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.

Molding Transition

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.

Future Plans

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.”   

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.”