanced among four main industries: food, medical, semiconductor and oil and gas. It also serves a range of other industries on a smaller scale.

“Like all companies, we have aggressive growth targets, and as the economy or a particular industry slows, it has an impact on us,” Ahern said. “That being said, we utilize our growth metrics as a way to challenge ourselves to find new customers and new industries.”

Industries like medical and semiconductor are regularly improve their equipment, which means CAS has substantial repeat business.

“Our customers constantly update their machines,” said Jeff Awe, CAS marketing director. “So we always have a fair amount of new jobs from established customers. At the same time, we’re regularly contacted by startups, development engineers and firms in emerging industries.”

CAS has a large engineering staff that acts both to design the parts and as an extension of customer service.

“The customers come to us with problems and ask us to come up with a solution,” Hostert said. “We encourage our customers to be involved early and that usually saves everyone money.”

OEMs are usually not as well-versed in thermal engineering as CAS, so they rely on the supplier to come up with a way to achieve the desired temperature within the desired dimensions.

To further enhance company growth and balance the product mix, CAS offers a standardized line of circulation heaters. The CAST-X Circulation Heaters are available in multiple sizes and watt ranges from 1 to 60 kilowatts.

CAS was purchased five years ago by a small private equity group based out of Michigan.

“Our ownership group understands manufacturing and value added opportunity, and has been very supportive in providing us the capital to grow and improve the overall business,” Ahern said. “A significant portion of our investments have been in new equipment such as state-of-the-art CNC machining centers. We needed improved machining capabilities due to demand for tighter tolerances and geometries.  It gives us capacity, time and repeatability, and allows us to add tremendous value for the customer.”

In 2015, the company was named “Manufacturer of the Year” in its county based on complexity of product, markets, scope, local sourcing, intern program and participation in the Alliance for Illinois Manufacturing.

“We’re also quite proactive with our marketing and finding new opportunities,” Ahern said. He sees growth for CAS coming not just in next-generation equipment from existing OEM suppliers, but from opportunities in developing sectors, such as cryogenics, where subjecting materials to very low temperatures can be useful in electric power transmission, blood banking, and the study of atoms. “We try to stay in touch with the industries we serve and learn about ones we are not in.   We are always asking ourselves ‘Where is the next great idea coming from, and how can we participate in it?’” 

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.”