Metalcaster of the Year: Danko Arlington Plots Its Future

Brian Sandalow, Associate Editor

Click here to see this story as it appears in the June 2017 issue of Modern Casting

When president John Danko walks into the offices at Danko Arlington (Baltimore), some of his thoughts are on that day’s challenges. He strides around the inner-city campus on the northwest side of town confidently and can focus on whatever obstacle is right in front of the company, be it an issue with a supplier, working on a bid, or assisting on the build of a casting.

But the day-to-day isn’t all Danko and his 75-employee company are thinking about. For them, positioning the company for success in five years is just as important as the present. Personally, Danko is the third generation of his family to own and operate the facility, a factor that clearly motivates him.

“Maybe that’s why I’m so concentrated on the future,” Danko said. “I’m a third-generation and I like to see either my kids or somebody else continue our work and so I’m always looking to the future.”

To position itself for the future, Danko Arlington has made significant investments in additive manufacturing and CNC machinery and has a clear vision for its future.

“I see this company in five years as adding more value to our products and trying to achieve greater profit margins by using technology for improved delivery and improved quality,” Danko said. “That’s going to come at a higher price but I think companies will pay for that if they can get a casting, particularly the warfighter, if a plane or tank or ship is down and they need to have a part within a week I think that’s possible but you need to have a team here in the foundry and machine shop and pattern shop that’s almost like an emergency room, like on-standby, just waiting around for a critical item to come and then we jump on it.

“That’s going to be very expensive, particularly with 3-D sand or metal printing, but I think that if we can offer rapid service we will truly be more unique than we are with the long lead times we have right now.”

The company, an aluminum and bronze caster for both military and commercial clients, has an eye to the future, progressive hiring practices and is active in the community and even Baltimore politics. For those reasons, Danko Arlington is the 2017 Metalcaster of the Year.

Old and New
Founded in 1920 by Joseph O. Danko Sr., Danko Arlington has experienced the ups and downs and fits and starts typical of any company. Business was especially good during the Cold War, when the U.S. military budget was reaching record levels and the government had an extensive need for Danko Arlington’s castings.

The end of the Cold War meant challenges for Danko Arlington but also forced the company to somewhat refine and reinvent itself during its transition to more commercial clients. It made upgrades in manufacturing practices and even methods of pricing, both of which helped bring it through the 1990s and 2000s.

In 2010, the company made another big shift: additive manufacturing.

Seven years ago, Danko Arlington began using fused deposition modeling (FDM) as a response to the declining skilled workforce. FDM has allowed Danko Arlington to get around the lack of skilled workers and consider changing and updating apprenticeships, which go back to 1940. Instead of the standard five years and 10,000 hours, training would take fewer hours and focus more on technology like CAD and 3-D printing.

And because of that investment, Danko Arlington has emerged as one of the Defense Contract Management Agency’s (DCMA) largest Maryland manufacturers, based on the number of contracts awarded.

“What we’ve wanted to do here in the last seven years is reduce our conventional patternmaking and that’s why we’ve gone to 3-D printing. That’s why we’re using FDM. We print in polycarbonate and we make accurate patterns directly from CAD.  The pattern shop now only does painting and putty and assembly,” Danko said of his company, which is planning on incorporating 3-D sand and metal printing. “What that’s done is enable us to make patterns relatively inexpensive and have a lower amortization and therefore get a lower unit price for our customer and enable us to win contracts.”

That’s also allowed Danko Arlington to manage the shortage of workers by getting leaner and meaner.

Just last year, the company installed an 11-axis multitasking CNC mill. They did it, as Danko said, “because we have a severe shortage of machinists.”

“The 11-axis machine basically has two chucks and two cutters and you put a casting in one chuck. You can turn it and index it and mill it and the other chuck will come and grab it and do the other side,” Danko said. “It’s state of the art. We call it a ‘machine shop in a box.’ It’s higher accuracy and less people. It can work 24-7 and is very reliable.”

New technology, however, is far from the only way Danko Arlington is moving forward. It’s also pushing into the future by trying to help those typically turned away.

Taking a Chance
Around 2000, Danko Arlington began hiring ex-offenders and has also taken on persons in recovery. They do it because of a retiring workforce, the difficulty in recruiting in their tough neighborhood, and a desire to help people find their footing in life.

“Your background really doesn’t matter as long as you come to work–you’ve fulfilled your punishment and we’re trying to help our neighbors,” Danko said. “What we’re doing is we’re giving many in our Baltimore community a second chance.”
Danko said he thinks there are tax benefits to hiring ex-offenders but the company doesn’t go after them, because giving jobs is a ‘win-win’—a good thing for the applicant and a good thing for Danko Arlington. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy process, or one that always produces long-term and reliable workers.

“Everybody always asks, ‘What’s your success rate?’” Danko said. “Really by the numbers it’s not something to boast, but the ones that do work out are very loyal, grateful, have a brand-new outlook on life. They have a metal casting career for a lifetime if they choose.”

As Dan Lightner, foundry superintendent, points out, persons in recovery come with a lot of challenges.  Employers need to continue to be patient with re-entry hires and encourage continued support. 

Said Lightner: “The most important requirement is to remember and repeat on-the-job training.”

“A lot of persons in recovery and re-entry are eager to get ahead. One of the biggest challenges we have is that we are starting new foundry employees from scratch—from not having industry experience or even work experience at all,” Lightner said.  “Many new hires come in and they’re superstars, learning and picking everything up quickly. But with a paycheck comes new distractions which affect attendance and work performance.”

Danko Arlington works with area charities, community centers and halfway houses to find workers, a group that makes up about a third of the company’s workforce. At first, Danko would walk around the neighborhood, hand out applications and basically hire off the street, but that didn’t work out.

For any other company looking to hire ex-offenders, Danko has some advice.

“If you go to a charity, if you go to a halfway house, all their clients will be pre-screened so at least you know they’re not positive for drugs or alcohol.  Foundry safety is essential.  Our work is too dangerous to have risk,” Danko said. “Work with state and local resources and nonprofits.  You will quickly know which applicants are serious in learning our type of hard work. We are a family business and we care. We offer many chances to learn the job. After a while, occasionally, it becomes apparent that the applicant is not a good fit and it’s time to move on. We at least tried.”

Recently, the company has also hired refugees from Africa, Afghanistan, and Syria. 

“This is nothing new. Throughout the company’s history, we have hired refugees from Eastern Europe, Cuba, and the former Soviet Union; even patternmakers from post-WWII Germany,” Danko said. “We are proud that we have helped so many legal immigrants with secure employment and citizenship into our country.”

But that hiring isn’t the extent of Danko’s community interest.

Active and Engaged
After Danko Arlington began hiring ex-offenders, Danko was appointed by the governor to the Maryland Correctional Educational Council and attended meetings with state and civic leaders to work on ways to give inmates the skills to succeed on the outside. Then, Danko joined the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Employment Development Board, and has been involved with that for the last three years, advocating for more chances for city residents and ex-offenders.

Over the past year or so, Danko was involved with the effort to fight a bill in Baltimore that would have brought a $15 per hour minimum wage. Danko spoke in front of the city council and other leaders that the idea of raising the minimum wage would have unintended consequences like wage compression. Even though the company starts much higher than the current minimum wage and the majority of its employees earn well over $15 per hour, the bill would threaten the future of manufacturers like Danko Arlington and the employment of its workers.

“What I’m trying to do is tell our legislators that this will backfire, that this will hurt Baltimore in the long run because it will keep job creators from coming to Baltimore,” Danko said in March, before the bill was passed by the city council and then vetoed by Mayor Catherine Pugh. “It will stifle our economy, cause us to stagnate and it will hurt our re-entry group because I feel they would be passed over.

“We can’t start apprentices or unskilled people at journeymen wages in other states and be competitive.”

The minimum wage change is not the only way Danko Arlington is involved.

In a single month of 2016 for example, Danko participated in Engineering Day at the University of Maryland, made a presentation at a local elementary school and hosted the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. And that only scratches the surface of what Danko does to spread the message about his industry.

“I love metalcasting. I’ve done it my whole life and I enjoy it and I fear that metalcasters have a bad rap, that people have the impression that metalcasters have one eye and one finger and work in a dungeon, but it’s really a lot of technology and it envelops all aspects of engineering, thermodynamics, strength of materials, heat transfer, and fluids,” Danko said. “It’s what we call foundry practice. You’ve heard of medical practice or law practice,; we call it practice because we never get it right. We always practice in a foundry.”

On the Danko Arlington campus sits a building that effectively functions as a warehouse. Danko thinks that facility could have another future.

“It’s quite possible we might take all our own manual machine shop equipment and move it over there and actually just start a school,” Danko said. “Let’s just start an education apprenticeship program where we get credit to train people for the pattern shop, foundry, and machine shop— new skills to meet industry needs for the next generation.”