Talladega Pattern’s Plunge Into Automation
A small green sand nonferrous job shop answered the pull of customer demand with its first automatic molding line and sand system.
Shannon Wetzel, Managing Editor
(Click here to see the story as it appears in the October 2015 issue of Modern Casting.)
The sand system operator flashes a grin as he navigates the touchscreen of the sand controls. Yes, he nods, his job is easier now. The automated sand system was installed a little over a year ago at Talladega Pattern & Aluminum Works Inc., Talladega, Ala., as part of the installation of a new automatic molding line—the metalcasting facility’s first. For an operation that had been humming along comfortably with its existing manual setup, the project was met with excitement and trepidation. It didn’t take long for the company to be assured the investment was worthwhile.
“You hear about what a difference an automated molding machine makes, and it’s true,” said Matt Peters, production manager, Talladega Pattern. “We make more molds per hour, obviously, and we make better castings, as well.”
More than a family business, Talladega Pattern is a brother business. It was started by the late W.C. (Pete) Peters in 1951 and is now owned by his sons, brothers Rickey, president, and Joey, vice president. About a decade ago, Rickey’s sons, Matt and Jason, joined the management team.
“The company has always been on a steady incline,” Joey Peters said. “We haven’t gone backwards…we grow, at least in volume, every year.”
The growth caught up to Talladega Pattern’s capabilities, eventually. The company’s largest customer wanted more castings, and it was near capacity.
“We had grown as far as we could,” Joey Peters said. It was time to invest in a new molding line.
Talladega Pattern’s 40 employees make aluminum and copper-base castings in mainly low volumes. It had been handling its orders, often ranging in number from five to 10, on eight jolt/squeeze molding machines, but the machines were stretched thin. The metalcaster’s customers wanted more castings but it couldn’t keep up on its existing equipment.
“We were at the point where we were having to run overtime every week to stay up on orders, and we wanted to eliminate that,” Rickey Peters said.
W.C. Peters always dreamt about running an automated molding line in his plant. Now his sons and grandsons were ready to make it a reality.
“We talked about installing an automated molding line for a few years,” Matt Peters said. “Although we had apprehensions with the investment, we knew we couldn’t grow on the manual lines.”
For their first foray into automation, the Peters opted to go with one of the more straightforward machines on the market—a FDNX flaskless molding line with a mold size of 16 x 20 in. from Sinto, represented in the U.S. by Robert Sinto Corporation, Lansing, Mich.
“We chose it because it fit our pattern line, it fit the size we needed and we felt it was the best way to get the most bang for our buck,” Joey Peters said. “We wanted an automatic, but we didn’t need all the bells and whistles.”
Before the molding machine could be put into operation, a few other pieces had to be put into place in the metalcasting facility. One of the jolt/squeeze lines was removed and additional space was added to the existing structure to fit the necessary new equipment. The company installed a new muller and sand system with automated sand control from Simpson Technologies Corp., Aurora, Ill. The system has led to fewer mold defects and better scrap rates. In conjunction with the molding machine, Talladega Pattern added a new reverberatory furnace from The Schaefer Group, Dayton, Ohio, to help melting keep pace with molding. Talladega Pattern worked with Norris Brothers Construction, Centreville, Ala., for the expansion’s layout, design and installation.
The whole process, from construction on the building to accomodate the new line to final installation in April 2014 took 8 months.
The first six months did not go without its hiccups. Originally, Talladega opted out of the optional aeration sand filling technology, but as the warm summer months began, it ran into issues with the sand filling the patterns. After retroactively installing the aerator, sand filling was no longer a problem. Other minor issues popped up, and while the equipment supplier was responsive and helpful to each maintenance call, the Peters’ experienced a learning curve involved in the maintenance of the more sophisticated equipment.
“The first several times an issue occurred with the line, I’d call the technician, and over time, I got a better idea of how the machine worked and ways to troubleshoot issues,” said Jason Peters, manager, Talladega Pattern. “I’m more comfortable with it now, but the service rep is always easy to reach on the phone.”
Talladega Pattern also received help from neighboring metalcasters who offered advice and tips in maintaining and servicing the machine. Every six months, a service rep comes to the shop for regular preventive maintenance.
“The simplest things that happened [out of the ordinary], we wouldn’t know what to do,” Joey Peters said. “We had to get over the fear that we were going to break it.”
When the machine was first installed, Joey, Jason and Matt Peters ran the line to become comfortable with its daily operation.
“We wanted to do it first, before we trained our employees,” Matt Peters said.
Because the machine is new, Talladega Pattern can run the line without much downtime. The molding line, which includes a mold cooling system, handles 62 molds at a time. This ability to crank out castings held strong appeal for the Peters brothers.
“[Automatic molding machines] are made to run as hard as you can, which made us want new instead of used,” Matt Peters said.
To take advantage of the new machine, Talladega Pattern starts up the FDNX line an hour earlier than the rest of the shift, operating on a 10-hour shift of continual molding.
“If we are investing the money, why let it sit idle?” Matt Peters said. “I’m sure our customers are happy with our lead times. They have been cut in half in many cases.”
When the Peters’ installed the new molding line in April 2014, the goal was to see a return on the investment in 3-4 years. The company now expects to hit its ROI by the end of 2016—a few months shy of 3 years.
Talladega Pattern had to rework its patterns to go from the jolt/squeeze machines to the automatic molding line. The metalcaster hired an additional employee to help with the transition. It started with the jobs that were run most frequently and had the most consistent volume. Once those were done, it has continued to convert its other patterns. At about two patterns converted a day, so far 200 patterns have been changed over to the automatic molding line. New jobs are almost always quoted for the automatic molding line, unless the quantity is a one-time order of less than 25.
“It has turned out to be not that expensive to get the patterns converted,” Matt Peters said.
Talladega Pattern’s largest customer has been a steady partner of Talladega Pattern’s for 40 years and one of the reasons the metalcaster had for investing in the automated molding machine. The line adds 60% more capacity to produce more parts for its customers, plus Talladega Pattern can deliver the parts faster. While the new line is busy with its current customer base, Talladega Pattern sees the advantage of a wider customer mix. The plan is to fill any additional capacity with more work from existing customers, as well as orders from new customers. To help, the team hired an outside sales representative.
Talladega Pattern was confident but cautious when it made its first big plunge into automation. Now, based on that success, the Peters have more expansion plans in the works as customer demand grows. The three to five-year plan includes an expansion of the cleaning area with new shot blasting equipment and a new furnace for copper-base melting. The company is in the process of implementing enterprise resource planning software to organize the scheduling and operation of the plant. The business also has recently purchased adjacent tracks of land for the construction of additional plant space.
Longer term, the Peters envision the addition of another, larger automated molding machine, and possibly automated pouring if the ROI makes sense.
“If you have the volume, [automatic molding] is worth it,” Joey Peters said. “It was scary for us initially. Matt and Jason know it has to be paid back. We look back and laugh, why didn’t we do this earlier? But truthfully, we weren’t able to. Now was the right time.”