Indomitable Decatur Foundry

Shannon Wetzel

When Decatur Foundry Inc. (DFI) was first started as a small operation in 1935, its namesake town was already a bustling small city in Central Illinois. Decatur had grown from a village of log cabins in the 1830s to an important industrial and agricultural hub with a population over 50,000. 

Since then, AFS Corporate Member Decatur Foundry (DFI) has consistently yet conservatively grown, adapted, and advanced its business to become its current steadfast entity. And CEO Rex Ragsdale has been there for more than half of it.

From grinder to plant manager to CEO, Ragsdale has expanded and refined his career just as DFI has found new markets and improved its efficiency and viability. Over the years, the company has added new alloys, transitioned from cupola to induction melting, found a niche in low volume, midsize-to-large castings, and expanded its footprint over time to take up 244,000 sq. ft. of manufacturing space. These advancements have helped the foundry business eventually avoid the peaks and valleys of production that had been the norm.

“For a lot of years, we were cyclical,” Ragsdale said. “But that’s pretty much gone away, where we’ve reached a plateau and we actually stay there. We might vary a little bit, but we can plan. We know what our revenue will be coming out to, or maybe there will even be a little growth.”

By 2019, DFI was riding the wave of the strong U.S. economy—busy as ever and optimistic for the future. But a Sunday in May brought that to a halt.

Recovery Action Plan

That Sunday, a metalcaster’s nightmare turned reality for DFI when it lost one of its main molding buildings to a fire. The cause of the fire was undetermined, but leadership wasted no time in figuring out the immediate next steps to lessen the impact on production. The facility affected had been housing three floor molding bays and a significant portion of the company’s coremaking capabilities. All told, 42% of DFI’s total capacity had been produced in the destroyed building. 

Rebuilding the property would take more than a year, but DFI only lost a few days of production thanks to flexible engineering, quick problem solving, and a loyal employee-base willing to adjust their schedules to maintain capacity.

“We are blessed and cursed sometimes with a lot of buildings,” Ragsdale said. “Fortunately our molding was dispersed into four different buildings at that time. But the building we lost provided a big part of our revenue-generation, and we were extremely busy.”

Down one building after the fire, DFI worked to quickly alter the layout of a separate building to accommodate additional production. The building—still referred to as the pot room from the foundry’s old annealing pot days—was mostly a two-room storage area, although it did have a single hoist. 

“We began making cores in there within a couple days,” Ragsdale said. “At first, they had to share the hoist with the other room and move it, but by the end of the next week, we had a new hoist in there. We were making cores there actually on Tuesday, two days after the fire.”

Further work was done to that building to add a second hoist, install better lighting, and provide heat and insulation in time for the colder months. 
Still, the space wasn’t large enough to accommodate all the impacted production on a single first shift. Cue DFI’s loyal workforce. 

“We had a meeting the morning after the fire to discuss what we wanted to say to the customers, what our tentative plan was to resolve it, and then the timing of it,” Ragsdale said. “That was all done relatively quickly. Next, we needed to have employees move to different shifts. By adding shifts, we could offset most—but not all—the lost production lines.” 

DFI gave its employees time to work out childcare and other home management details and asked for volunteers to move to additional second and third shifts so the foundry would operate around the clock. 

“They were all understanding and flexible,” Ragsdale said. “Everyone said they were willing to move around—not that they wanted to, but they were willing to. So, it worked out well.”

The readiness to help was appreciated but not surprising to Ragsdale, who noted the company does not usually post job openings unless it’s for a technical position. Typically, jobs are filled by word-of-mouth and employee referrals. 

“I think it speaks to our culture,” he said. “People want to be here, and they want their family members to work here.”

Rebuilding and Adding Capacity

With a temporary solution in place, work began on designing and engineering the replacement structure. 

“We looked at the building we lost. The coremakers there shared a mixer with the molding areas. We thought for this new building, we want each to have their own mixing,” Ragsdale said. “And we wanted to make it easier to make several molds, and that’s when we decided to add an automated line.”

When an automated line that had only been used for a few months became available for purchase—before the new building was even constructed—DFI did not pass on the opportunity. 

The redesigned space is a 16,640 sq. ft. building, which is 14 ft. wider than its predecessor. The east side of the building is dedicated to floor molding, with 10-ton hoists in both bays. The west side of the building features a small molding line with a new 48-in. automated conveyor. 

At the north end, DFI increased its efficiency with a dedicated coremaking machine and core prep, as well as an assembly area.

Additional floor molding areas have been added at the center of the building, as well as a Tinker Omega mold drying oven. DFI also installed three Tinker Omega mixers—two TOM-550s and a TOM-350 to handle a range of casting sizes.

“At the flip of a switch, the TOM-550 goes from 400 to 700 or 1,100 lbs. of sand, depending on the size of the mold,” Ragsdale said. “So, it helps us greatly. Whether you’re running smaller molds or bigger, you don’t have to stop and recalibrate—it does it for you.”

The $4.5 million upgrade now accounts for over 60% of DFI’s molding capacity; the balance is provided by its other onsite molding buildings, which also house melting, pouring, shakeout, patternmaking and storage, prime painting, machining and assembly, and inspection.

The new building also boasts three new fire suppression cabinets where binder chemicals are stored. If fire conditions are detected, the cabinets automatically shut—preventing the fire from reaching the highly flammable materials. Ragsdale hopes to have similar cabinets eventually installed throughout the other buildings. 

Ready Position

With the new building and molding lines in full production this winter, DFI is poised to return to a bit of normalcy since the May 2019 fire, including a return to employees’ preferred shifts. But a fire recovery is not the only challenge DFI and Ragsdale have had to tackle in the last two years. Like all manufacturers, DFI felt some of the fluctuation in orders stemming from the uncertainty surrounding the COVID pandemic. Operations were still very busy in March and April 2020, Ragsdale said, but eventually orders started slowing down and jobs were eliminated via attrition and a small, short layoff. Eventually those laid off were able to come back in early 2021.

“Now we’re back up to at least as many employees as we had before, if not more,” Ragsdale said. “And we had an entire molding team that was trained to move into the new building once it went online.”

The current question from customers seems to be: “You good?” 

“They want assurances we are able to supply castings and that our supply chains are ok, because they are having issues getting their other parts for their final assemblies,” Ragsdale said. “Our customers seem to be ramping up and we’re kind of all ramping up together.”

If the ramp-up continues and then remains at a high level, the additional capacity from the new building will help DFI meet its customer needs while keeping lead times at a comfortable level. 

“Pre-fire, we only had three molding bays,” Ragsdale said. “Now we have four and we can do some bigger parts, so we also increased our capacity that way. So, we have one more molding area and more efficient coremaking. We shouldn’t ever be starved for molds.”    

Click here to view the article in the January 2022 digital edition.